Last January, Will Lack, a 23-year-old former offensive guard for the Iowa Hawkeyes, traveled to Boston to interview for admission to Harvard Medical School. Lack, whose football career had ended only 10 days before with a 38-17 loss to USC in the Orange Bowl, was one of about 5,000 students to apply to the prestigious institution, and he knew he needed to make a good impression if he hoped to be one of the 240 or so accepted.
Lack had scored well on the Medical College Admission Test (34 out of 45), and he graduated in December with a 3.76 grade point average and a B.S. in biomedical engineering. Lack wasn't offered a football scholarship to a Division I program coming out of high school in Osage, Iowa, so he became a walk-on for the Hawkeyes and spent four inglorious seasons on the scout team. Even though he saw playing time in only three games, all of them as a senior, Lack worked as hard as any lineman on the team. He attended all meetings and studied film on his own time. He worked out relentlessly in the weight room and prepared himself for the possibility that injuries to several other players would put him on the field.
Last year Iowa had one of the best offensive lines in the nation. But Lack was only 6'3" and weighed just 255 pounds. He wasn't big, strong or fast enough to compete for a starting job. He did, however, possess the one characteristic shared by many great offensive linemen: He was smart.
In fact Lack was smart enough to list his college football experience on his Harvard med school application. He interviewed with two doctors there—both women—in separate sessions. In the first meeting his interviewer told him she knew little about football. Lack explained that he'd played guard, and the woman asked him how he thought the experience would help him to be a better doctor. "It helped my attention to detail and my focus," he replied.
She asked him to elaborate. Surprising even himself, Lack rose and proceeded to give her a demonstration of basic offensive line play. "Depending on where a defensive lineman lines up in front of you, it determines the angle of your foot, how you place it, how far you drop it back, how far you move it over," Lack explained to the woman. "So if you're here, I told her, this is what would happen. And if you're here, this would happen.
"I felt kind of weird doing it, but then I thought, I'm going to be myself and show them what I learned playing football."
In late March, Lack heard he'd been accepted. Many would react to such news by celebrating, but Lack considered the possibility that a mistake had been made. "Maybe I'll get a letter that it was all in error," he said. Will Lack was an offensive lineman, after all. And, though he's smart enough for Harvard Medical School, football had taught him a thing or two about humility.
Most spectators hardly pay them any mind, and those who do often wonder how they ever got so big and fat. Offensive linemen, their socks drooping down to their ankles, jerseys stretched tight over their guts, waddle to the line of scrimmage and briefly get in the way of the defense before falling to the ground and struggling to get back up. They come walking off the field and plop down on the bench, steam curling up around them like smoke from a barbecue pit.
Too bad fans can't peer inside the players' heads, because then they'd see complicated circuitry that operates without a kill switch. The behemoths of the offensive line are thinking men, forever processing defensive formations and alignments and calculating how to attack them, while simultaneously obsessing about things such as which foot to move first at the snap and how to position the hips for optimum leverage.
It is widely believed by coaches and NFL executives that offensive linemen are among the smartest players on the field. This notion is supported by the Wonderlic test administered by NFL teams to prospective draft picks. In his book The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football Paul Zimmerman revealed that over a five-year period offensive tackles (26) and centers (25) scored the highest, and offensive guards (23) were fourth, behind quarterbacks (24). The figures were similar in other instances in which Wonderlic scores were made public. "Yeah, they're smarter," says Memphis defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn, who is in his 32nd season as a college football coach, "but they're smarter because they have to be. On defense we teach recklessness, whereas over on that side of the ball they're teaching things like finesse and footwork. Thirty years ago most offenses ran the I formation, and blocking was pretty straightforward. But these days you've got spread offenses and calls being made from the sideline. The passing game has taken over college offenses. When that happened, it got pretty complicated for offensive linemen."