Toiling In Anonymity: A Team's Key to Victory
For any team to reign victorious, the offensive linemen must rule. It is therefore interesting irony that the accolades will be that team's primarily because of a group of really large men who themselves will receive few accolades.
The squad of five—six, including the tight end—give enough time and space to the so-differentiated "skill positions."
These "skillful" players can in no way do it themselves. They create and perform because few can touch them in time to stop them before they do much damage, thanks to the offensive line.
It is a cliché when too many people say that the offensive line is the most important unit on the field.
I applaud their interest, but they're repeating the obvious by meaningless rote, something like "The Vice President of the United States is but one heartbeat away from being the leader of the free world." Or, my favorite statement from the uninspired, mundane columnist George Will, "Baseball is timeless."
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, Jack Kennedy was Lloyd Bentsen's friend and Dan Quayle is no Jack Kennedy, and the only guy who knows the true meaning of that phrase was Lloyd Bentsen.
So, it follows that playing the offensive line is both tough and thankless and you don't really appreciate that unless you played on the offensive line.
As a young man, I spent a season as a high school offensive guard in a hamlet deep in the coalfields of West Virginia.
I was several short months away from both voting and being eligible to join the Marines, so I'm going to say with confidence that I was old enough to know jack about how tough and thankless it was to line up on the head of a snorting, cursing 18-year-old maniacal linebacker whose short term goal was to punch his forearm through my facemask and break my face, which happened a couple of times.
The pain after the second punch was excruciating, but I didn't tell the coaches because I had but a few games left as an offensive lineman and no one was going to deprive me of those. That's how much I wanted to play.
"Play" in the realm of an offensive lineman means you block only and you don't get the honor of touching the ball unless something goes wrong.
Therein lies the anonymity, the lack of acknowledgement. Those of us who served as offensive linemen joke about the fact that no one knows your name unless you screw up.
That's true. However, the fact that I was probably not going to be a football hero did not stop me from, as it is said in the pigskin world, carrying out my assignment.
It was during the final months of the shamed Nixon administration when Watergate, a choking economy, and the failure of the Vietnam War all manifested in an overwhelming apathy toward solemn institutions, a collective state of mind our nation has seldom experienced.
But, I didn't care that no one cared about the game, or about me for that matter. I craved the life of the faceless gladiator. It was man-to-man. In 1970s small school prep ball, the offensive line didn't act as a unit. You had a man, the ball was snapped, and you hit him.
It was that simple, but not that simplistic. The challenge was within. It took a lot of pride to plant my facemask into the sternum of the linebacker, churn my feet, drive with my legs, and shove him around as he fights back like he's on fire.
I gained a great amount of satisfaction from these solitary battles, and even at 5'10" and 180 pounds, I was much more successful than not.
I did not score a touchdown that year. The only time I touched the ball was when the ball was fumbled and I jumped on it, which happened only twice.
I did my job with little fanfare and with little to no fan base. It didn't matter.
My reward, the morsel I salivated for like the Pavlovian dog, came in the form of something now called the "pancake block," which means to hit an opposing player so hard that he lies flat on the turf like a pancake.
If he doesn't get up with alacrity, that's a good pancake. A great pancake is when he has to be helped up.
The ultimate is when he has to be helped off the field to the sidelines where he has time to gather his thoughts and sift around his body to ascertain if any important parts are damaged or missing.
My pancakes almost always resulted from the fact that high school football players are unaware of their surroundings. As my coach used to say, they run around the field "chasing butterflies," setting themselves up as victims for enterprising offensive linemen like me.
It was something like this: a) the play would go left and the raging linebacker would pursue hard, b) by design, the play was a misdirection or a reverse and the action would then go right, c) the linebacker would change directions, drawing a bead on our guy with the ball, then d) I, after a five-yard sprint, would greet him with my helmet to his chin. That usually brought a smile to my face.
Pancakes were best in the open field of the kicking game. The quarry, again chasing butterflies, had achieved his near-maximum velocity, and so had I. He didn't know where I came from when I, after savoring a couple of seconds of gleeful anticipation, hit him like he was a pinata.
The kicking game brought out the assassin in me as, true to the adage, the bigger they are, the harder they fall. In fact, I held back on those smaller than me (of which there were few), but really unloaded on the larger ones.
Call it a compromise between my sense of fair play and my sociopathic tendencies.
Offensive linemen crave the pancake, and they deserve the luxury of hitting you so hard your back teeth rock.
In his autobiography published sometime after his Super Bowl upset victory, Joe Namath commented that had he been an offensive lineman, he would have ended up in a steel mill because the lineman workouts as run by his college coach at Alabama, the legendary Paul "Bear" Bryant, were like boot camp, and that was during the season.
Every day afterwards, Namath went on to say, each lineman usually laid in a heap in the showers with his gear on.
Games were even more brutal. Case in point: I've had the rather unique experience of being an ex-high school offensive lineman and in my adulthood a long distance runner. My best performance came in a 15 mile race where I clocked 7:00 mile splits. I didn't puke after that run, but I did after every game as an offensive lineman.
And, today, merely weeks after my 53rd birthday, I'd do it again. I would sign a contract to take part in two-a-days if I could have one more chance at executing the ultimate pancake block.
The true elation of an offensive lineman comes from team victories, and an indescribable disappointment bordering on agony results from losses. Wins and losses, the only statistics that matter, are without a doubt the essence of the game.
The offensive lineman "gets it," because, according to the results of the Wonderlic intelligence exam administered in the NFL, offensive linemen are the smartest guys on the team.
It takes a highly cerebral nature to make sense of the mayhem that defines football, and that is yet another aspect you can't understand unless...you've been an offensive lineman.
I can say that lessons learned toiling on the line of scrimmage are a) work hard, b) help your teammates, c) don't wait around for encouragement as pride comes from within, and d) never, never, I say never give up; those lessons stick with me today.
As well, there is another lesson: When you watch football games this year, know that of all the players on the field, it will take “big boys” to make the glory happen.
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