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No Pain, No Gain
Michael Silver
December 08, 2003
Offensive linemen do thankless work in the trenches, trying to outhit and outwit opponents. Few fans even know their names, but no team goes far without them
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December 08, 2003

No Pain, No Gain

Offensive linemen do thankless work in the trenches, trying to outhit and outwit opponents. Few fans even know their names, but no team goes far without them

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Life is a bitch in the trenches, especially when you're facing a player like three-time Pro Bowl guard Ron Stone of the 49ers. "When Ron starts barking," San Francisco tackle Derrick Deese says, "that means he's whupping your ass." Stone is especially prone to dogging weak defensive linemen, known among their offensive counterparts as "clerks." To Stone and his linemates, the word conjures more laughs than Kevin Smith's cult film of the same name. "A clerk," says Jeremy New-berry, the Niners' Pro Bowl center, "is someone who should be taking the groceries to your car." Adds Deese, "We also call them 'limo riders'—we ought to send a limo to pick them up and make sure they get to the stadium on time."

The sentiment that inspires Stone's canine outbursts is one to which all offensive linemen can relate. "Defensive players celebrate over every little thing," he says. "Hell, we need to start celebrating. Even the little stuff gets me barking these days."

Offensive linemen view themselves as cerebral behemoths who know more about what's happening on the field than anyone in uniform other than the quarterback. In the seconds before he snaps the ball, the center (and, to a lesser extent, his fellow linemen) must decipher coverages, blitz packages and fronts in order to call the appropriate blocking assignments (box, page 54).

"We have to dabble in everything," Welbourn says. "That's why I think that to be a good offensive lineman, you have to be a bit of a Renaissance man." An avid reader (among his current selections: Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman) and traveler (he's planning a trip to China and the South Pacific in the off-season) who rides customized choppers, Welbourn would seem to fit an eccentric definition of the well-rounded man. The same can be said of his friend Kyle Turley (box, left) of the St. Louis Rams, a heavily tattooed tackle who surfs, plays guitar and is an aspiring actor.

"It's not like we're a bunch of dumb guys, like most defensive linemen," Stone says. "Instead of just lining up in the three-gap and hitting the hole, we have to know what's going on."

But being smart doesn't mean that offensive linemen can't be smart-asses. A 49ers stalwart in the 1980s, the overweight Paris often found a ham sandwich stuffed in his helmet—courtesy of his linemates—as he headed to practice. "They're usually the most sarcastic, merciless guys on the team," Goodwin says. "When I was in Miami, [guard] Kevin Gogan would get the game plan in the Wednesday-morning meeting, look at it for 10 seconds and yell out to the coaches, 'You guys stayed up until 4 a.m., and this is the best you could come up with?' "

Five years ago Gogan, who retired after the 2000 season, graced the cover of SI as pro football's dirtiest player. That a lineman was chosen shocked no one. Amid the mass of entangled flesh after the snap, eyes are gouged, private parts are grabbed, and rank breath is nothing to sniff at. Just ask former Denver Broncos guard Mark (Stink) Schlereth, he of the league-record 29 surgeries, who admitted before the team's Super Bowl XXXII win over the Packers that he urinated in his pants during every game.

Though most linemen leave the nasty name-calling to the players who man the skill positions, their occasional barbs tend to be more pointed. "I'm sure a lot of people would be surprised by how little talking goes on between the defensive and offensive linemen," says Carolina Panthers center Jeff Mitchell. "But all it takes is a running back or a wide receiver to start talking a little trash, and then everything changes."

"When I played for the Bears," Fontenot recalls, "there was a bucktoothed defensive lineman from Minnesota talking a ton of smack. Finally, I said, 'Dude, when's the last time you ate corn on the cob through a picket fence?' Even his teammates laughed."

From the grunt's perspective, any means of gaining an edge is justified. Just ask the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have a sewing machine in their locker room so they can get each lineman's jersey as tight as possible, making it more difficult for a defender to grab. (Defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen, whose mother taught him to sew as a boy on the Hawaiian island of Molokai, introduced the idea to the team last year.) And don't even ask about holding. "If you don't hold," says Broncos tackle Ephraim Salaam, "you're not going to block anyone, plain and simple."

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