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For two weeks of every NFL season, two men—one from Denver, the other from San Diego—ritually crawled into each other's consciousness. At any moment, reading a newspaper or watching television, their faces and bodies might appear in each other's minds, and the newspaper or the TV would go away. Over and over, in each of those weeks, they saw each other do their jobs on a small white screen in a darkened room. They performed dress rehearsals, studied detailed game reports and took tests on them. And at the end of each of those weeks they threw their bodies into each other, and felt the sting of each other's sweat in perhaps 100 or more collisions a year.
The years passed, and before they knew it they had done this for nearly a decade. They knew each other's habits, each other's smell, each other's strengths and weaknesses, courage and fears. They knew almost everything about each other and they knew almost nothing.
Don Macek of the Chargers and Rubin Carter of the Broncos were quiet men who used their silence as a weapon. In all their years during the heat of games only two sentences had ever been exchanged between them.
The career of the average player in the NFL has dwindled to 3.5 years, barely time enough for him to form deep relationships with the men he plays next to, let alone the ones he beats on once or twice a year. Some players shy away from any such bond, fearing the consequences. In the '50s, defensive tackle Dick Modzelewski of the New York Giants used to trade positions with the other Giant tackle rather than battle his old college pal, guard Stan Jones of the Bears. Ahmad Rashad, the former Viking receiver, could never quite resolve the contradiction of friendship and strife.
"I was friends with [Raider cornerback] Mike Haynes and his wife," he says. "He'd knock the crap out of me, and I'd get up and say, 'How's Julie?' It's crazy. But you end up playing harder against guys you become friends with. You play for bragging rights, for the time you run into the guy in a bar in February. If he's beaten you one-on-one that year, you cringe when you see him coming toward you. You know you're going to hear about it.
"I remember stepping out of bounds in a game to stop the clock after I'd caught a ball, and a guy I'd been friends with a long time, Willie Buchanon, was covering me. There was no reason at all for anyone to hit me. For the first time, I let down my guard. And then wham, Willie knocked me real good. I looked at him, and he had this sinister look on his face. That reminded me—this is professional football."
The two quiet men knew this. Never in 10 seasons had either let down his guard. Never did one ask the other a single question about his private life. Never did they realize that their philosophies on life and football were strikingly identical, that each was the father of a little boy and a little girl and each was a partner in a real estate development company. They remained divided by their closeness.
Don Macek is a 31-year-old man with a torso that deserves longer legs. With his duck-toed walk, his sockless, moccasined feet, his shirt hanging out over his thick belly, his scruffy beard and uncombed hair, it takes little imagination to see the 6'2", 270-pound Macek trundling out of a steel factory near dusk, pausing before the door of the nearest tavern, stiff-arming it aside and asking for a shot and a beer. In reality he is the center for the Chargers, snapper for and protector of Dan Fouts. Many in the NFL believe he is one of the top five in the league at his craft, yet he remains virtually unknown—never selected All-Pro, overshadowed for 10 seasons by linemates like Russ Washington, Doug Wilkerson and Ed White. A two-week walkout from training camp last year in a contract dispute was the only time in his life he ever fell into a headline.
Rubin Carter is a 32-year-old noseguard for the Broncos, his 254 pounds compressed into 6'1". His biceps, thighs and buttocks look like things no human being should have to haul around. Even slumbering on the sofa, wearing his pressed polyester slacks and horn-rim glasses, with his 11-month-old daughter, Diandra, lying on his chest, you could not imagine him as anything but a nose-guard for a professional football team. Many in the league say he is one of the NFL's five best at his position, yet he, too, is so unspectacularly steady that he rarely is mentioned and was never voted All-Pro, always overshadowed by line-mates such as Lyle Alzado.
Macek and Carter would meet each other away from a football stadium only once in their careers, waving hello in a hotel hallway in Albuquerque during a players' meeting in 1982. How much they had to share if only they'd faced each other across a table instead of a yard marker; but neither was the type to initiate a lunch with a man he didn't know.