One afternoon during practice I was watching the linemen pound away at each other—wump, clack. Guard Bruce Van Dyke paused to say, "What are you doing?"
"Trying to get a feel for this," I said.
"If you really want to get a feel for it you should put on some pads and get out here and get blocked," he said.
"Well," I said, "I thought I would get a feel for it by asking you how it feels."
"I try not to notice how it feels," he said. "If you felt it, you wouldn't do it."
I admired Head Coach Chuck Noll's response when a reporter came up to him after the Steelers' loss to Cincinnati and asked, "How do you feel?"
"It hasn't changed," said Noll. "I still feel with my hands." Often, you had to hand it to Noll.
So I thought I might try treating the question of how pro football feels by asking players about their hands. One conclusion I was led to from that line of questioning was that pro football feels terrible.
On the backs of their hands and on their knuckles many of the players had wounds of a kind I have never seen on anyone else: fairly deep digs and gouges that were not scabbed over so much as dried. They looked a little like old sores on horses. The body must have given up trying to refill those gouges and just rinded them over and accepted them. During the year, at Noll's suggestion, the offensive line did the backs of their hands a favor by adopting the thick black leather gloves that fighters use for punching a heavy bag. Before he started wearing these gloves, Van Dyke said, the backs of his hands were so sore all season from banging into defensive linemen's ribs that he hated to shake hands.
Different Steelers taped their hands all different ways: the middle two fingers together; the last two together; or just one or more jammed fingers taped singly for support. A jammed finger hurts less after it is taped. Craig Hanneman boasted that he and Mean Joe Greene were the only two defensive linemen on the Steelers who didn't tape and pad their hands and forearms heavily. I asked him why he didn't. "Just to be tough," he said in a self-deprecating way. But he did tape each of his fingers, because they were always jammed or broken from catching on opponents' helmets. Lloyd Voss, a Steeler defensive tackle who retired after the '72 season and is now with the New York Stars, used to tape all his fingertips, because otherwise he often would have his nails jerked out. (He also used to bring his small daughter into the dressing room, causing some consternation.)