As A Kid, Detroit Lions fullback Cory Schlesinger lived in Duncan, Neb., a tiny farming community 58 miles northwest of Lincoln, and in the summer of 1987, when he was 15, he thought he'd died and gone to heaven. That's when his father, Gary, told him he was man enough to enter the demolition derby at U.S. 30 Speedway just outside of town. The rules were simple: last car running wins. But Cory, who was not even old enough to have a driver's license, was timid driving his '72 Chevy wagon in his qualifying heat. He got bashed a few times and was disqualified for lack of aggressiveness. When he got out of the car, downcast, his father was there to meet him.
"If you're going to do this, do it right!" Gary said, laying into Cory. "Go out there and hit somebody!"
Competing later that day in the consolation rounds, Cory became a kid possessed, smashing the Chevy into everything that moved. He fought his way into the 12-car finals, and won that too, beating Gary and his older brother Scott, among others. "The thing about demos," Cory recalls, "is you want to be the hitter. Believe me, it hurts a lot less."
Demo driver. NFL fullback. Perfect. For three years Schlesinger trained for a life of gridiron collisions by ramming his car into others. "I got ready for my real job pretty well when I was a kid," Schlesinger says with a chuckle.
Yet little did he know how ideally the demolition derby would prepare him for his job with the Lions. Four decades ago the NFL fullback was a force, in many cases more of an impact player than the halfback and wideouts were. Jim Taylor, with the Green Bay Packers in 1962, was the last pure fullback to win the league rushing tide. For most of today's spread offenses, plodding is out and speed is in, making fullbacks as anonymous as linemen. Which is, in effect, what most of them are. "I see the position as being a glorified guard," says Jacksonville Jaguars fullback Daimon Shelton.
"Name me five or six fullbacks," says Bill Parcells, the New York Jets' director of football operations. "See? You can't do it."
On about 80% of the snaps the traditional fullback in today's game either delivers a crushing block on a defender who's usually much bigger while leading the running back into a hole, or he shields the quarterback from a pass rusher. On maybe 15% of the plays the fullback is an option in the passing game, though often only a safety valve. On 5%—and this is generous when you consider that five of the 31 first-unit fullbacks do not have a rushing attempt this season—they carry the ball.
"Besides being unselfish," says Denver Broncos running backs coach Bobby Turner, "a fullback has to be mentally tough. On 60 out of 70 plays he has no chance to touch the ball. On a great day he might have five balls thrown at him, and three won't even be catchable. But he's got to come back on every snap and be positive, put his face in there, slam into people, pick up blitzes, pick up linemen. Then after doing all that, he's quietly taking his shower and the halfback's got the microphones and minicams in front of him."
They are anonymous, and they are sore, and they'd better like it that way. "The only thing I could compare us to are the crash-test dummies flying around in those cars, crashing at 30 mph," says Cincinnati Bengals fullback Clif (Totally) Groce.
"You see those big-horned sheep on National Geographic get about 10 yards apart, and they charge at each other and bam!" says the Atlanta Falcons' Bob Christian. "That's what we do."