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No Pain, No Gain Offensive linemen do thankless work in the trenches, trying to outhit and outwit opponents. Few fans even know their names, but no team goes far without them

Dec. 08, 2003
Dec. 08, 2003

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Dec. 8, 2003

No Pain, No Gain Offensive linemen do thankless work in the trenches, trying to outhit and outwit opponents. Few fans even know their names, but no team goes far without them

The dude must be crazy--at least that's what Jon Runyan figured.
Like most of his Philadelphia Eagles teammates, Runyan, a Pro
Bowl tackle, was already in the visitors' locker room at Lambeau
Field following a 17-14 win over Green Bay on Nov. 10 when he
heard that Packers defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt wanted a piece
of Eagles guard John Welbourn, right there on the field, in the
frigid rain, after the Monday night game.

This is an article from the Dec. 8, 2003 issue Original Layout

"You cheap mother," Welbourn recalls Hunt saying. "You were
holding me all game, grabbing my jersey and my face mask."

"Yeah? And your point is?" Welbourn responded. "This is football.
Grow up."

When Hunt persisted, Welbourn put his helmet back on and, despite
being backed up by only center Hank Fraley, said, "You ready?
Let's go." He and Fraley stood their ground, more than 600 pounds
of muscle, squared off against Hunt and a swarm of other Packers.

"Anyone stupid enough to take on an offensive lineman must have
some serious psychological problems," Runyan said later. "To pick
a fight after a game, you've got issues, and then you're really
going to get your ass kicked. You want to challenge one of us? At
some point you'll have to deal with all of us."

If a quarterback is a team's field general, the offensive linemen
are its special-ops forces, doing the dirty work under the cover
of darkness. They may be among the smartest men on the field, yet
they also absorb the most physical abuse. "Figure that one out,"
says Welbourn, a fifth-year player who has a B.A. in rhetoric
from Cal. "We're getting hit 70 times a game, and we watch more
film than almost anyone else. To do our jobs, you have to have a
specific mental makeup."

Offensive linemen value smash over flash, for there's no other
position in major professional sports that is less glamorous. For
every Jerry Kramer, whose block allowed Packers quarterback Bart
Starr to plunge to victory in the Ice Bowl 36 years ago, there
are 10 guys like Bubba Paris, whose faulty pass protection helped
land San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana in the hospital
after the Niners' 1990 NFC Championship Game loss to the New York
Giants.

"We are the grunts," says New Orleans Saints center Jerry
Fontenot, a 15-year veteran. "It's a thankless job because you
get no glory and a lot of blame. My motto my entire career has
been, No news is good news. But I will say this: Playing
offensive line teaches you the principles of [teamwork] because
if you're on your own program, the team won't be able to
function."

From a fan's perspective, Fontenot is a relic from the blissful
era of team stability. When he joined the Bears as a third-round
draft pick in 1989, Chicago's starting line had been intact for
four seasons. The arrival of unfettered free agency soon made
such cohesiveness difficult. It also fattened the wallets of
scores of lucky linemen, especially left tackles, who protect the
blind side of righthanded quarterbacks.

If you're wondering why NFL franchises can no longer sustain
success over an extended time, look no further than the trenches.
"Your best lines are the ones that stay together, and those are
usually the best teams," says Minnesota Vikings tight end Hunter
Goodwin. "There are so many calls to be made, so many times when
you need to intuitively know how the guy next to you is going to
react, that continuity is everything." It's hardly surprising,
then, that the Kansas City Chiefs, who after their 28-24 win over
the San Diego Chargers on Sunday owned an NFL-best 11-1 record,
had started the same five linemen for 28 consecutive games, the
longest such streak in the league in 11 years. Yet how many of
these names (left tackle Willie Roaf, left guard Brian Waters,
center Casey Wiegmann, right guard Will Shields and right tackle
John Tait) do you recognize?

Life is a bitch in the trenches, especially when you're facing a
player like three-time Pro Bowl guard Ron Stone of the 49ers.
"When Ron starts barking," San Francisco tackle Derrick Deese
says, "that means he's whupping your ass." Stone is especially
prone to dogging weak defensive linemen, known among their
offensive counterparts as "clerks." To Stone and his linemates,
the word conjures more laughs than Kevin Smith's cult film of the
same name. "A clerk," says Jeremy Newberry, the Niners' Pro Bowl
center, "is someone who should be taking the groceries to your
car." Adds Deese, "We also call them 'limo riders'--we ought to
send a limo to pick them up and make sure they get to the stadium
on time."

The sentiment that inspires Stone's canine outbursts is one to
which all offensive linemen can relate. "Defensive players
celebrate over every little thing," he says. "Hell, we need to
start celebrating. Even the little stuff gets me barking these
days."

Offensive linemen view themselves as cerebral behemoths who know
more about what's happening on the field than anyone in uniform
other than the quarterback. In the seconds before he snaps the
ball, the center (and, to a lesser extent, his fellow linemen)
must decipher coverages, blitz packages and fronts in order to
call the appropriate blocking assignments (box, page 54).

"We have to dabble in everything," Welbourn says. "That's why I
think that to be a good offensive lineman, you have to be a bit
of a Renaissance man." An avid reader (among his current
selections: Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman) and
traveler (he's planning a trip to China and the South Pacific in
the off-season) who rides customized choppers, Welbourn would
seem to fit an eccentric definition of the well-rounded man. The
same can be said of his friend Kyle Turley (box, left) of the St.
Louis Rams, a heavily tattooed tackle who surfs, plays guitar and
is an aspiring actor.

"It's not like we're a bunch of dumb guys, like most defensive
linemen," Stone says. "Instead of just lining up in the three-gap
and hitting the hole, we have to know what's going on."

But being smart doesn't mean that offensive linemen can't be
smart-asses. A 49ers stalwart in the 1980s, the overweight Paris
often found a ham sandwich stuffed in his helmet--courtesy of his
linemates--as he headed to practice. "They're usually the most
sarcastic, merciless guys on the team," Goodwin says. "When I was
in Miami, [guard] Kevin Gogan would get the game plan in the
Wednesday-morning meeting, look at it for 10 seconds and yell out
to the coaches, 'You guys stayed up until 4 a.m., and this is the
best you could come up with?'"

Five years ago Gogan, who retired after the 2000 season, graced
the cover of SI as pro football's dirtiest player. That a lineman
was chosen shocked no one. Amid the mass of entangled flesh after
the snap, eyes are gouged, private parts are grabbed, and rank
breath is nothing to sniff at. Just ask former Denver Broncos
guard Mark (Stink) Schlereth, he of the league-record 29
surgeries, who admitted before the team's Super Bowl XXXII win
over the Packers that he urinated in his pants during every game.

Though most linemen leave the nasty name-calling to the players
who man the skill positions, their occasional barbs tend to be
more pointed. "I'm sure a lot of people would be surprised by how
little talking goes on between the defensive and offensive
linemen," says Carolina Panthers center Jeff Mitchell. "But all
it takes is a running back or a wide receiver to start talking a
little trash, and then everything changes."

"When I played for the Bears," Fontenot recalls, "there was a
bucktoothed defensive lineman from Minnesota talking a ton of
smack. Finally, I said, 'Dude, when's the last time you ate corn
on the cob through a picket fence?' Even his teammates laughed."

From the grunt's perspective, any means of gaining an edge is
justified. Just ask the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have a sewing
machine in their locker room so they can get each lineman's
jersey as tight as possible, making it more difficult for a
defender to grab. (Defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, whose mother
taught him to sew as a boy on the Hawaiian island of Molokai,
introduced the idea to the team last year.) And don't even ask
about holding. "If you don't hold," says Broncos tackle Ephraim
Salaam, "you're not going to block anyone, plain and simple."

Welbourn carried that conviction into his confrontation with Hunt
at Lambeau, which fizzled when the two men were separated by some
of the Packers. "He was offended that I was cheating," Welbourn
says, "as if there's some kind of honor code that we're not
supposed to violate. Give me a break."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER POINT OF ATTACK After Newberry (62) makes his presnap reads, he calls the blocking assignments for San Francisco's offensiveline.COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO BLOCKADE The Chiefs' Tait (76), Wiegmann (62) and Shields (68),part of what is arguably the best line in football, help keep quarterback Trent Green (10) clean, while guard Mike Wahle (opposite) gets down and dirty for the Packers.COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK (INSET) [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKESCOLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER