Ron Wolfley, captain of the Phoenix Cardinals' special teams, is Rambo in shoulder pads—perhaps the toughest man you'll ever meet. On game day he drinks 18 cups of black coffee and listens to Pink Floyd songs like Comfortably Numb and Shine On You Crazy Diamond. What does he like most about football? "The butt-kicking and not having to shower to go to work," he says.
Sprinting downfield on kickoff coverage, Wolfley concentrates so hard on getting to the ballcarrier that he blocks out all sound. The anticipation of knocking somebody on his behind gives him an adrenaline surge. "I don't mind that I'm going to break blood vessels in my forehead when I hit somebody," Wolfley says. "I enjoy hearing guys wheeze and seeing the snot run down their faces. I like the rush of numbness that goes through my body. What I'm most curious about is that time-frozen second where I have no senses whatsoever.
"When I make a huge hit, I don't hear anything. I don't feel anything. I'm seeing stuff, but I won't be able to recall it. I seriously believe that the mind shuts down your body and your senses as a protection mechanism because, let's face it, you're doing something that's not really conducive to your health."
Wolfley, 28, stands six feet and weighs 230 pounds, wears an earring in his left ear and has his hair in a spiked buzzcut. He used to have his jersey number, 24, shaved into the side of his head and a rattail with a colored ribbon tied to the end hanging down the back of his neck. Wolfley, a four-time selection to the Pro Bowl, is a demolition derby on two legs.
He specializes in what he calls "kill shots"—lining up on a kickoff return, sprinting across the field at an angle perpendicular to the opponent he's assigned to block and coldcocking the unsuspecting soul. The force of these collisions has destroyed face masks, cracked helmets and demolished shoulder pads.
"Special-teamers are a different breed from the in-crowd in the NFL," Wolfley says. "We do the jobs nobody else wants. We're the mutants. You'll never see us on Wheaties boxes because, when we're on the field, half the fans are in the bathroom or getting a hot dog. The other half is watching the guy who's kicking the ball or the man who's returning it. Nobody sees the personal battles going on. Nobody knows who I am. Even my Aunt Edna still wonders what I'm doing."
Wolfley delivered his most devastating hit on Sept. 21, 1986, against the Buffalo Bills at Rich Stadium, when he blindsided linebacker Ray Bentley on a kickoff return. Bentley soared five yards in one direction, and Wolfley shot off five yards the other way. Bentley wound up with a separated right shoulder and double vision. Wolfley's face mask was ripped off his helmet, and he had a severe concussion. He staggered on the field for a few minutes until a teammate directed him to the sideline. His wife, Kathy, who was sitting in the stands, went down to check on his condition, but he didn't recognize her.
Later Wolfley started to rant about returning to the game and defied the team doctor's orders to stay on the bench. Twice he ran onto the field and lined up without his helmet but was quickly ushered off. Finally the Cardinals' coaches put defensive lineman Mark Duda in charge of restraining Wolfley on the sideline.
Despite the pain and anonymity, Wolfley is a special-teamer in body and soul. If he had his druthers, his name would be deleted from the Phoenix depth chart as a reserve fullback. In six seasons he has carried the ball 82 times, for 252 yards and two touchdowns.
"I get more of an adrenaline rush playing on special teams than I have ever gotten playing from scrimmage," Wolfley says. "It's a blast, a total body experience. If only they could dress up businessmen in helmets and tell them to sprint 50 yards and run into a 300-pound guy. They wouldn't have heart attacks or get stressed out. We wouldn't need Disneyland because this ride eclipses anything that you could ever go on. It's the ride of your life."