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Rick Telander
September 06, 1993
All the best linebackers play with chips on their shoulders
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September 06, 1993

The Last Angry Men

All the best linebackers play with chips on their shoulders

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Anger over what?

Butkus struggles with the question. It's not really anger, he says. It's more a desire to set things right, to prove, as he says, "you don't get something for nothing." Violence can resolve ambivalence and uncertainty. And who doesn't crave certainty in life, a reward for the good, punishment for the bad?

Things are so simple when you're a linebacker. One afternoon while Butkus was practicing at Chicago Vocational with his high school team, he noticed four boys in a car harassing his girlfriend, Helen Essenberg, who was across the street near the school. Without hesitation Butkus ran off the field, chased the car onto 87th Street, dived through the open front window on the passenger side and, in full uniform, thrashed each of the passengers. Then he climbed out of the car and walked back to the field. He never said a word to Helen, who is now his wife. He had done what needed to be done, and it was over. "They could have been her friends, for all I knew," he says.

Singletary broke 16 helmets in four years at Baylor, all of them his own. The school's publicist confirmed that typically two or three football helmets are broken each year at the school, by the entire team. Most NFL coaches agree that the perfect size for a linebacker is between 6'2" and 6'4" and 240 to 250 pounds, but players such as the 6-foot, 230-pound Singletary and the New Orleans Saints' 5'9", 225-pound Sam Mills have proved that size is not as important to the position as want-to. Is that the same as craziness?

There are former players like the Steelers' Ham, a Hall of Famer, who says, "I don't think we're any meaner than any other position on the team." But after some thought he admits that the first person he saw eat a glass was former Eagle linebacker Tim Rossovich, and that former Raider star 'backer Ted Hendricks did, indeed, have "this demented look to him." Then there was former Cincinnati Bengal linebacker Reggie Williams, who doubled as a city councilman and seemed the master of comportment, as long as he wasn't on the field. But that is in keeping with the Jekyll and Hyde nature displayed by good linebackers. Off the field they generally keep cool; on the held they explode. Lloyd says linebackers are "deviant" because they change personalities so dramatically. "You wear all different hats," he says. "You're a father, a husband. But on the field, yes, you are that other person."

Marshall marches to his alter ego's battle chant, kill or be killed, but going nuts can lead to disaster, even for an assassin. "You have to be under control, you can't be a complete idiot," says McGinnis. "I've seen tough guys who couldn't make reads just get killed. You have to be tough like a bull but smart like a coyote. You step up too quick and they'll run a power O or a counter, and the tight end will come down and earhole you. Try that some time."

The easiest thing to teach a linebacker is to blitz. It's like cutting the twine on a catapult. The hardest thing to teach is pass defense. Dropping back after reading a play-action fake is not an easy thing for an attacker to do. "It's a discipline thing," says Buffalo Bill assistant linebacker coach Chuck Lester, "because it goes against his nature."

Still linebackers have more freedom than other players. Their job is basically to do whatever is necessary to make all the tackles. And because linebackers are freer to attack and seek the explosions they crave, they seem to miss the game more than other players when they can no longer play. In his book, Calling the Shots, Singletary described the splendor of the devastating hit: "The resultant feeling has always been almost indescribable to me, akin to being struck, I suppose, by a bolt of lightning—a blast that, for one brief second, shines through your mind and body like a Hash of brilliant white heat." St. Paul would not describe a vision any differently.

Thinking about life after football worries some linebackers. "Right now, with football, I can release all of my frustrations and not too much bad can happen to me," says New England Patriot linebacker Vincent Brown. "Sometimes I wonder what my outlet for those feelings will be after I stop playing."

That worried Butkus. It still does. "What I miss is the violence," he says bluntly. "Life is very boring to me now." He thought he would get into coaching after he retired, keeping the juice flowing that way, but an injury lawsuit he brought against the Bears, which was settled in '76, made him something of a pariah to his old team. His Miller Lite beer commercials led to an acting career, with Butkus mostly playing against type—a funny, sensitive guy in a caveman's body. Acting's O.K., he says, but after football, "hell, you just do what's second best."

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