Little Big Men Denver's line, the smallest in the NFL, is a huge--and generally offensive--part of the Broncos' success

January 26, 1998

Of all the reasons why the Green Bay Packers are supposed to
crush the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII, the most obvious
to the naked eye is the comparison between the Broncos'
offensive line and Packers nosetackle Gilbert Brown. While every
other NFL team has at least two starting offensive linemen
weighing 300 pounds or more, the Broncos have none. Brown,
listed at 345 pounds but believed by many observers to be
eligible for classification as a sports-utility vehicle, is the
league's most imposing behemoth. On paper it ranks with the
greatest Super Bowl mismatches of all time, including Broncos
versus 49ers (XXIV), Pete Rozelle versus Jim McMahon (XX) and
Darryl Talley versus Magic Johnson's bodyguard (XXVII).

However, there's this caveat: Can Brown, owner of football's
most prodigious belly, possibly stomach what awaits him on Super
Sunday? Consider that the Denver player who most often will be
charged with blocking him, Pro Bowl center Tom Nalen, is the
athlete with the greatest need for an Altoids endorsement deal.
He gets so nervous that he throws up before every game--even
before some practices--and during the season he doesn't allow
his practice jersey to be washed. That's a ritual he started
during his five seasons at Boston College. Nalen also shares a
bond of sorts with former heavyweight boxer Chuck Wepner. "He's
a bleeder," says Broncos backup quarterback Jeff Lewis. "After
every game it's guaranteed that Nalen's fingers and knuckles
will be covered in blood." Nalen says that's because he doesn't
wear gloves, as do the other Denver blockers, whom he refers to
as "a bunch of chicks."

Hauntingly, Nalen isn't even the most revolting member of the
Broncos' line, which also includes guards Brian Habib and Mark
Schlereth and tackles Tony Jones and Gary Zimmerman, but we'll
get to that later. (The vagaries of life in the gutter must be
revealed judiciously, lest the moments be spoiled.) In honor of
their Super Bowl appearance, the Denver linemen temporarily
suspended the media boycott they've observed for the two last
seasons. After digesting disgusting details like the ones
provided by Nalen, the sporting public may demand that the
boycott be reinstituted.

The Broncos' line is distinguished by more than its penchant for
ill-timed excretions. It also leads the league in self-imposed
fines, intra-unit razzing and paranoia. These guys are as rough
on one another as they are on outsiders. Moreover, despite a
leaguewide trend toward increased girth along the offensive
line--six teams now start 300-pounders at all five
positions--the Denver front, because of relentless preparation,
maximum effort and remarkable cohesiveness, is the talk of the
trenches.

After a solid season of protecting John Elway (35 sacks allowed,
11th best in the NFL) and clearing holes for All-Pro halfback
Terrell Davis, who led the AFC with 1,750 rushing yards, the
Broncos linemen made their loudest statement in a 42-17
wild-card playoff victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Denver
gained 511 yards, including 310 on the ground, that day,
inspiring the NFL to honor the line as its Offensive Player of
the Week. Elway, a 15-year veteran, called it the best line
performance he'd ever seen.

"They rank at the top of the league," San Diego Chargers general
manager Bobby Beathard says. "I don't mean that individually but
as a unit. Their strength lies in their ability to play together."

Of the five starters, only Zimmerman was a high draft choice,
having gone in the second round in 1984--to the USFL's Los
Angeles Express. The others were all fringe prospects: Habib,
who played defensive line in college, and Schlereth were
10th-round NFL picks; Nalen was a seventh-rounder; and Jones
wasn't drafted at all. Then there is Denver's multiname, no-name
backup, guard David Diaz-Infante, who filled in admirably for
the injured Schlereth during a five-game stretch late in the
season. A strike replacement player with the San Diego Chargers
in '87, Diaz-Infante didn't make another NFL roster during the
regular season until nine years later. He joined the Broncos in
'96 and, at 32, made his first league start.

"We might not have a big name like a Tony Boselli, a Jonathan
Ogden or a Larry Allen, but I promise there aren't five linemen
who play better together," says Shannon Sharpe, Denver's All-Pro
tight end. "They're very peculiar, and they have their own way
of doing things, but they totally play for each other."

The linemen certainly aren't playing for fame, as evidenced by
the media boycott. Prompted by their iconoclastic position
coach, Alex Gibbs, who makes Robin Williams seem calm, they
swore off interviews in the interest of unity and ego control.
The Orange Hush created a kangaroo court in which fines ranging
from $5 (for being quoted in a newspaper story) to $5,000 (more
on that later) were routinely handed down, with the money
funding an off-season party. Faced with the prospect of being
fined by the NFL for clamming up during mandatory Super Bowl
interview sessions, the linemen voted to speak in the days
leading up to the game. But you won't hear them bragging about
their dominant postseason performances or griping about a lack
of respect. This is a unit that is motivated by fear of failure,
which explains the players' intense study habits and almost
superstitious aversion to praise.

"I like the fact that everybody on this line is as paranoid as I
am," says Schlereth, who earned Pro Bowl honors and won a Super
Bowl ring in 1991 while with the Washington Redskins. "We're
paranoid that on any given Sunday we're going to lay an egg.
That's why we don't like to talk about our success. We have a
saying, 'Just when you think you're a fresh cat, that's when
you're going to get poo-brushed.'" (The saying comes from a
story too graphic to relate, but the gist was that disdainful
teammates of a certain pretty-boy, prima donna performer
extracted clandestine revenge by doing horrible things to one of
his toiletries.)

All the starting linemen are married with children, and only
Nalen, 26, is younger than 30. They form a clique that is tough
to crack, even for the most esteemed Broncos. "They can dice you
up in a heartbeat," Elway says. "You can tell when they're
talking about you because they won't look at you when you walk
by." The linemen constantly rag on Davis for his status as a
burgeoning superstar. "They don't talk to me often, and when
they do, I'm not really sure what they're talking about," says
wide receiver Ed McCaffrey. "You almost feel guilty even
venturing into their area."

But these guys heap most of their abuse on themselves. Jones,
acquired in an off-season trade with the Baltimore Ravens, is
constantly under fire for his flashy wardrobe. Zimmerman
supposedly retired after last season only to re-sign with Denver
on Sept. 9. The hiatus allowed him to skip training camp and
ride his Harley-Davidson to Sturgis, S.Dak., where he
participated in a motorcycle rally. When Zimmerman rejoined the
Broncos, he was immediately fined $8,000 by the kangaroo court:
$5,000 for skipping camp, $2,000 for being a prima donna (he
received extensive media coverage) and $1,000 because popular
backup Scott Adams was released to clear a roster spot.

Zimmerman is a notorious practical joker whose favorite target
is the high-strung Habib. One time Zimmerman had a Denver
trainer call Habib at his off-season home in Woodinville, Wash.,
and inform him that he was required to take a league-mandated
drug test. Habib had planned to drive across the state to
Spokane with his family, but he delayed the trip and reported to
the Seattle Seahawks' facility. The Seattle trainer, who was in
on the prank, handed Habib a cup in which to urinate and then
revealed the ruse with an acrid, "By the way, Zim says, 'Hi.'"

In October, Diaz-Infante skipped practice to be with his wife,
Audra, when she gave birth to the couple's first child. Only
Habib objected to Diaz-Infante's absence. He suggested a $100
fine, arguing, "When I have my baby, I'm not going to f--- the
guys over." Two weeks later Habib missed practice when his wife,
Shannon, gave birth to their third child. He was slapped with a
$3,000 fine.

Another quality that makes Habib an easy target is his obsessive
cleaning. He has been known to wash his car three times a day,
and he regularly hoses down the outside of his house. He often
spends his nights painting over handprints or scuff marks his
children have made inside the house. "I'm very anal," he says.
"Everything has to be just so. I drive my wife crazy. People
don't really believe this, but I'm in charge of cleaning the
bathrooms, the floors, the windows and the dishes."

It's not tough to imagine how Habib clashes with Nalen, he of
the vomit and unwashed practice jersey. "He won't even let you
eat in his car," Nalen says of Habib. "Hell, people can pee in
my car."

Nalen is downright hygienic compared with Schlereth, the other
blocker most likely to do battle with the massive Brown. The
first Alaska-born NFL player, Schlereth is known as
Stinky--supposedly a reference to stinkheads, an Eskimo delicacy
made from rotting fish heads. You make the call. "Stinky throws
up on the field during games," Nalen says. "He also pees his
pants. He used to get away with it when he played for the
Redskins because they wore those dark red pants. Trust
me--sometime during Super Bowl XXXII, Mark Schlereth will pee
his pants."

Mr. Schlereth, how do you plead? "Guilty," he says. "It's
absolutely true. I figure, it's not much different than sweating."

Holding up O.K., Gilbert?

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Elway (7) and Davis (30) are in good hands with Habib (75), Nalen (66) and Schlereth working up front. [Brian Habib, Terrell Davis, Tom Nalen, John Elway and Mark Schlereth in game] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DAVID GONZALES/RICH CLARKSON ASSOCIATES (2) Zimmerman (65) has been named to seven Pro Bowls, while Jones (opposite) has missed only one start since 1990. [Gary Zimmerman in game; Tony Jones in game]

ORANGE HUSH

GARY ZIMMERMAN, LEFT TACKLE
Size: 6'6", 294 pounds Age: 36
College: Oregon
Playing attributes: Strong, quick and tough. Separated shoulder
on Oct. 19 against the Raiders but still played entire game.
Says Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, "He'd play if he had a broken
leg." Technically sound and has excellent footwork.

MARK SCHLERETH, LEFT GUARD
Size: 6'3", 278 Age: 32, on Super Sunday
College: Idaho
Playing attributes: One of the league's strongest linemen, with
high tolerance for pain. Has endured 20 operations, including 16
on knees. Most recently had surgery to repair herniated disk,
which he noticed only when he lost feeling in one leg while
warming up for Nov. 16 game at Kansas City. Played the entire
game and had operation four days later.

TOM NALEN, CENTER
Size: 6'2", 280 Age: 26
College: Boston College
Playing attributes: So athletic that in a pinch he could play
any position on the line. Second among centers to the Steelers'
Dermontti Dawson as a drive-blocker. A smart player, though it's
not always apparent off the field. Upon arriving in Tokyo for a
1995 preseason game, he remarked to teammates, "Boy, there sure
are a lot of Japanese here."

BRIAN HABIB, RIGHT GUARD
Size: 6'7", 299 Age: 33
College: Washington
Playing attributes: Punishing run blocker known for his
relentless effort. Shares salty disposition of friend and former
college teammate Kevin Gogan, the 49ers' Pro Bowl guard.
Teammates chide him for being a cleaning freak, but, says Nalen,
"when it comes to football, Brian doesn't mind getting dirty."

TONY JONES, RIGHT TACKLE
Size: 6'5", 295 Age: 31
College: Western Carolina
Playing attributes: Standout pass protector with versatility.
Shanahan says Jones was enjoying a Pro Bowl year at left tackle
before being switched to the right side in October to
accommodate Zimmerman. "He looked totally natural as soon as he
made the switch, and that's unusual when a guy can do that,"
Shanahan says. Works well on double-team blocking with tight
ends Shannon Sharpe and Dwayne Carswell and right guard
Habib. --M.S.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)