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NOSE TO NOSE AGAIN
Gary Smith
November 25, 1985
They have been at it for years, but Denver's Rubin Carter and San Diego's Don Macek still don't know all that much about one another
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November 25, 1985

Nose To Nose Again

They have been at it for years, but Denver's Rubin Carter and San Diego's Don Macek still don't know all that much about one another

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Didn't know? The first time they met was head-on, at full gallop, on an outside running play in 1976, when Macek was a rookie and Carter a second-year man. Every cell in Macek's body recorded the introduction. "It felt as if my body was crumbling," he recalls. "I knew then that to play in this league I had to get strong."

No two men lined up with so little air separating them as the noseguard and the center, and Carter lined up as close as any noseguard in the league. He did nothing to camouflage the evil that emanated from his eyes. In their early years, the prospect of facing Carter made Macek run frequent shuttles to and from the locker-room bathroom in the hours before the game. Only Curley Culp of Houston could make Macek run to the bathroom the way Rubin Carter of Denver did.

Carter never spoke to him, and Macek was a man who remained quiet near a stranger. Their shyness had roots. Both had been huge, husky children who matured early and felt the pain of being different. Some kids ran away when Donnie Macek came to play, and girls sometimes shunned him. In New Hampshire, a state that has just one current player in the NFL—Macek—people could not perceive the connection between poundage and potential.

Up and down the East Coast, children taunted Carter for his thick body and thick glasses. He grew up the youngest in a family of eight children, migrant workers who moved from Florida to New York picking vegetables and fruit. He would take the teasing silently for a long time, and then something would snap, and he would lose all control. One day in sixth grade in Fort Lauderdale, preparing to deal with one of his tormentors, he drove a nail through a two-by-four. His brother confiscated the weapon, and so Rubin went at the tormentor with his fists. "When the cops pulled me off him, he was gasping for life," Carter recalls.

His temper frightened him, and he gripped his emotions tighter and tighter, until most people never knew they were there. In the Bronco locker room in 1978, 230-pound linebacker Godwin Turk taunted him once too often and was shocked to find himself crunched headfirst in a garbage can.

In high school and his first years of college, he might celebrate after a big tackle, predict a score or demonstrate his anger. But the risk of showing any emotion, of losing control, so worried him that he trained himself to become a quiet, efficient machine on the field.

He was playing what might be football's most dangerous position, and one wrong gesture, one wrong word, could end his career. The noseguard was the focal point of the game's anarchy—how simple for the center to straighten him up, and the guard or tackle, the tight end or the running back to drive a shoulder pad into his knee. One team last year put a wide receiver in motion who suddenly slanted into the line at the snap and cut Carter's legs. He had missed the last five games of his senior year in college when two opponents teamed up on a cheap shot. By keeping his head on a swivel, and his tongue in the shade, he had missed just two games in his pro career.

Other players used their tongues as a tool, hoping to gain some advantage by perturbing their opponents or making them laugh or relax. Rashad would whistle as he ran patterns, and say things like. "I think I'm going to catch this one" or "Did you see Hill Street Blues the other night?" even as the ball was on its way to him. "Ssssnake," the Packers would hiss at him, the veterans warning younger teammates not to listen to him. But his jabber worked like a lullaby on ex-Raider Jack Tatum, who never failed to tackle Rashad hospitably, although he seemed to be trying to decapitate every other Viking receiver.

The two quiet men frowned on such frivolity. Carter remembered all the bad air that hung over his room his last year of college, when he roomed with the center he faced each day in practice. The only show of emotion Carter could ever remember from Macek was a tiny fist pump during a Charger drive. To the San Diego center it was a matter of logic to keep himself and Carter calm. "Every lineman I've ever played against only plays better when he's mad, and an offensive lineman who's mad only plays worse," he says. "It breaks concentration to talk. We're out there to do a job. Everything else is unnecessary."

Macek had gone several seasons without a personal foul, Carter 11 seasons with just three. Just a few weeks ago, Macek had eliminated the one bit of flair he had permitted into his life, selling his Porsche Carrera 911 in order to use the money for shrubbery and trees outside his new home. The more the two men muted themselves, the more controlled they were on the field and in the locker room, the less was the likelihood of their gaining notice or acclaim. Reluctantly, they accepted the trade-off, preferring longevity and security to fame. Even to play spectacularly well was a risk. The Bronco defense is designed for Carter to occupy as many blockers as possible so the linebackers might flow unencumbered to make the tackles, but he played so well against the Cowboys in the '78 Super Bowl that a man telephoned authorities at halftime and said Carter would be shot with a rifle if he played the second half. Carter didn't learn of the threat until after the game, and he became even more reserved, more wary. He wouldn't pose for pictures with people he didn't know unless someone from the Broncos vouched for them, nor finish a soda if he'd left it unattended for even a moment. He would tense up when a stranger recognized him and said, "Hey, aren't you Rubin Carter?" He kept his Super Bowl ring in a safe-deposit box, stopping by a few times a year to gaze at it.

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