kottke.org posts about Spencer Hall

Standing between harm and othersAug 29 2013

I played football in high school, specifically offensive line, defensive line, and linebacker. So did my older and younger brothers, and my older brother coaches linemen and defense at a high school in Michigan. I started out first in middle school and high school as a defensive specialist, which makes sense given John Madden's theory of linemen.

Madden used to say that offensive linemen were overwhelmingly big kids who grew up to be big men, who'd always been told not to pick on but to protect kids smaller than them. Defensive linemen, on the other hand, were little kids who grew up fighting with other little kids (and often bigger kids) but who grew up to be big men. That's what I was: a skinny kid who became a fat adolescent who became a big, strong teenager. (Now I'm a strong, fat writer, so that's how that turned out.)

Madden said the problem is that offensive linemen still need to be as tough and aggressive as defensive linemen, but they always hold something back. Some of this is part of the rules of football: offensive linemen literally can't do everything a defensive lineman can do to them. So what Madden would do is take a tackling dummy and let his offensive linemen beat the hell out of it. Punch it, tear it, throw it across the room, it doesn't matter. Help them get to a point where they're no longer worried about being over-aggressive.

College football reporter Spencer Hall writes:

You should know this about offensive line coaches: they are large, demanding men with Falstaffian appetites, jutting jaws, and no governors on their speech engines. They eat titanic portions. They cram their lips full of dip in film study like they are loading a mortar. They drink bottled water like parched camels, and in their leisure time would consider a suitcase of beer to be a personal carry-on item for them, and them alone. They are terrifyingly disciplined in the moment, and nap like large breed dogs when allowed.

Now, even if Madden's amateur psychobiography of linemen were true when he was coaching, it's not true any more. In the 1990s, coaches got really good at taking tall but relatively slender athletes from every position, bulking them up, and sticking them at offensive line.

In high school, we played this guy named Jon Jansen, who ended up becoming a star offensive tackle for the Washington Redskins, then coming home to Detroit and playing one year for the Lions before becoming an announcer. In high school, he weighed almost 100 pounds less than he did as a pro. He was listed then at 6'8", 230 lbs, and played tight end and middle linebacker. He was FAST. They moved him all over the field, catching touchdowns and uprooting people. It was chaos.

He went to Michigan, they redshirted him for his freshman year, and came back weighing 300 lbs and playing offensive line. Jansen told Bob Costas that he thought between 15 to 20 percent of NFL players were using illegal performance enhancing drugs, noting that the NFL didn't then test for human growth hormone. I remember when I was still in high school reading a long profile of the University of Nebraska's offensive linemen that attributed their huge gains in mass and strength to weightlifting and creatine. Draw your own conclusions about what was happening in pro and college football at the time.

This is all to say that what offensive linemen do in football is not well understood. When the NFL finally started to act on widespread concussions and the resultant uptick in chronic traumatic encephalopathy — if you never have, please read about the life and death of Dave Duerson — they focused on open-field helmet-to-helmet hits and defensive players targeting quarterbacks, running backs, and receivers (so-called "skill positions"). They ignored the constant battering that offensive linemen take, how repeated brain injury poses the greatest risk for long-term problems, how linemen are rewarded for staying on the field and playing through pain, and the ways in which they're encouraged to both be more aggressive and prioritize someone else's safety over their own.

Kurt Vonnegut said that his chief objection to life in general was that it was "too easy, when alive, to make horrible mistakes." This is what offensive line coaches live with: the notion that for every five simple circles drawn on a board, there are a nearly infinite number of possible threats looming out in the theoretical white space. Offensive plays give skill players arrows. Those arrows point down the field toward an endzone, a stopping point, a celebration. Those five simple circles stay on the board in the same place, and are on duty forever.

They are rough men in the business of protection.

Today, Hall has one of the most beautiful, thoughtful, human pieces on offensive linemen I've ever read, and which I've been quoting here throughout. It's called "The Business Of Protection," and subtitled "It Is Never, Ever About You." It's a story about Vanderbilt University's offensive line coach Herb Hand, who suffered a sudden and life-threatening brain hemorrhage waiting in line at a hotel breakfast bar on a recruiting trip. But Hand's story manages to become equally about football, fatherhood, the brain, the heart, how we defend ourselves from what's horrible in the things we love, and how we defend the people closest to us from ourselves.

When Hand had to have the impossible conversation — the one where you, with cellphone, stuck in a hospital far away from home, might have to say the last words you ever say to your children — he did what he was trained to do. He told them that he loved them, and that everything would be okay. The second part of that might not have been true at the time. The emergency room doctor certainly didn't think so, and neither did Hand. But standing between harm and others is what linemen do, even if there's little hope to be had in the face of numbers, size, and speed. There is a dot on the board, and a shield held against whatever slings and arrows lurk in the ether. It stands against harm until it cannot any longer.

Update: While I was writing this post, the NFL and 4500 former players (about one-third of the 12000 still living) reached a mediation agreement to settle a number of lawsuits over concussions for $765 million.

This figure includes legal fees, medical exams, the cost of noticing former players, and $10 million for research and education on the long-term effect of brain injuries, leaving $675 million to compensate former players who've suffered cognitive injuries (or, if dead, their families). The settlement applies only to players who've retired by the time court approves its terms. Current players will need a separate agreement to be compensated for existing and future injuries, and the NFL admits no liability.

As Buzzfeed sportswriter Erik Malinowski notes on Twitter: "Holy crap, what a bargain... ESPN pays $1.9 billion *every year* for Monday Night Football. 4,500 ex-players will get 40% of that (once) for decades of head trauma."

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