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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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The DUDE must be crazy—at least that's what Jon Runyan figured. Like most of his Philadelphia Eagles teammates, Runyan, a Pro Bowl tackle, was already in the visitors' locker room at Lambeau Field following a 17-14 win over Green Bay on Nov. 10 when he heard that Packers defensive tackle Cletidus Hunt wanted a piece of Eagles guard John Welbourn, right there on the field, in the frigid rain, after the Monday night game.

"You cheap mother," Welbourn recalls Hunt saying. "You were holding me all game, grabbing my jersey and my face mask."

"Yeah? And your point is?" Welbourn responded. "This is football. Grow up."

When Hunt persisted, Welbourn put his helmet back on and, despite being backed up by only center Hank Fraley, said, "You ready? Let's go." He and Fraley stood their ground, more than 600 pounds of muscle, squared off against Hunt and a swarm of other Packers.

"Anyone stupid enough to take on an offensive lineman must have some serious psychological problems," Runyan said later. "To pick a fight after a game, you've got issues, and then you're really going to get your ass kicked. You want to challenge one of us? At some point you'll have to deal with all of us."

If a quarterback is a team's field general, the offensive linemen are its special-ops forces, doing the dirty work under the cover of darkness. They may be among the smartest men on the field, yet they also absorb the most physical abuse. "Figure that one out," says Welbourn, a fifth-year player who has a B.A in rhetoric from Cal. "We're getting hit 70 times a game, and we watch more film than almost anyone else. To do our jobs, you have to have a specific mental makeup."

Offensive linemen value smash over flash, for there's no other position in major professional sports that is less glamorous. For every Jerry Kramer, whose block allowed Packers quarterback Bart Starr to plunge to victory in the Ice Bowl 36 years ago, there are 10 guys like Bubba Paris, whose faulty pass protection helped land San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana in the hospital after the Niners' 1990 NFC Championship Game loss to the New York Giants.

"We are the grunts," says New Orleans Saints center Jerry Fontenot, a 15-year veteran. "It's a thankless job because you get no glory and a lot of blame. My motto my entire career has been, No news is good news. But I will say this: Playing offensive line teaches you the principles of [teamwork] because if you're on your own program, the team won't be able to function."

From a fan's perspective, Fontenot is a relic from the blissful era of team stability. When he joined the Bears as a third-round draft pick in 1989, Chicago's starting line had been intact for four seasons. The arrival of unfettered free agency soon made such cohesiveness difficult. It also fattened the wallets of scores of lucky linemen, especially left tackles, who protect the blind side of righthanded quarterbacks.

If you're wondering why NFL franchises can no longer sustain success over an extended time, look no further than the trenches. "Your best lines are the ones that stay together, and those are usually the best teams," says Minnesota Vikings tight end Hunter Goodwin. "There are so many calls to be made, so many times when you need to intuitively know how the guy next to you is going to react, that continuity is everything." Ifs hardly surprising, then, that the Kansas City Chiefs, who after their 28-24 win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday owned an NFL-best 11-1 record, had started the same five linemen for 28 consecutive games, the longest such streak in the league in 11 years. Yet how many of these names (left tackle Willie Roaf, left guard Brian Waters, center Casey Wiegmann, right guard Will Shields and right tackle John Tait) do you recognize?

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