To each his own. As Dallas Cowboy hit man Ken Norton puts it, linebacker "is the most badass position on the field." Just repeat the names of the great ones and see if you don't feel like ducking: Ray Nitschke, Mike Curtis, Tommy Nobis, Bill George, Jack Ham, Sam Huff, Joe Schmidt, Lee Roy Jordan, Chuck Howley, Mike Singletary. There's former Kansas City Chief Willie Lanier, his helmet padded on the outside, to protect his victims. There's grizzled Philadelphia Eagle Chuck Bednarik nearly cutting golden boy Frank Gifford in two (page 74). There's Marshall hitting Lion quarterback Joe Ferguson so hard in 1985 that Ferguson is unconscious before he reaches the Silverdome turf. Is the man dead? Chicago Bear defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan thinks he is. Until Ferguson twitches. The league fined Marshall $2,000 for the blow, even though no penalty was called. "What was I supposed to do?" asks Marshall in disgust. "Hit him softly?"
Bad humor is integral to the position, says Bear linebacker coach Dave McGinnis, because of what a linebacker is asked to do: "He has to diagnose a play, defeat blockers and still be ticked off enough to get the ballcarrier. An offensive lineman is done when his man is blocked. A linebacker is only half done when he's beaten an offensive lineman. He has to have this desire to make the runner pay a price, to make him not want to come up in there anymore. I'd watch Singletary when he'd get stoked up, and he'd be screaming, 'I'm gonna be here! Always! Right here!' "
Linebackers rise out of the football ooze in a curious twist on Darwin: While the primitive stayed below, groveling on all fours, the more primitive ascended to the upright position. Of course in the beginning there were no linebackers at all in football. Because there was no forward pass, there was no need on defense for anything other than seven or eight down linemen who rooted like pigs and three or four defensive backs who could run down any ballcarrier who got past the swine. With the dawn of the pass in professional football in 1906, defensive principles slowly evolved. "Roving centers" started to pop up, and by 1920 something like a modern-day NFL middle linebacker had emerged.
His name was George Trafton and he played for the Decatur Staleys, who became the Bears. There is some dispute as to whether Trafton was the first true linebacker, but he was definitely the first Butkus-like personality in the NFL. Nicknamed the Brute, Trafton was as nasty as they come, despised by rival teams and their fans. In a Rock Island (Ill.) Argus account of a Staley game in 1920, Trafton was described as "sliding across the face of the rival center." Against the Independents in Rock Island that same year, Trafton took umbrage at a rumor that an opponent, a halfback named Fred Chicken, was out to get him. The Brute promptly knocked Chicken out with a hit that broke his leg. On the final play, Staleys' coach George Halas sent Trafton running for the exit and a waiting taxi. Angry Rock Island fans mobbed the taxi, and Trafton had to hitch a ride with a passing motorist to get himself safely out of town.
According to Bob Carroll, the executive director of the Professional Football Researchers Association, the first outside linebacker in the NFL was 6'4" John Alexander, who played for the Milwaukee Badgers. Normally a tackle, one day in 1922 Alexander "stood up, took a step back, two steps out and became an outside linebacker," says Carroll. "He wondered why, as tall as he was, he was always getting down on the ground where he couldn't see."
Alexander would set the evolutionary clock moving, and 60 years later it would bring us to LT himself. Some people think that modern outside linebackers, blitz specialists primarily, aren't really linebackers at all, but gussied-up defensive ends. Some people say that inside linebackers, whether in tandem in a 3-4 alignment or standing alone in the increasingly rare 4-3 (wasn't a big part of Butkus's dark majesty that aloneness?), are the only true linebackers today. But linebacking is really about responsibilities and attitude, not formations.
Pain is the thing that separates linebackers from everyone else on the field—both dishing it out and receiving it. Linebackers dish out pain because it intimidates opponents. Says Butkus, "I was a fullback in high school, and if somebody made a perfect tackle on me, no big deal. But if I got hung up and guys were bear-hugging me and I couldn't use my arms, and somebody came in and nailed me, I didn't like that. So I did that to guys we were tackling in high school, and sometimes their eyes would close or they'd flinch or pull up. In college I figured punishing the ballcarrier wouldn't intimidate anybody, because the players were better. But it did. Then I knew it wouldn't work in the pros. I thought I'd meet guys like me. But there were still guys who were chicken——, guys with big yellow streaks."
Linebackers see the game as superseding all guidelines on basic empathy for one's fellow man. "You want to punish the running backs," says Steeler Pro Bowl linebacker Greg Lloyd. "You like to kick them and, when they get down, kick them again. Until they wave the white flag." Or as Huff of the Giants said to TIME magazine in 1959, "For that matter, we try to hurt everybody."
Even themselves at times. The euphoria that linebackers experience afield comes during the white Hash of great collisions—enlightenment literally being a blow to the head. Lloyd split two blockers in a game against the Cleveland Browns last year and then met runner Kevin Mack head-on in the open hole. The ensuing crash overwhelmed Lloyd. "I was dizzy, my head was hurting and my eyes were watering," he says of his condition as he staggered to the huddle. "It felt good."
Where does such lunacy come from? "Off the field I'm quiet, laid-back, calm, relaxed," says Eagle star Seth Joyner. "On the field I talk all kinds of garbage and things like that. I think it's a way to vent your anger."