How the NFL Cheats: Under the Pile

Dan PompeiNFL ColumnistSeptember 23, 2016

07 Jan 2002: Officials try to get to the bottom of the pile to rule on a fumble recovery as the Baltimore Ravens host the Minnesota Vikings in the second qurter of week 17 NFL action at PSINet Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. DIGITAL IMAGE. Mandatory Credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Whether you call it breaking the rules, bending the rules or just getting creative with the rules, cheating has always been a part of the NFL and always will be. This is Part 3 in a Bleacher Report series on how NFL players and teams seek out some advantage, any advantage, over their competition. Part 1 was on the use of foreign substances, Part 2 on gaining an extra advantage at home.


Panthers quarterback Cam Newton made what historically has been known in the NFL as a "business decision" in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 50. There was a loose ball up for grabs, and rather than dive on it, he took a step back.

Had Newton gone for the football, he knows what would have happened.

He would have almost certainly found himself on the bottom of a massive pile.

And though he had to know he would likely get killed for making a "business decision" during the Super Bowl, Newton also knows what happens on the bottom of piles.

What goes on where the eye cannot see sometimes can be vile, inhumane and unspeakable. There is a lot of what referee Ben Dreith famously referred to as "giving him the business."

And sometimes "the business" gets to the most sensitive of areas. 

During a game in the 1980s, Hall of Fame Bears defensive lineman Dan Hampton recalls hearing horrific wailing coming from a running back caught in a pile. Lo and behold, one of Hampton's defensive teammates emerged with the football. On the sideline, Hampton says fellow defensive lineman Steve McMichael was clasping his hands together as if to squeeze something small. And McMichael was telling teammates, "Works every time."

Says Hampton: "I'm guessing he worked somebody's acorns over. The football is pretty important until you have to make a decision like that."

Says McMichael: "I don't know what body part Hampton is referring to. That's all wives' tales."

In that case, let's recount another wives' tale. This one is from former linebacker Matt Millen, and it's from a 1987 game between the Raiders and Vikings in Minneapolis.

"Kirk Lowdermilk, the Vikings center, was a tough kid," Millen says. "But he was not a fan of mine, which I found out on the third play of the game.

"So there was a fumble, and we're in the pile. I had one arm pinned, one arm on the ball. Lowdermilk is sitting down straight with his legs spread and bent over. The ball was in front of him. [Raiders defensive lineman] Bill Pickel had one arm free and one arm on the ball. Lowdermilk was saying stuff to me. I said, 'Hey Pick, is your other hand free?' 'Yeah.' 'Punch him right in the nuts.' He said, 'OK.' Right in the nads. Lowdermilk just screamed."

Then there was this wives' tale from former quarterback Rich Gannon from a 1996 Thanksgiving game between his Chiefs and the Lions.

"All week long, we had talked about the squib kick—don't try to return it," Gannon says. "Sure enough, before the half, the ball was squibbed to Greg Manusky, who was a great special teams player. He picks it up and starts running, gets waylaid, and the ball pops up in the air. He somehow lands upright on his ass. He's sitting there with a big pile around him. The ball is at his ankles, and he can't get leverage to get to the ball.

"So a guy from the Lions has it. A bunch of players jump in. A rookie from our team is in the pile. Manusky is yelling, 'Grab his nuts! Grab his nuts!' The rookie looks at him totally puzzled. 'Grab his nuts!' The guy grabs his nuts. The [Lions player] lets go of the ball to grab the guy's hand. Manusky is somehow able to get the ball back. I remember everyone on the plane laughing when Manusky was telling the story."

Gannon chuckled again telling the story. But he wasn't chuckling when he was the victim of similar grabs.

JULIE JACOBSON/Associated Press

"When somebody does that, you can't help it," he says. "You have to do something. The most logical thing to do is take one hand off the ball. And when you do that, they pull your other arm away and they get the ball out. I've lost the ball. It's happened more times than I can remember."

Sometimes, other body parts are more convenient. Gannon says he once came out of the pile with his neck clawed up. He has also had his ankle twisted. Browns quarterback Josh McCown says he has had fingers bent backward.

Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers accused Seahawks defensive end Darryl Tapp of biting his arm in 2008. "Felt like a bee sting," Rodgers said, according to Greg Bedard of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Former Packers and Colts quarterback Don Majkowski says he has been the recipient of "the fish hook," a finger pulling the cheek. That was slightly more uncomfortable than a finger in the eye, which he also experienced. 

Former Giants running back Tiki Barber says he never suffered from similar indignities. But he did have to endure another form of cruelty under the pile.

"Jeremiah Trotter was pretty fearsome when he was with the Eagles," says Barber, who now hosts Tiki and Tierney on CBS Sports Radio. "He hit so hard, and had a hard head. But he used to tickle me in the pile. He was like, 'I can't knock it out of your hands, I'm going to tickle you.'"

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - DECEMBER 13: Linebacker Jeremiah Trotter #54 of the Philadelphia Eagles walks off the field after a game against the New York Giants on December 13, 2009 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Eagles won 45-38. (Photo
Hunter Martin/Getty Images

Sometimes, pile punishment is accidental. Getting caught in an awkward position can be terrifying.

"The scariest incident I had at a bottom of the pile, I fell down in a sitting position and guys fell on the back of my neck, forcing my face into the ground between my legs," Majkowski says. "I couldn't get the guys off. I was screaming to get them off. They were laughing. 'You sound like a girl.' It was pretty scary. I couldn't get up, couldn't breathe."

Self-preservation frequently enters into the pile equation.

"You have to protect yourself all the time," Ravens tight end Ben Watson says. "You hear boxing refs say 'Protect yourself at all times.' That's kind of the mentality you take when you are caught in a pile."

Bears guard Kyle Long pays attention to how he falls into the pile.

"You have to kind of become the ball, become as small as possible," he says. "If I know players are going to fall on me, I try to kind of become a turtle. Don't have your arms extended. Be part of the ground."

There is no way for players to protect themselves from sharp tongues in the pile, though. Long recalls some smack talk from Packers linebacker Clay Matthews in a pile last year after Long allowed Julius Peppers to get by him and force a Jay Cutler fumble.

"I was trying to fight for the ball in the pile, and Pep got it," Long says. "So Clay runs over. I look up and all I see is his hair on top of me. He's like, 'You got beat, bro. You got beat.'"

It can get much nastier than that.

"I heard some phrases I wouldn't repeat to a drunken sailor in those pileups. Vicious, slanderous things," McMichael says.

In the modern game, players are more likely to try to abuse one another verbally than physically. The change has not escaped the notice of former and current players.

"In my era, men lost molars, incisors and bicuspids," former Raiders cornerback Lester Hayes says. "They had blood all over their faces. In this century, that's a $15,000 fine. It's changed. No more molars and incisors and bicuspids on the turf. "

Vikings linebacker Chad Greenway says he never has endured a cheap shot under the pile.

"A lot of those kinds of things were left in the '70s and '80s," he says. "With how TV is now and how they capture everything, you have to be more aware of what you are doing."

Even so, it is still wise for NFL players in a pile to protect areas they deem highly sensitive.


Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @danpompei.


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