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Dirty Dogs
Michael Silver
October 26, 1998
There's a nasty breed of NFL players who follow one cardinal rule: Anything goes, and that means biting, kicking, spearing, spitting and leg-whipping
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October 26, 1998

Dirty Dogs

There's a nasty breed of NFL players who follow one cardinal rule: Anything goes, and that means biting, kicking, spearing, spitting and leg-whipping

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At least that transgression—which, like many of Gogan's sins, went undetected by officials—took place in a game that mattered. Getting ejected from the Pro Bowl is akin to getting booted from the Rose Bowl parade for speeding, but it was a feat accomplished by Gogan and Smith, who have bad blood between them dating back to the days when Gogan was with the Raiders and Smith played for the rival Chiefs. They resumed their battle at the Pro Bowl after Gogan saw Smith tangling with Vikings tackle Todd Steussie, another player with a mean streak. Gogan stepped in and punched Smith in the chest. Then, as Gogan walked back to his huddle, Smith retaliated with a shot to Gogan's head, setting off the scrum that ended with both men being ejected.

Gogan and Smith nearly came to blows while being escorted from the field, and later Mariucci, who was coaching the NFC team, sent Steve Young into the locker room to try to calm his testy teammate. When Young returned to the sideline he told Mariucci, "Forget it." A few minutes later Gogan reappeared on the sideline, clad in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, and began jawing across the field at Smith, who also had returned in street clothes. "I'm still bitter about it," Gogan says. "If Neil Smith has to take you straight-up, he won't take you. He's a p——." Responds Smith, "I've been called worse."

If the 49ers and the Broncos meet in Super Bowl XXXIII, the biggest fireworks display won't come at halftime. In addition to the Gogan-Smith feud, many Niners eagerly await a chance to get back at Romanowski, king of the stray forearm, who last December earned a $7,500 fine for spitting in the face of San Francisco wideout J.J. Stokes. Niners running back Garrison Hearst calls Romanowski, who declined to be interviewed for this article, "the dirtiest, nastiest guy I know." (Romanowski, through a Broncos spokesperson, replied, "Garrison doesn't know me very well.") Gogan says, "What he did to J.J. showed a lack of respect. I will get Romanowski back for that."

What's more, there would be the face-off between offensive linemen coached by Niners assistant Bobb McKittrick and pass rushers schooled by Broncos assistant John Teerlinck—the two position coaches most often cited by their peers for teaching questionable tactics. McKittrick, who has held his post since 1979, introduced the cut-blocking techniques now practiced by at least a dozen other teams, including the Broncos. Teerlinck, who coached in Minnesota and Detroit before joining the Broncos in 1997, is notorious for encouraging linemen to go for the quarterback's knees. Though Teerlinck declined to be interviewed, a few of his former players say he taught them to pretend they were tripping to hide the fact they were diving at the legs of a fleeing quarterback. "He'd tell us, 'If a guy beats you, lay out for him,' " says San Francisco defensive lineman Roy Barker, who played for Teerlinck in Minnesota.

Two years ago, when Teerlinck was the Lions' assistant head coach for defense, he was summoned to the NFL office in New York City for a meeting with commissioner Paul Tagliabue and other league officials. "The commissioner made it very clear that the things we were seeing on videotape were unacceptable, and if it could be proved that he was teaching these techniques, there would be severe consequences," says NFL director of football development Gene Washington, who doles out player fines. "After that, we didn't see much of it anymore."

Since Washington, a standout receiver with the 49ers from 1969 through '77, assumed his post five years ago, the league has been more vigilant, enforcing the rules and penalizing serious offenders. Each week the league's supervisors of officials review every play of every game, sometimes from as many as five angles, and red-flag anything they think might be a finable offense. Washington then views each play and renders a decision, often fining players for transgressions that didn't draw a penalty during the game. Though the system has its flaws—most appeals are handled by Peter Hadhazy, the NFL's director of game operations, whose office is next door to Washington's—it has undoubtedly helped clean up the game. Washington and others say a player such as Conrad Dobler, an offensive lineman regarded as the league's dirtiest player in the '70s (box, left), would have had to change his ways under such a system. "I don't think anybody today can come anywhere close to someone who played 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago," Miami Dolphins coach Jimmy Johnson says. "Nowadays, if you look wrong at a guy, you're going to get a $5,000 fine. If Dobler were playing today, his entire paycheck would go to the league, and then he'd owe them money."

Until a couple of years ago the player deemed the heir to Dobler was Wisniewski, whose penchant for sustaining blocks up to the whistle—or past it—made him extremely unpopular with opponents. But Wisniewski, who has nonetheless been voted into the Pro Bowl five times by those opponents, seems to have reformed since incurring a total of $65,000 in fines during a five-week stretch in the fall of '96. League executives say Wisniewski was a flagrant violator scared straight by threats of a suspension. Wisniewski believes that the league, by levying unwarranted fines, was mostly responsible for creating his image, and that the appeals process was "an absolute kangaroo court." Seahawks defensive tackle Dan Saleaumua even supports Wisniewski's contention that he is merely a hard-nosed blocker whose biggest offense is his talent.

"How absurd is it that I'm thought of as dirty?" Wisniewski asks. "I'm clean-cut, I don't wear any jewelry, I don't have tattoos, I don't drink or do drugs, I'm involved in my church and with youth charities, my family is my No. 1 priority, and I coach four-and six-year-olds in soccer. I don't use abusive language. No one I've blocked has ever been carted off with a serious injury."

Alas, Wisniewski is painted as something less than a Gandhi-like figure by a couple of former teammates. Gogan says Wisniewski taught him a "pin move" in which a hand to the inside hip of a charging pass rusher can "produce 10 pounds of pressure and stop him like a sack of potatoes. It's like a karate move, and it's usually called holding when the officials see it." Adds Turk, now a Redskins long snapper, "We'd have competitions to see how many defensive backs we could pick off or how many linebackers we could knock off their feet. We had two great moves: the knife, where the guard acts like he's pass-blocking his man and I'd shoot in from the side and cut him; and the fork, where I'd pull back and one of the guards would take out the nosetackle. Then we'd make a lot of false fork and knife calls to freak out the defensive linemen. It would take them out of their game."

Says Gogan, "It was absolutely comical what went on. We'd pick one guy to terrorize, and we'd do everything—punch him, kick him, pin him, jump on him after the play, get him starting fights he couldn't win." In other words there would be guaranteed misery for some unfortunate opponent. "Opponent?" says Gogan. "Hell, we do it in practice."

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