Before their October meeting Brown studied film of Copeland from Wednesday till Saturday, freezing the action, rewinding, looking for an edge, for subtle changes in posture or performance, indicators of weakness. How was Copeland's health? A ripped left Achilles tendon kept him out of both Ravens-Bengals games last year. Was it healed? Was he coming hard, willing to absorb the blows? Or was he dancing more, the way so many defensive ends do these days, trying to avoid contact and using speed to get to the quarterback? In Cincinnati, Copeland studied film of Brown, looking at the same situation from the other side of the mirror.
At the end of the week the two men would step into their forgotten corner at the edge of the TV screen and attempt to beat the bejesus out of each other in five-second bursts. Each would know everything he could about the well-padded figure across from him, soft spots and hard, football-related qualities that not even his closest relatives knew. The rest of the picture would remain an unexplored mystery. Who is this guy? What are his thoughts, hopes, values? Who cares? They would be two intimate strangers trying to tear each other's heads off.
"I want to hurt him," Brown said before the October game. "I don't want to give him a career-ending injury, but I do want to hurt him. You can see when a guy is hurt. He gets that shell-shocked look. I love to hit, love to use my size. I love to see people bleed. I'm no big talker. I do my talking by hitting my man, throwing him on the ground, jumping on him."
The dance—Mr. Copeland, meet Mr. Brown—is simple. One man wants to go somewhere, to sit on top of the quarterback or stop the running back from racing into the SportsCenter highlights. The other man does not want this to happen. Force will be exerted by both parties to further their desires.
This is the bass line of malevolence that is laid down with every snap of the football, the foundation that makes all the other notes sound better. Run all the way down an open field and you have nothing more than a TV commercial for deodorant or soap. Run first through a wall of mayhem, big men tossing one another this way and that, and you have an adventure that is played out in the early game, the late game, the games on Sunday and on Monday night. Brown and Copeland are part of the wall of mayhem, their work reflective of all the other collisions at all the other lines of scrimmage in the league. Neither man is a star. Neither has been to the Pro Bowl.
"The first thing I'm going to do against Orlando is bust him in the mouth," Copeland said before their October meeting. "That doesn't mean hit him in the mouth, exactly. It's just an expression. It means I'm going to hit him hard somewhere. The second thing I'm going to do, second play, is bust him in the mouth again. That's to let him know that we're here all day. Third play? Hopefully he'll be ready for me to bust him in the mouth, and then I can just run around him, get to the quarterback."
Copeland, 29, is less than three months older than Brown. He is also four inches shorter, 70 pounds lighter. Copeland has been a defensive lineman for most of his life, since he followed his older brother, Sylvester, to Pop Warner games and fell in love with what he saw. He is a small-town guy from Lanett, Ala., whose parents worked in a factory and provided a modest but safe life for their six children. Copeland encountered few gangs and drugs as a kid, none of the familiar horror stories. Water guns were the weapon of choice in his neighborhood. Fireworks were the escalation. He remembers aiming Roman candles at his brothers' heads, and his brothers aiming back at his. Lucky no one was hurt.
Football always was easy for John. Probably too easy. He had a match of two athletic gifts, size and speed, that made him a star for Valley High. He didn't have to lift weights, didn't have to do much running. He showed up and played. Big schools, Alabama and Auburn and Tennessee, wanted him. He signed with the Crimson Tide.
It was a surprise to him when he found out he could not go to Tuscaloosa because he lacked the proper grades and the proper courses in a core curriculum. Then again, that was his style. Easy. When he'd needed a C or a D in the easiest course to remain eligible for high school sports, that's what he'd gotten. A year and a half at Hinds Community College in Raymond, Miss., under assistant coach Gene Murphy gave Copeland a taste of discipline and structure. He accumulated decent grades, went to Alabama and was part of a national championship team as a senior. The Bengals made him their top choice, fifth pick, in the 1993 draft. Easy. Too easy.
Only now is he starting to tinker with his large body. The torn Achilles tendon finally made him get serious in the weight room. The Bengals had been stunned when Copeland reported as a rookie and couldn't do a single chin-up, but he had believed that he didn't need to look good in a muscle contest to play football. The whisper about him has been that he is an underachiever, but he has been a starter his entire career. "Everybody always wanted me to do weights," he says. "I'd go to the programs, put in the time in the room, but I was never into it. I was the spotter. I hate that it took me so long to learn. I'm lifting now, and I see the difference in my play. I feel a whole lot stronger, can move a whole lot better."