Little Big Men|
Denver's line, the smallest in the NFL, is a hugeand generally offensivepart of the Broncos' success
by Michael Silver
Posted: Wed January 21, 1998
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 gameeven before some practicesand 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 linesix teams now start 300-pounders at all five positionsthe 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 1984to 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."
"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.)
Issue date: January 26, 1998
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