Nose to Nose Again

They have been at it for years, but Denver's Rubin Carter and San Diego's Don Macek still don't know all that much about one another
They have been at it for years, but Denver's Rubin Carter and San Diego's Don Macek still don't know all that much about one another
November 25, 1985

For two weeks of every NFL season, two men—one from Denver, the other from San Diego—ritually crawled into each other's consciousness. At any moment, reading a newspaper or watching television, their faces and bodies might appear in each other's minds, and the newspaper or the TV would go away. Over and over, in each of those weeks, they saw each other do their jobs on a small white screen in a darkened room. They performed dress rehearsals, studied detailed game reports and took tests on them. And at the end of each of those weeks they threw their bodies into each other, and felt the sting of each other's sweat in perhaps 100 or more collisions a year.

The years passed, and before they knew it they had done this for nearly a decade. They knew each other's habits, each other's smell, each other's strengths and weaknesses, courage and fears. They knew almost everything about each other and they knew almost nothing.

Don Macek of the Chargers and Rubin Carter of the Broncos were quiet men who used their silence as a weapon. In all their years during the heat of games only two sentences had ever been exchanged between them.

The career of the average player in the NFL has dwindled to 3.5 years, barely time enough for him to form deep relationships with the men he plays next to, let alone the ones he beats on once or twice a year. Some players shy away from any such bond, fearing the consequences. In the '50s, defensive tackle Dick Modzelewski of the New York Giants used to trade positions with the other Giant tackle rather than battle his old college pal, guard Stan Jones of the Bears. Ahmad Rashad, the former Viking receiver, could never quite resolve the contradiction of friendship and strife.

"I was friends with [Raider cornerback] Mike Haynes and his wife," he says. "He'd knock the crap out of me, and I'd get up and say, 'How's Julie?' It's crazy. But you end up playing harder against guys you become friends with. You play for bragging rights, for the time you run into the guy in a bar in February. If he's beaten you one-on-one that year, you cringe when you see him coming toward you. You know you're going to hear about it.

"I remember stepping out of bounds in a game to stop the clock after I'd caught a ball, and a guy I'd been friends with a long time, Willie Buchanon, was covering me. There was no reason at all for anyone to hit me. For the first time, I let down my guard. And then wham, Willie knocked me real good. I looked at him, and he had this sinister look on his face. That reminded me—this is professional football."

The two quiet men knew this. Never in 10 seasons had either let down his guard. Never did one ask the other a single question about his private life. Never did they realize that their philosophies on life and football were strikingly identical, that each was the father of a little boy and a little girl and each was a partner in a real estate development company. They remained divided by their closeness.

Don Macek is a 31-year-old man with a torso that deserves longer legs. With his duck-toed walk, his sockless, moccasined feet, his shirt hanging out over his thick belly, his scruffy beard and uncombed hair, it takes little imagination to see the 6'2", 270-pound Macek trundling out of a steel factory near dusk, pausing before the door of the nearest tavern, stiff-arming it aside and asking for a shot and a beer. In reality he is the center for the Chargers, snapper for and protector of Dan Fouts. Many in the NFL believe he is one of the top five in the league at his craft, yet he remains virtually unknown—never selected All-Pro, overshadowed for 10 seasons by linemates like Russ Washington, Doug Wilkerson and Ed White. A two-week walkout from training camp last year in a contract dispute was the only time in his life he ever fell into a headline.

Rubin Carter is a 32-year-old noseguard for the Broncos, his 254 pounds compressed into 6'1". His biceps, thighs and buttocks look like things no human being should have to haul around. Even slumbering on the sofa, wearing his pressed polyester slacks and horn-rim glasses, with his 11-month-old daughter, Diandra, lying on his chest, you could not imagine him as anything but a nose-guard for a professional football team. Many in the league say he is one of the NFL's five best at his position, yet he, too, is so unspectacularly steady that he rarely is mentioned and was never voted All-Pro, always overshadowed by line-mates such as Lyle Alzado.

Macek and Carter would meet each other away from a football stadium only once in their careers, waving hello in a hotel hallway in Albuquerque during a players' meeting in 1982. How much they had to share if only they'd faced each other across a table instead of a yard marker; but neither was the type to initiate a lunch with a man he didn't know.

Didn't know? The first time they met was head-on, at full gallop, on an outside running play in 1976, when Macek was a rookie and Carter a second-year man. Every cell in Macek's body recorded the introduction. "It felt as if my body was crumbling," he recalls. "I knew then that to play in this league I had to get strong."

No two men lined up with so little air separating them as the noseguard and the center, and Carter lined up as close as any noseguard in the league. He did nothing to camouflage the evil that emanated from his eyes. In their early years, the prospect of facing Carter made Macek run frequent shuttles to and from the locker-room bathroom in the hours before the game. Only Curley Culp of Houston could make Macek run to the bathroom the way Rubin Carter of Denver did.

Carter never spoke to him, and Macek was a man who remained quiet near a stranger. Their shyness had roots. Both had been huge, husky children who matured early and felt the pain of being different. Some kids ran away when Donnie Macek came to play, and girls sometimes shunned him. In New Hampshire, a state that has just one current player in the NFL—Macek—people could not perceive the connection between poundage and potential.

Up and down the East Coast, children taunted Carter for his thick body and thick glasses. He grew up the youngest in a family of eight children, migrant workers who moved from Florida to New York picking vegetables and fruit. He would take the teasing silently for a long time, and then something would snap, and he would lose all control. One day in sixth grade in Fort Lauderdale, preparing to deal with one of his tormentors, he drove a nail through a two-by-four. His brother confiscated the weapon, and so Rubin went at the tormentor with his fists. "When the cops pulled me off him, he was gasping for life," Carter recalls.

His temper frightened him, and he gripped his emotions tighter and tighter, until most people never knew they were there. In the Bronco locker room in 1978, 230-pound linebacker Godwin Turk taunted him once too often and was shocked to find himself crunched headfirst in a garbage can.

In high school and his first years of college, he might celebrate after a big tackle, predict a score or demonstrate his anger. But the risk of showing any emotion, of losing control, so worried him that he trained himself to become a quiet, efficient machine on the field.

He was playing what might be football's most dangerous position, and one wrong gesture, one wrong word, could end his career. The noseguard was the focal point of the game's anarchy—how simple for the center to straighten him up, and the guard or tackle, the tight end or the running back to drive a shoulder pad into his knee. One team last year put a wide receiver in motion who suddenly slanted into the line at the snap and cut Carter's legs. He had missed the last five games of his senior year in college when two opponents teamed up on a cheap shot. By keeping his head on a swivel, and his tongue in the shade, he had missed just two games in his pro career.

Other players used their tongues as a tool, hoping to gain some advantage by perturbing their opponents or making them laugh or relax. Rashad would whistle as he ran patterns, and say things like. "I think I'm going to catch this one" or "Did you see Hill Street Blues the other night?" even as the ball was on its way to him. "Ssssnake," the Packers would hiss at him, the veterans warning younger teammates not to listen to him. But his jabber worked like a lullaby on ex-Raider Jack Tatum, who never failed to tackle Rashad hospitably, although he seemed to be trying to decapitate every other Viking receiver.

The two quiet men frowned on such frivolity. Carter remembered all the bad air that hung over his room his last year of college, when he roomed with the center he faced each day in practice. The only show of emotion Carter could ever remember from Macek was a tiny fist pump during a Charger drive. To the San Diego center it was a matter of logic to keep himself and Carter calm. "Every lineman I've ever played against only plays better when he's mad, and an offensive lineman who's mad only plays worse," he says. "It breaks concentration to talk. We're out there to do a job. Everything else is unnecessary."

Macek had gone several seasons without a personal foul, Carter 11 seasons with just three. Just a few weeks ago, Macek had eliminated the one bit of flair he had permitted into his life, selling his Porsche Carrera 911 in order to use the money for shrubbery and trees outside his new home. The more the two men muted themselves, the more controlled they were on the field and in the locker room, the less was the likelihood of their gaining notice or acclaim. Reluctantly, they accepted the trade-off, preferring longevity and security to fame. Even to play spectacularly well was a risk. The Bronco defense is designed for Carter to occupy as many blockers as possible so the linebackers might flow unencumbered to make the tackles, but he played so well against the Cowboys in the '78 Super Bowl that a man telephoned authorities at halftime and said Carter would be shot with a rifle if he played the second half. Carter didn't learn of the threat until after the game, and he became even more reserved, more wary. He wouldn't pose for pictures with people he didn't know unless someone from the Broncos vouched for them, nor finish a soda if he'd left it unattended for even a moment. He would tense up when a stranger recognized him and said, "Hey, aren't you Rubin Carter?" He kept his Super Bowl ring in a safe-deposit box, stopping by a few times a year to gaze at it.

The two quiet men communicated with each other in ways too subtle for the gesture-hungry public or even their teammates to see. They would nod almost imperceptibly—as if to say, "Hello, old friend, here we go again"—when Macek duck-toed his way out of the huddle for the first play of a game. They would tap each other softly on the back in acknowledgment of a good play. When Carter was angry at Macek for holding him (he considered Macek one of the three best centers in the league at holding) or for cutting at his legs, he informed him by glowering at him, then swatting him in the face on the next play instead of on the shoulders, or seizing the front of his jersey and hurling him to the turf. If Macek was angry at Carter for a power rip with his right arm that felt more like a punch, he'd run to the ball on the next play instead of trotting and launch his shoulders into the lower part of Carter's thighs, to remind him of the vulnerability of his legs. It never escalated into an outright cheap shot, and no one else, not the referees or the fans, ever had to know.

"The ref isn't there to hear me cry," says Carter. "It's up to me to make Don stop his holding. I know what my function is, and I do it.

"I've learned to hide out, to not let anyone know what I'm thinking or feeling or how good I am. It's another weapon. He's the same way. I like to play players who talk—you can tell when they're discouraged—but Don never gives me that advantage."

There would be only that one occasion when they exchanged words during a game; then, as if exhausted by the exertion of it, they would never speak to each other again during play. And the more they didn't talk, the more they respected each other. They voted for each other in Pro Bowl balloting and each felt bad for the other every year when they were overlooked. In the silence of their confrontation, broken only by the cracking of their shoulder pads, they both heard honesty.

It is Monday, Oct. 28, six days before the two quiet men will meet for the first time this season. In Denver, Carter is at work in the weight room when the first picture of Macek appears in his head. "Sandy brown hair, little squatty body. Has a beard—should have one, unless he cut it off. An inch or so taller than me, a little heavier. His body feels like a mass of muscle. What color eyes? I don't look in his eyes. Brown, aren't they?" (No, blue.) He envisions an outside running play in the first quarter of a game last year, sees Macek's feet moving, unnaturally quick for a man that size, Macek cutting him off-from the play and hooking him with his arm. Early in the week, it is still O.K. to picture Macek winning a battle—it enables Carter to plot his adjustments.

Within a few hours of showering off the sweat of his previous game, Macek's mind already has involuntarily leaped ahead to Rubin Carter. He has always wished he had a name like that—it sounds so much more like a football player to him than Don Macek. On off-season days when he didn't feel like working out, he would picture Carter pumping iron obsessively, then powering past him in a game and pancaking Fouts, and the dread would drive him off the sofa to the stadium weight room.

The more times they played each other, the more Macek concentrated on Carter the week before. Macek didn't know why, but he never saw Carter's face in his head, only a picture of their bodies struggling for control.

Most players preferred to play an old rival to a rookie—human comfort with the known overcoming human curiosity with the new—but their familiarity did not lessen their anxiety. "The question in your life goes from 'Can you stop him?' when you're young to 'Can you still stop him?' when you get older," says Mike Webster, the 12-year Pittsburgh Steeler center. "That underlying fear—maybe I can't anymore—makes you keep thinking more and more of him each year. I even wake up thinking about the guy I'm playing—that's when it gets scary. Maybe that's when it's time to get out."

On Tuesday, their off day, Macek and Carter forget each other—that day is for Macek to nurse his injured shoulder, Carter to rest his arthritic knees, for both of them to get down on the rug and play with their children.

Now it's Wednesday morning, and a part of them secretly hopes the line coach will approach and say, "Carter's finally slowing up this year," or, "Macek looks like he's finally going downhill," while another part hopes that never happens. They are co-violators of the odds against decade-plus NFL careers, and the reappearance every year of the one reassures the other. On Wednesday, the mental struggle between them becomes serious. They study each other on films, watching plays several times in search of new nuances, never taking their knowledge of each other for granted. Both of them believe their matchup will be half won or half lost before they ever hunker down a few inches of tense air apart on Sunday. Macek notices the four pounds Carter has lost since last year, the fingersnap of quickness he has gained, and thinks of trying to turn it to his advantage with a new head fake he's working on. Carter notices the five pounds Macek has added and decides to inch up even closer to the ball, guessing he might be able to out-quick his heavier foe off the snap.

This long-distance cat-and-mouse game continues Thursday. Macek skips seconds on the roast beef and bypasses the chocolate cake for dessert, hoping to lose a few pounds to counteract Carter's increased quickness. Carter learns of Macek's shoulder injury and wonders how he might exploit it. Whoa, run that play again, he says in the film room—is that a leg whip he sees Macek using against a Raider lineman? By golly, it appears to be—not like Don to cheap-shot anyone, but he files it in his memory to keep a lookout for on Sunday, just in case.

I wonder how he'll react to my new stance, Macek is thinking; for the first time in his career, Macek is keeping his right hand on his thigh instead of on the ball, enabling him to get his palms onto the noseguard's chest quicker than ever. When they were younger, these details might flit through their minds and vanish, but now they bite their bottom lips and brood over them. Carter briefs his team's center, and Macek his team's noseguard, on what they have seen on film, asking them to simulate their opponents during Thursday's practice.

Diana Carter, a substitute teacher, has no idea whom her husband is about to play against, and she doesn't ask. The less she knows about the man, the easier she finds it to root for her husband to dominate on Sunday. Don Macek? In this, the 10th year of their rivalry, Diana had still never heard that name, and Rubin is too private to bring it up between swallows of chicken at dinner.

Rubin Carter? Jan Macek knows him. She learns of her husband's next opponent a few hours after the game the week before, knowing that the following Sunday she can judge how well her husband is playing by the number of times the P.A. man will credit the opponent with tackles. She feels safer that it is Rubin, a name she knows, than some rookie concealing unknown strength or danger. She wonders sometimes if Rubin is married or if he has kids, as she and Don do.

Her husband is busy watching TV and answering one million whys? from his 4-year-old son, Scott. In Denver, Carter is strumming a little gospel or jazz tune on his red guitar, never daring to sing, and reading his Bible. Noseguards make good family men. "A noseguard is a homesteader," Carter says. "He has his property, his land he's taken his stake in, and he wants to protect that. A noseguard is a sacrificial lamb, but it feels great to be a sacrificial lamb in our defense because we care for each other."

By Friday, so much preoccupation with another man begins to tell, and a little trowel of anxiety begins to dig at their insides. The tingle reassures them—it means they are ready.

Now it is Saturday afternoon, and two physical men are weary of the mental game. They want to pop each other and be done with it. Both feel the same need to husband their energy, the same drowsiness. Now comes the warhorse's reward; while the younger men fidget, Macek and Carter shoo each other from their minds and drift into sleep.

There are several types of nervous people in the locker rooms across the NFL on Sunday mornings. Some of the loud nervous ones grab the game programs placed on the seat in front of each locker and thumb straight to the head and shoulder photographs of the opposing players without their helmets. "Oh my God, look at page 53," one of them will holler. "Is he ugly or is he ugly? I don't care who we got to cut, that boy definitely makes the all-ugly team. . . ."

Then there are the quiet nervous ones, such as Macek and Carter. Both are among the first five or six players on their teams to arrive at the stadium when they play at home, wanting nothing to rush these last quiet hours of preparation. Both nibble child-size portions of pre-game eggs and toast. "A hungry dog hunts best," Carter says.

They ready their equipment, each worrying how the other will exploit any loose part of their uniform or pads. Macek's skill at holding helped drive Carter to wear a skintight jersey. Carter is so proficient at grabbing, Macek first tried to use two-sided tape beneath his jersey to make it adhere to his pads, then tried to tie "down the loose cloth beneath his arm with shoelaces. "Neither worked, so I gave up and accepted he was going to grab me," Macek says with a shrug.

They remain quiet, but their teammates can see the eagerness burning in their eyes. Now each man is winning every confrontation he pictures in his mind. They trot out of the tunnel into the human thunder of San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, glancing at each other now and then during warmups. During the national anthem, rocking his weight from one foot to the other out of nervousness, Carter stares across the field at Macek. Macek steals his stares but then looks elsewhere so Rubin doesn't notice. "I just want to make sure he didn't grow 10 inches and gain 90 pounds since the last time," Macek says. "There's always that fear."

They come on the field, nod and load themselves into their stances, Carter's knuckles inches from Macek's football, both so wide and strong and close to the earth that neither can gain the leverage advantage they enjoy over other players.

It was at this precise moment, one warm, sunlit day in San Diego about five years ago, that they looked at each other and spoke the only words they would ever exchange during a game.

"Hey, Rubin," said Don.

"All right, Don," said Rubin.

The first pop expels the anxiety, their helmets meeting, glancing off and burrowing into the other's shoulder. A few years back their facemasks tangled and they shook a little like two horn-locked bull moose trying to free themselves, achieving nothing. Then they relaxed, probably realizing there were worse NFL linemen to go through life attached to, and were able to disengage.

They feel each other out the first two series, rationing their intensity, then settle into a grim, quiet struggle. A pattern quickly establishes itself. Carter doesn't try to steamroll Macek—he uses his quick feet and hand motions he learned in two years of karate lessons during college to bat away Macek's clutching hands and to shake free of his bearded shadow. Macek counters with a new wrinkle, moving more quickly off the ball than normal, waiting for Carter to commit in order to nullify any stunts the Bronco noseguard has up his biceps-hugging sleeve.

No psychological one-upmanship exists between them, except the little chess game of trying to set each other up for a move. Lester Hayes, the Raiders' cornerback, would try to intimidate an opponent by running a mock defensive coverage of that player's favorite pass route as the offense broke from the huddle, but the two quiet men have long since given up trying to overpower each other mentally or physically. They have even stopped searching each other for tips like the whitened fingernails that can be spotted when some linemen shift their weight forward to explode out of the stance. Both of them are too stoic, too controlled, too sly. One year, Macek came out hoping to take advantage of a damaged thumb Carter was listed as having in the Bronco's pregame injury report. Rubin trotted out with both thumbs heavily bandaged, scuttling that plan.

Macek remembers throwing Carter to the ground two plays in a row and feeling a sudden flush of pride and surprise because that was so rare. This game is more typical in that neither dominates the other—they are both too consistent, too well prepared to make major mistakes.

Once, however, on' a sweep left, Macek's mind blanks and he veers right. Carter is so immersed in their confrontation that he follows him, and two wrongs help make a 10-yard bite for San Diego.

Macek's quick feet and experience enable him to hook and seal off Carter on the outside running game, helping running back Gary Anderson slash for 116 yards, but he finds only frustration trying to excavate Carter on the straight-ahead running plays.

"I couldn't move him." admits Macek. Carter, on the other hand, never gets a chance to headhunt Fouts—Macek has allowed but five sacks in the last six years—and afterward scores their confrontation a virtual draw.

As they walk toward the tunnel at the end of the stadium at the final gun (San Diego has won this time 30-10), they seek each other out in the confusion and lock their hands in a shake, a custom they started several years ago.

"Good game," says Macek.

"God bless you," says Carter.

"Stay healthy, man."

"O.K., see you next time."