Coaches tend to take a dim view of their players taking verbal shots like that, so it may be taken as a measure of Grossman's value to the Chargers that Henning has never tried to muzzle him, and didn't then. "Burt knew some guys there personally," Henning says, "and he made some statements about them that were tongue-in-cheap. There was a big furor about it, so I got Burt up in front of the whole squad the night before the [ Steelers] game and challenged him about it."
Henning said, "Listen Burt, you have opened your mouth and stirred up the opposition and maybe they're going to play a little bit harder because of that." Then it was Grossman's turn, and the rookie faced his teammates. "What the hell did we come here for?" he said. "Aren't we going to go out and take them on no matter what they've got? I'm willing to go out there and back it all up." Grossman said he didn't see anything wrong with adding a little excitement to the game. "You guys are all dead anyway," he said. "Well, now you'd better be ready."
The Chargers lost the game 20-17, but Grossman rushed Steeler quarterback Bubby Brister with a ferocity that was inspiriting to his linemates. "Lee Williams came off the field amazed," says Cunningham. "Lee told me, 'He doesn't just talk stuff in the papers. He's telling them right there on the field what he's going to do, and he's doing it.' " Grossman, who sacked Brister once, had not aroused the opposition so much as himself. "Most of the pressure I get I put on myself," he says, "which works for me because I tend to be lazy and get bored with football." After the game, his friend Ricketts was still furious with him for what he had told reporters during the week, but Grossman never took back a single word of what he had said. "I never apologize," he says, "it's a sign of weakness."
That attitude, of course, will earn Grossman few trips to the Pro Bowl, an honor that is voted by the players. One of the reasons football players wear all that padding is because their skin is so thin. "Everybody realizes there's a little bit of truth in whatever Burt says," Henning maintains. "He gilds it, but a lot of the time Burt hits the nail on the head."
A lot of the time, too, Grossman hits the quarterback on the head. A starter since the opening game of the '89 season, he hit his stride by Week 5 and finished with 10 sacks. "Burt's a very difficult guy to pass protect against," Henning says. "He's one of the quickest guys I've ever seen off the ball."
He also helped strengthen what has become one of the best young defenses in the NFL. San Diego finished sixth in the league in total defense in '89, after having been ranked last as recently as '85. The Chargers allowed only one team to score more than 20 points during their final 14 games, and led the AFC with 48 sacks. Although San Diego lost three of its first four games this season, the Charger defense held the opposition to fewer than 20 points three times, and San Diego's 14 sacks—3� by Grossman—ranked second in the NFL to the L.A. Raiders' 17. Many of the Chargers feel Grossman's finest moment as a pro came last year when he threw up on himself while chasing Philadelphia's scrambling quarterback, Randall Cunningham, in the Eagle backfield.
The soft center of Grossman's marshmallow macho is apparent when he is around kids the same age he was when his parents split up. When the young daughter of one of the Charger assistant coaches had back surgery last year, Grossman sent her flowers and balloons every day for a week and a half. When he went to a school to speak to a group of third-fourth- and fifth-grade students, he told the little girls he would come back and walk them home from school any time they wanted. Then he told them they could call him at home. "They asked for my phone number; what was I going to do, lie to them?" Burt says. "There were a lot of messages on my answering machine the first two days. Mostly the little girls would call and say things like, 'Don't tell your girlfriend I called,' stupid stuff like that."
Now when they call, Burt just stuffs more toilet paper in his ears, then goes right on talking. Soon, the only sound he can hear is his own voice.