"It's a car wreck," says Mack Strong of the Seattle Seahawks. "You hit somebody on every play."
Great fullbacks have four things in common:
Toughness. On Sept. 30, after experiencing abdominal pain, Jon Ritchie of the Oakland Raiders underwent surgery to have his appendix removed. Five days later he participated in noncontact drills. Fifteen days after the surgery he played the entire game against the Kansas City Chiefs. One recent afternoon, while eating a lunch of Fruity Pebbles in his home in the Berkeley hills, he showed off a picture of his inflamed appendix, which was about twice its normal size. "I wanted to take it home, but they said they had to biopsy it or something," says Ritchie, a 1998 third-round draft pick out of Stanford.
He is a little off center, perhaps. He is definitely a modern-day gladiator. "Let's face it," Ritchie says. "We all have those pads on for a reason. I'm wearing that helmet to augment the strength of my skull. And I don't dread the contact at all. If anything, it's the opposite. Plus, blocking is such an underrated aspect of offense. I like to say each block is like a snowflake. The possibilities are endless, man."
Any good fullback might see stars after one play and block stars on the next. "Most Sunday nights I feel groggy, with a headache," says New York Giants fullback Greg Cornelia. "I'm sure [fullbacks suffer] more unreported concussions than you would ever know. Anyone who says he doesn't get concussions is lying."
Blocking ability. Schlesinger remembers hearing the weld on his face mask snap. He doesn't remember who it was he had blocked. He doesn't remember if it was helmet to helmet, helmet to shoulder pad, helmet to chest. "So many collisions," he says of the jarring hit against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sept. 17. "I just don't recall." That's because, opponents say, the sameness of the crushing blocks that the 6-foot, 246-pound Schlesinger delivers makes him an enduring force every Sunday.
Against the Bucs, the top ear-to-ear bar on his face mask was left bent and broken. Equipment man Dan Jaroshewich, who keeps a spare Schlesinger face mask on the sideline, tried to repair it after the play, but the fullback wouldn't give up the helmet till halftime. He didn't want to miss a snap. "I've been doing equipment for the Lions for 28 years," Jaroshewich says. "Three times I've seen a weld snap—twice by Cory. Every time he comes out of the game, we look at his mask, to see if there's damage. For him, it's just the cost of doing business."
In his first Lions practice, as a rookie sixth-round draft choice out of Nebraska in 1995, Schlesinger blocked All-Pro linebacker Chris Spielman so hard that Spielman christened him Anvil Head, a nickname that Schlesinger carries proudly to this day.
An informal poll of NFL scouts, coaches, players and general managers underscores how vital blocking is to a fullback's value. Sam Gash was the AFC's Pro Bowl fullback last season, despite not having a rushing attempt while playing for the Buffalo Bills. He's now a backup with the Baltimore Ravens, playing behind rising star Obafemi Ayanbadejo. Lorenzo Neal of the Tennessee Titans had two carries for one yard in 1999, yet Giants linebackers coach Tom Olivadotti, a 16-year NFL coaching veteran, says, "He has a huge impact on the game. He's the best blocking fullback I've ever seen." Schlesinger, Howard Griffith of the Denver Broncos, Jim Kleinsasser of the Minnesota Vikings and William Floyd of the Carolina Panthers also get high marks for their blocking.
Humility. Neal has a recurring dream. In it he runs 80 yards for a touchdown, and the crowd goes wild. But when he wakes up, he's back to being Eddie George's bodyguard. "I'm a secret weapon," Neal says with a laugh. "A really secret weapon."