To Kevin Gogan, it was a gift from the gods. Here was Gogan, the San Francisco 49ers guard, in a heap of pro football's Grade A flesh, and amid the pushing and grabbing he saw a smidgen of daylight between himself and Neil Smith, the Denver Broncos defensive end who seconds earlier, in retaliation for a punch in the chest, had slugged Gogan in the back of the head. Even if he deserves it, Gogan doesn't take a poke from anybody, and Smith was about to experience the swift kick of injustice. "It was amazing," Gogan recalls. "All of a sudden, this space opened that was the perfect size for me to get my leg through and kick him in the nuts."
Never mind that this happened last February at the Pro Bowl, a postseason exhibition in which the league's elite players expend about as much effort as porn-film actors delivering dialogue. Never mind that Gogan had just spent several days lounging poolside at a luxurious Oahu resort. When you are 6'7", 330 pounds and the dirtiest player in football, the low road always beckons. Says Gogan, "The referee told me it was the most vicious kick to the groin he had seen in 23 years."
Here are other ways big number 66 has gotten his kicks: While playing with the Los Angeles and Oakland Raiders from 1994 through '96, Gogan and linemates Steve Wisniewski and Dan Turk would patrol the locker room giving "attitude adjustments" to players they felt weren't practicing hard enough, a process that typically came down to the three behemoths pinning the offending teammate against his locker until he was sufficiently repentant. During a game, if he's facing an opponent who has imperfect teeth, Gogan will tell him to consider signing with the Niners because they have a good dental plan. Once a play begins—and, sometimes, after it is whistled dead—Gogan will punch, kick, trip, cut-block, sit on or attempt to neuter the man lined up across from him.
"If those guys in the striped uniforms can't see it, Gogan will do it," says Washington Redskins defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield, who while playing with San Francisco last season was on the receiving end of Gogan's antics in practice. "He knows every trick in the dirty book. In fact, in the Book of Dirty, Gogan's picture is right there on the first page, with a note that says, 'We dedicate this to Kevin Gogan, the epitome of what dirtiness stands for, the master of all that is nasty.' "
In an era when players are increasingly scrutinized and fined for acts of malice on the field, Gogan, a 12-year veteran who rums 34 next month, is an unabashed throwback who would just as soon settle a score as spring a running back for one. You won't find him or his partners in grime—Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski, Minnesota Vikings cornerback Corey Fuller, Arizona Cardinals defensive tackle Eric Swann and Green Bay Packers center Frank Winters, to name just a few—doing promotional ads for the NFL. Instead they operate outside the lines of decorum, in some cases to the delight of their coaches and teammates. "Coaches want tough guys, players who love to hit and fly around and do things that are mean and nasty," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci says. "Not everyone can be like that, but if you can have one or two players who are a little overaggressive, that's great."
Kansas City Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer maintains that his players engage in physical, one-on-one football within the rules. Yet many rivals say he encourages late hits and knockout blows. "They have a lot of thugs on that team," says Seattle Seahawks guard Brian Habib, who chose not to name names. But among the Chiefs mentioned often in SI's informal survey of players and coaches are free safety Jerome Woods, who was fined a total of $15,000 for hits on two Broncos (quarterback John Elway and wideout Ed McCaffrey) in separate games last season, and linebacker Anthony Davis, who was docked $7,500 for a dead-ball blow to Niners quarterback Steve Young last November. Then there is cornerback Dale Carter, who has been known to go for opponents' knees in his normal role and in cameo appearances as a wideout. In fact, for the last several years, Chiefs receivers have been criticized for cut-blocking away from the ball, a practice that is legal but widely frowned upon. "We do it because if we knock those guys down, they get fewer uncontested shots on the man with the ball, and that reduces fumbles," Schottenheimer says. "If they want to make a rule outlawing cutting in that situation, I'll be happy to abide by it."
What sets Gogan apart is the zest with which he seeks a physical confrontation. "It seems like guys always want to mess with people who don't want to be messed with," Gogan says. "I'm the guy who enjoys going after the instigators. Sometimes, I don't even go where the ball is. I just go after the man."
In a game last December against the Vikings, Gogan went after Fuller, a notorious trash talker, spitter and high hitter who earlier this month was fined $20,000 by the NFL for a helmet-first blow that broke the jaw of Packers backup quarterback Doug Pederson, who was playing because the Vikings had the game comfortably in hand. "I don't hurt anyone intentionally," Fuller says, "but I'm going to play hard. If you don't want to play hard, get out of the game, because it's a physical sport."
Fuller has been known to take that credo to extremes. Two years ago he was so enraged by a late hit Winters had laid on him that he went after the Packers center and poked him in the eye. (Fuller was fined $30,000 for the gouge; Winters's shot cost him $5,000.) One Tampa Bay Buccaneer says that in his team's season-opening defeat at Minnesota, wideout Bert Emanuel "caught his toe on the turf and badly sprained his ankle, and Fuller stood over him yelling, 'I told you I'd get you out of the game.' " Fuller denies making that comment, but says, "I'm trying to be king of the jungle out there. Otherwise, at my position, I'd be home watching very soon."
Gogan couldn't wait to bully this bully. "I was walking off the field before a punt," Gogan says, "and Fuller was yapping at one of our special teams guys, Curtis Buckley. So I said, 'Buck, watch this,' and as I walked by I punched him right in the nuts."