Michael Lewis made the case in The Blind Side that football players are the smartest in sports because the game is complex and moves fast. For the New Yorker, Nicholas Dawidoff takes a look at what makes a football player smart.
The Redskins’ London Fletcher is undersized and thirty-eight years old, but he’s been able to play for so long because he is a defensive Peyton Manning: seeing the game so lucidly, yelling out the offensive play about to unfold, changing alignments before the snap, organizing the field in real time. Similarly, Lavonte David, who has been with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two years, is just two hundred and thirty-four pounds — ten to fifteen pounds lighter than most at his position — the Wonderlic scores out on the Internet for him are not especially high, and, like all players, he makes the occasional boneheaded play. But he possesses dedicated study habits and a football clairvoyance that, come Sunday, finds him ignoring the blocking flow only at the one moment during a game when the offense runs the ball away from it.
The Hall of Fame Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Alan Page weighed two hundred and forty-five pounds, the dimension of a modern fullback. Even so, Page was terrifying. His forty-yard-dash time wasn’t anything special, either, but he says that he could run down faster opponents because he always had sense where he was in relation to the blur of bodies around him-he could “understand the situation.” Page is now an Associate Justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court. “Being a football player requires you to take your emotional self to places that most people shouldn’t go,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to get to know the person who was in my head on a football field. I likely see some of these people in my current job — those who can’t control that person — and they do not very nice things.”
I asked him, “You could control that person on a field?”
“Most of the time,” Page said.
The safety, standing at the rear of the defense, must compensate for the mistakes of others; football intelligence matters more at this position than any other on the defense. At five-eight, a hundred and eighty-eight pounds, the Bills safety Jim Leonhard, a nine-year veteran, is among the smallest and also the slowest starting defensive backs in the game. And yet, watching him on film, he appears to teleport to the ball. Leonhard’s name seems to enter any conversation about football intelligence; he knows every teammate’s responsibilities in every call, and understands the game as twenty-two intersecting vectors. “He’d walk off the bus and you’d think he was the equipment manager,” Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “He’s still in the league because he’s the quarterback of the defense.”