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Crash Course Fullbacks are the game's forgotten men, but offenses would be a wreck if not for the guys who play with reckless abandon

Oct. 30, 2000
Oct. 30, 2000

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Oct. 30, 2000

NBA Preview 2000-01

Crash Course Fullbacks are the game's forgotten men, but offenses would be a wreck if not for the guys who play with reckless abandon

As a kid, Detroit Lions fullback Cory Schlesinger lived in Duncan,
Neb., a tiny farming community 58 miles northwest of Lincoln, and
in the summer of 1987, when he was 15, he thought he'd died and
gone to heaven. That's when his father, Gary, told him he was man
enough to enter the demolition derby at U.S. 30 Speedway just
outside of town. The rules were simple: last car running wins.
But Cory, who was not even old enough to have a driver's license,
was timid driving his '72 Chevy wagon in his qualifying heat. He
got bashed a few times and was disqualified for lack of
aggressiveness. When he got out of the car, downcast, his father
was there to meet him.

This is an article from the Oct. 30, 2000 issue Original Layout

"If you're going to do this, do it right!" Gary said, laying into
Cory. "Go out there and hit somebody!"

Competing later that day in the consolation rounds, Cory became a
kid possessed, smashing the Chevy into everything that moved. He
fought his way into the 12-car finals, and won that too, beating
Gary and his older brother Scott, among others. "The thing about
demos," Cory recalls, "is you want to be the hitter. Believe me,
it hurts a lot less."

Demo driver. NFL fullback. Perfect. For three years Schlesinger
trained for a life of gridiron collisions by ramming his car into
others. "I got ready for my real job pretty well when I was a
kid," Schlesinger says with a chuckle.

Yet little did he know how ideally the demolition derby would
prepare him for his job with the Lions. Four decades ago the NFL
fullback was a force, in many cases more of an impact player than
the halfback and wideouts were. Jim Taylor, with the Green Bay
Packers in 1962, was the last pure fullback to win the league
rushing title. For most of today's spread offenses, plodding is
out and speed is in, making fullbacks as anonymous as linemen.
Which is, in effect, what most of them are. "I see the position
as being a glorified guard," says Jacksonville Jaguars fullback
Daimon Shelton.

"Name me five or six fullbacks," says Bill Parcells, the New York
Jets' director of football operations. "See? You can't do it."

On about 80% of the snaps the traditional fullback in today's
game either delivers a crushing block on a defender who's usually
much bigger while leading the running back into a hole, or he
shields the quarterback from a pass rusher. On maybe 15% of the
plays the fullback is an option in the passing game, though often
only a safety valve. On 5%--and this is generous when you consider
that five of the 31 first-unit fullbacks do not have a rushing
attempt this season--they carry the ball.

"Besides being unselfish," says Denver Broncos running backs
coach Bobby Turner, "a fullback has to be mentally tough. On 60
out of 70 plays he has no chance to touch the ball. On a great
day he might have five balls thrown at him, and three won't even
be catchable. But he's got to come back on every snap and be
positive, put his face in there, slam into people, pick up
blitzes, pick up linemen. Then after doing all that, he's quietly
taking his shower and the halfback's got the microphones and
minicams in front of him."

They are anonymous, and they are sore, and they'd better like it
that way. "The only thing I could compare us to are the
crash-test dummies flying around in those cars, crashing at 30
mph," says Cincinnati Bengals fullback Clif (Totally) Groce.

"You see those big-horned sheep on National Geographic get about
10 yards apart, and they charge at each other and bam!" says the
Atlanta Falcons' Bob Christian. "That's what we do."

"It's a car wreck," says Mack Strong of the Seattle Seahawks.
"You hit somebody on every play."

Great fullbacks have four things in common:

Toughness. On Sept. 30, after experiencing abdominal pain, Jon
Ritchie of the Oakland Raiders underwent surgery to have his
appendix removed. Five days later he participated in noncontact
drills. Fifteen days after the surgery he played the entire game
against the Kansas City Chiefs. One recent afternoon, while
eating a lunch of Fruity Pebbles in his home in the Berkeley
hills, he showed off a picture of his inflamed appendix, which
was about twice its normal size. "I wanted to take it home, but
they said they had to biopsy it or something," says Ritchie, a
1998 third-round draft pick out of Stanford.

He is a little off center, perhaps. He is definitely a modern-day
gladiator. "Let's face it," Ritchie says. "We all have those pads
on for a reason. I'm wearing that helmet to augment the strength
of my skull. And I don't dread the contact at all. If anything,
it's the opposite. Plus, blocking is such an underrated aspect of
offense. I like to say each block is like a snowflake. The
possibilities are endless, man."

Any good fullback might see stars after one play and block stars
on the next. "Most Sunday nights I feel groggy, with a headache,"
says New York Giants fullback Greg Comella. "I'm sure [fullbacks
suffer] more unreported concussions than you would ever know.
Anyone who says he doesn't get concussions is lying."

Blocking ability. Schlesinger remembers hearing the weld on his
face mask snap. He doesn't remember who it was he had blocked. He
doesn't remember if it was helmet to helmet, helmet to shoulder
pad, helmet to chest. "So many collisions," he says of the
jarring hit against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sept. 17. "I just
don't recall." That's because, opponents say, the sameness of the
crushing blocks that the 6-foot, 246-pound Schlesinger delivers
makes him an enduring force every Sunday.

Against the Bucs, the top ear-to-ear bar on his face mask was
left bent and broken. Equipment man Dan Jaroshewich, who keeps a
spare Schlesinger face mask on the sideline, tried to repair it
after the play, but the fullback wouldn't give up the helmet till
halftime. He didn't want to miss a snap. "I've been doing
equipment for the Lions for 28 years," Jaroshewich says. "Three
times I've seen a weld snap--twice by Cory. Every time he comes
out of the game, we look at his mask, to see if there's damage.
For him, it's just the cost of doing business."

In his first Lions practice, as a rookie sixth-round draft choice
out of Nebraska in 1995, Schlesinger blocked All-Pro linebacker
Chris Spielman so hard that Spielman christened him Anvil Head, a
nickname that Schlesinger carries proudly to this day.

An informal poll of NFL scouts, coaches, players and general
managers underscores how vital blocking is to a fullback's value.
Sam Gash was the AFC's Pro Bowl fullback last season, despite not
having a rushing attempt while playing for the Buffalo Bills.
He's now a backup with the Baltimore Ravens, playing behind
rising star Obafemi Ayanbadejo. Lorenzo Neal of the Tennessee
Titans had two carries for one yard in 1999, yet Giants
linebackers coach Tom Olivadotti, a 16-year NFL coaching veteran,
says, "He has a huge impact on the game. He's the best blocking
fullback I've ever seen." Schlesinger, Howard Griffith of the
Denver Broncos, Jim Kleinsasser of the Minnesota Vikings and
William Floyd of the Carolina Panthers also get high marks for
their blocking.

Humility. Neal has a recurring dream. In it he runs 80 yards for
a touchdown, and the crowd goes wild. But when he wakes up, he's
back to being Eddie George's bodyguard. "I'm a secret weapon,"
Neal says with a laugh. "A really secret weapon."

He doesn't mind his role. "I love my job," says the 5'11",
240-pound Neal. "The linebacker's coming, and someone's got to
fill the hole. The gratification comes when I block someone
really well, and our guys walk into the locker room at halftime
and say, 'Did you see Lo launch into that guy? Did you see that
little missile launch himself?' Eddie appreciates me, and that
means a lot. I had a good game blocking for him last year against
the Saints, and Eddie got the game ball. He turned around and
handed it to me."

Good hands. If a fullback wants to touch the ball, his best
opportunities will come in the passing game. The emphasis on
catching over running has spawned some good receivers at
fullback--the Chiefs' Tony Richardson, the Jets' Richie Anderson,
Floyd, the Bucs' Mike Alstott and Ayanbadejo, an undrafted
second-year player who has caught 23 passes for 168 yards and a
touchdown. But as receivers they all pale in comparison to the
Washington Redskins' Larry Centers, who in his 11-year career has
640 catches, an NFL record for a running back. Centers is a
throwback, unlike most of today's fullbacks in that he's an
offensive threat and not much of a blocker. In fact, on most
short-yardage situations, he is replaced by Mike Sellers.

Most teams are looking for a player who can block and catch with
equal effectiveness. The Giants have found one in Comella, an
undrafted free agent in 1998 who had learned to catch at Stanford
while playing for Bill Walsh. "Coach Walsh called the pass to the
fullback the extended handoff," Comella says. "It gets you out in
space and lets you try to make a play."

Find a player who is superb in each of these areas and, says
Ravens coach Brian Billick, you have a first-round draft choice.
Since 1990 only three fullbacks have been selected in the first
round: Jarrod Bunch, the 27th choice in 1991 by the Giants; Tommy
Vardell, taken with the ninth pick by the Cleveland Browns in
'92; and Floyd, whom the San Francisco 49ers got with the last
pick in Round 1 of the '94 draft. "The emphasis is on more
one-back sets, with less power and more speed," says Parcells.
"The colleges have gone away from developing fullbacks. Look on
the draft board every year. Fullbacks aren't there."

In fact, last April one NFC team considered only two fullbacks to
be draftworthy--Arizona State's Terrelle Smith and Michigan's
Aaron Shea--and had neither one of them rated higher than a
fifth-round choice. Smith, the first fullback selected, went to
the New Orleans Saints with the 96th pick. Shea, also a
fourth-round selection, landed with the Browns, but he was moved
to tight end. Deon Dyer (Miami, fourth round), Sammy Morris
(Buffalo, fifth round) and Mike Green (Tennessee, seventh round)
were also drafted, but Morris is the only other rookie fullback
who is starting.

"The guy I want at fullback is a power forward in the NBA," says
Billick. "Maybe not that tall, but 6'3", 245 pounds, runs a 4.5
in the 40. You can't find that guy, so you're always pissed at
your fullback. He's too small at the point of attack. Too slow to
block the pass rushers consistently. A good fullback today has
good hands and might not knock you over, but he can chicken-fight
you to the end."

Even some of the best blocking fullbacks are sent packing with
some regularity. The Titans are the fourth team for the
29-year-old Neal. He was picked up before the 1999 season to be a
hammer for franchise running back Eddie George, who had been
working primarily out of single- and H-back sets. "We were
missing an ingredient in our running game," says Tennessee coach
Jeff Fisher. "We needed someone to take that first hit on a
running play, someone who would take pride in clearing holes.
Lorenzo has made us more diverse in the run game because when
he's in there we can basically do anything we want with
Eddie--attack, draw, throw to him, sweep." George was leading the
AFC in rushing and had three consecutive 100-yard games before
injuring his right knee on his first carry against the Ravens on
Sunday.

Probably the two best all-around fullbacks--and the only ones who
can carry a team's rushing load--are Richardson (4.2 yards per
carry since the start of last season) and Alstott (the NFL's
15th-leading rusher last year). They're anomalies. Both block
well. Alstott has terrific feet, Richardson great hands. Both run
low and drag tacklers. Some scouts don't consider Alstott a
fullback because he often lines up in one-back sets. But, like
Richardson, he has the traits that every team looks for in a
fullback.

Those two, however, are among the few fullbacks who can strike
fear in a defense. Through Sunday, 65 players had run for at
least 100 yards on the season. Fourteen quarterbacks were on the
list; only five fullbacks made it.

More common is what happened on Sept. 24 when the San Diego
Chargers unveiled their secret weapon: fullback Fred McCrary. In
19 previous games with the Chargers, McCrary had zero carries.
But against Seattle, coach Mike Riley thought he could catch the
defense off guard, so he ran McCrary on three of the first five
snaps...for a total of three yards. McCrary ran two more times
for six yards against Seattle, but hasn't had a carry since.

So rather than run, most fullbacks run interference. Recently,
Comella got out of his chair to demonstrate the perfect block for
a visitor. He leaned forward, grabbed the front of the man's
shirt with his right hand and lowered his left shoulder into the
man's breastbone. Then he pushed a little. "You stay low,"
Comella said, forcing the man back, "and you explode into him.
You keep pushing and pushing and pushing. You do it right, and
the breath goes out of the guy you're blocking. What a feeling!
Playing fullback is awesome."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK Smashing Playing fullback is like "a car wreck," says the Seahawks' Strong (38). "You hit somebody on every play."COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO (NEAL) Frontmen George (above, 27) knows it's never a bad idea to follow Neal, while the Lions' Schlesinger (right) is always on the prowl, looking for someone to hit.COLOR PHOTO: TODD ROSENBERG [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO Head turner Unlike most fullbacks, Alstott often lines up in a one-back set and carries much of his team's rushing load.
"NAME FIVE OR SIX FULLBACKS," SAYS PARCELLS. "SEE, YOU CAN'T DO
IT"
"I LIKE TO SAY EACH BLOCK IS LIKE A SNOWFLAKE. THE POSSIBILITIES
ARE ENDLESS"