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Little Big Men
Michael Silver
January 26, 1998
Denver's line, the smallest in the NFL, is a huge—and generally offensive—part of the Broncos' success
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January 26, 1998

Little Big Men

Denver's line, the smallest in the NFL, is a huge—and generally offensive—part of the Broncos' success

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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.)

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