Behold That Offensive Line: Tales from Toiling in Anonymity

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Behold That Offensive Line: Tales from Toiling in Anonymity
Scott Halleran/Getty Images
The offensive line: "blocks of granite"

College football is a great source of irony.  For example, given that a simple definition of irony, that often misunderstood archetype, is the difference between what is and what ought to be, one would think the Bowl Championship Series wins the Crystal Trophy of Irony.

Think about that.  Then, think again.

For over a century the most ironic concept of the college game is the collection of what ABC icon/announcer Keith Jackson calls "The Big Uglies," the men on the offensive line.

Here's what is and what ought to be:  If any college football team's quarterbacks, wideouts, tight ends, and offensive backs rack up the yardage and the points and the wins, the accolades will be theirs mostly because of a group of really large yeomen who themselves receive few accolades.

It's a screeching, annoying cliché when people say to me that the offensive line is the most important unit on the field. I applaud their interest, but they're repeating the axiomatic 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 of the uninspired mundane from columnist George Will, "Baseball is timeless."

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Well, this is the way it is now and in the future, the way it is and the way it ought to be: Playing on the offensive line is both tough and thankless, and as it is similar to being a parent of a middle school child, 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 voting, buying beer and being eligible to join the Marines, so I'm going to say with confidence that I was old enough to know 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 the face of my headgear and break my face, which happened a couple of times.

The pain after the second one was excruciating, but I didn't tell the coaches.  I was too small to play for even a small college and had but a few precious games remaining as an offensive lineman.  No swollen eyelids and a mangled, hooked nose were going to deprive me of those games. 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 acknowledgment. No one knows, and few care.  So, to get through the season as your running backs sprint through the holes you create in the opposition's defense and take all the credit, those of us who served as offensive linemen joke about the fact that no one knows your name unless you screw up.  That's really funny if your were an offensive lineman.

I stood in the locker room, getting my psyche ready to go head hunting with headgear on, looking at the world through my facemask, aware of the irony of feeling both omnipotence and comfort as I shared the ethos of unspoken teenage aggression.  I walked to the mirror and took a glance, my home white number 64 jersey stretched over my extra large shoulder pads. 

It was Friday night again, time to deal with the reality that I was not going to be a football hero.  Signing on as an offensive lineman, knowing the girls don't watch the "Big Uglies," I had a job to do.  I was to keep the opposition off and away from my teammates who passed, caught, and ran with the ball. 

That what I did then, and I wanted to do it well.

The year was 1973, during the final months of the shamed Nixon administration, when Watergate, a choking economy and our nation's failure in Vietnam all manifested in an overwhelming collective apathy toward solemn institutions, like high school football. 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.

Offensive linemen best describe the action with metaphors of war.  They face man-to-man combat in the trenches every time the ball is snapped or kicked. In the early years of the decade of the 1970s, offensive linemen playing small school prep ball didn't necessarily act as a unit. You had a man, the ball was snapped and you hit him.

It was that simple, but not simplistic. The challenge emerged from within. It took a lot of pride to plant my face mask into the sternum of the linebacker, churn my feet, drive with my legs and shove him around as he fought back like he was on fire. I gained a great amount of satisfaction from these solitary battles almost completely unnoticed by the spectators, and even at 5'10" and 175 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 one of the "skilled" players fumbled and I jumped on it, preserving our possession. Sounds honorable, but it happened only twice.  So, I did my job with little fanfare and with little to no fanbase, except for my mother. You get used to it.

That season, it didn't matter that no one knew my number. My reward, my morsel I salivated for like Pavlov's little friend, came in the form of something now called the "pancake block."  That type of block means that you hit an opposing player so hard he was stretched out 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 assisted to his unsteady feet by one or perhaps two of his teammates. The ultimate pancake 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.

The basis of the execution of my pancakes was supported by my empirically-derived theory 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 often happened 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, and the linebacker would change directions, drawing a bead on our guy with the ball; and then c) after a five-yard sprint, I would greet him with my headgear to his chin.

That always brought a smile to my face.

Pancakes were best in the open field of the kicking game. The quarry, again gazing at the fluttering monarchs, 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 piñata.

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 the few that were smaller than me but really unloaded on the larger guys. I call it a compromise between my sense of fair play and my sociopathic tendencies.

Offensive linemen crave the pancake.  They have earned 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 back home in a Pennsylvania 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 lay in a heap in the showers with his gear on.

Games were 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 during which I clocked 7:00 mile splits. I didn't puke after that run.  I did after a few of the games in which I served on the offensive line, with a bucket close at hand for the others, just in case.

The true elation of an offensive lineman comes from team victories, and 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.

The character of today's American man can be tempered significantly by toiling on the line of scrimmage during the impressionable years of his life.  Work hard, help your teammates, don't wait around for encouragement because pride comes from within, and never, never, I say never give up, those lessons learned during those ten games guide me in the twenty-first century.

Yet, in this Indian summer of October 2012, a few months after my 56th birthday, the memories of pads cracking and the ammonia smell of old August sweat soaked into those cracking pads compels me, calls for me.  I'd do it again, and my successes in the intense workout program I participate in called, appropriately, Boot Camp, says I can. 

I'd suit up and flip truck tires, pull 200 lb solid steel chains, and push weighted sleds on asphalt with the young men, because I'm already doing that.  I'd go head-to-head with the young men.  I'd do all that, and do it again, for just one more chance at executing the ultimate pancake. 

As for you, watch your favorite team this season, and remember this above all else: Your backs and wideouts may be the greatest at running, jumping, and throwing, but they desperately need the "Big Boys" to make the glory happen.

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