When he gets really good at it, the pro player becomes the consummate aggressor. He becomes Doug Plank, a defensive back for the Chicago Bears. Plank thinks of himself as "an excellent example of a player who plays within the rules...the way I'm taught." Not everybody agrees with Plank's self-evaluation.
Plank says, "The only specialty teams I play on are the kickoff returns and, every now and then, a punt return. I don't want a team to be able to send two or three guys after me. My reputation got to be a problem. My coaches understand, so it wasn't hard to get them to pull me off [other specialty teams]. They joked about it. 'Yeah, if we put you out there, they'll stick all 11 guys on you.'
"Opposing players complain about my hits. They complain to me. But I don't really feel I'm at fault if there is no penalty called.
"[Last year] there was a wide receiver who'd been trying to come down on me all day, throwing [himself] around my legs. There was one play in particular—a play that was almost over, and that I had had no part in—where he went out of his way to go for me. I started to think, 'I wonder how he would like it if I started throwing at his knees.' On a kickoff return, I realized that once I had my man blocked I was pretty much free to do whatever I wanted...so I found out where the wide receiver was [and] came running up behind him. He was the contain man. He didn't see me coming. Just as he was turning inside to face the ballcarrier—it was completely legal—I blindsided him and knocked him on the ground. He got up and said, 'Before the game's over I'm going to knock out one of your knees.' What can you say to that? I made sure I kept my eyes on him the rest of the game.
"[But] what I did to the wide receiver is what the coaches might even call second effort. He was the second guy I took out on that play. The coaches like to see that."
From the twisted logic of "get away with what you can," it is a short hop to malicious mischief, and from there to the deviations that poison a sport. Some of the more recent cases are familiar to fans of televised football:
?The Cardinals' Tim Kearney clotheslines Eagle Running Back Dave Hampton, crashing a forearm into the side of Hampton's neck. Hampton is unconscious for seven minutes before being carried off the field on a stretcher. Kearney defends the blow as "perfectly legal." From the hospital, Hampton says, "That's football."
?Mel Morgan of the Bengals throws a forearm into the face of Steeler Receiver John Stallworth, who has just caught a pass. Morgan gets a penalty and a suspension, Stallworth a concussion. Moments later, Mel Blount of the Steelers kayoes Bengal Tight End Bob Trumpy. The score is even.
?In retaliation for his late hit on Oakland Quarterback Ken Stabler, Cleveland Defensive End Joe ( Turkey) Jones is speared in the back by Oakland Guard Gene Upshaw.
? Pittsburgh Defensive Tackle Joe Greene pummels Denver Center Mike Montler after he has already punched out Guard Paul Howard. Greene says it is "under the heading of taking care of yourself." He says he was "being held illegally" and thus "had to go outside the rules."