by Abe Sauer
Maybe you have heard of football and the game’s championship “Super Bowl” this Sunday? And maybe you see football as the most American of games. But baseball is America’s game. Not football. And yet, so many identify football with America. This is so wrong. Football is American only in a few disparate, sometimes contradictory, ways-even while football may be the least American team sport. Now, football cheerleaders, they are American. I dare you to identify something more American than football cheerleaders. But football itself is practically European. It is a sport controlled by money-sharing, redistribution-of-wealth agreements and a strong labor union. No team is allowed to get too wildly rich. Everyone needs to work together to accomplish a goal. It’s downright socialist. The only way in which football is American is that coaches, like executives, always get new jobs after failing miserably and that Keith Olbermann ruins everything.
Football is also the most team-oriented major sport. No single person can carry a football team. Teams are made up of a large number of men who specialize in highly specific jobs, with almost none of them able to do any other one’s job. And their physicality is evidence of the specificity of their work. In what other sport can you find a 6’5″ 365-pound dude and a 5’11” 198-pound dude on the same field and on the same team?
Now, in the lead-up to Sunday’s Super Bowl, there will be a lot of story-lines. Haitian player supports the homeland. Peyton Manning plays dad’s old team. A Saints win means New Orleans has finally fully recovered and we can all openly stop caring about its plight (which of course we all did back in 2007). One narrative that will not bubble up to the surface, because it never does, is that of the offensive lineman.
Offensive linemen are statistical phantoms. Penalties are the only numbers offensive linemen ever accrue. Yet their duties are the foundation of every star’s on-field success, from the quarterback to the wide-receiver to the kicker. If the linemen don’t play well, the household-name players with endorsement deals fail to be superstars at all. And yet the cameras almost never show them, unless, once again, they screw up.
There is no fantasy football offensive line. And even fervent football fans such as myself can name very few linemen. The Baltimore Ravens’ Michael Oher is now probably the best-known lineman-and not because of his on-field play but instead because of the story of his hard-knock life. And even then, the protagonist is the woman who saves him, Sandra Bullock. Oher just blocks for her.
Drew Brees is a superstar quarterback who can find receivers and make tremendous throws. But what would announcers say about Brees if the Saints line had given up more than just 20 sacks this season? And what of the Colts’ hall-of-fame-bound Manning, who was sacked only half of that?
I asked Bob Bostad, the offensive line coach for the University of Wisconsin Badgers, what makes offensive linemen different than other players. “I will be short,” he said. “I believe that offensive linemen have a higher level of accountability. They don’t ‘make plays.’ They must allow others to, so assignment and consistency within the game plan is essential.”
One paradox of being an “offensive” lineman is that you are often on defense. That is to say, you are often trying to prevent a result. In pass blocking schemes, this means taking your drop step and then waiting to get hammered by a bull rush over and over again. Success is not measured by what you did but by what you kept someone else from doing. With the job that essentially boils down to “protection,” is it any surprise that so many offensive lineman are married family men?
Coach O’Brion is head coach of the Fall River Pirates middle school program in Wisconsin. Last year he went 9–0. He says it was maybe his best O-line:
There are two major misconceptions about linemen. That they are unathletic and that they are not smart. Asking the backside guard to pull all the way across the formation and kick out an outside linebacker is no easy task. Pass blocking is akin to playing defense in basketball… only rougher. At higher levels of football o-linemen are often asked to make calls and adjustments at the line of scrimmage and relay the changes to their linemates. The center is probably the most cerebral of the positions. In fall camp, I always try to pick my center first and find a smart kid to fill that role. And while coaches are always using cliches and metaphors, one of my favorites is five separate fingers on a hand are weak. However when all five of those five fingers work together to make a fist they can do some serious damage. The same goes for your offensive line.
Going into the deal, they know they will never get any of the credit and will do most of the work. The only time they get noticed is when they screw up. It takes a special kind of person to be a good offensive linemen… O-linemen need to have a ‘big picture’ view. Good linemen are often your hardest workers and humble, add in a little mean streak and you have someone special. I have always said linemen are the heart and soul of a team.
Before he was Coach O’Brion he was just Andy O’Brion, and I played offensive line with him. I was a pulling guard and later a center. A fairly bad one too, on a succession of teams that were not great. The Seattle Seahawks of our conference. But I contend that there is no more “team” feeling than being part of an offensive line as you break huddle and swagger up to a 4th and goal, shoulder to shoulder.
My only lament about being an offensive lineman is not the lack of recognition or the mangled fingers from being “cleated” or the play-after-play brutality, which even for a lover of physical violence such as myself, can grow weary and tiring by the 4th quarter (especially when the defense won’t do its job), or the defensive ends hands to your face that the ref never sees, or just the simple, annoying fact that you fall down on almost every damn play.
No, the biggest problem is off the football field. Offensive linemen are perceived as fat. But most really are not. That’s right, the offensive lineman has body image issues.
Bodies like an oil drum stacked atop another oil drum with another oil drum atop that; no fashion looks good on them. Thighs thicker than waists; no pants fit properly. Calves like two-gallon milk jugs. A sport coat is an absurd waste of a cotton field. Offensive lineman-especially great offensive linemen-are freaks of nature towering the height of some NBA players but with muscle on top of muscle on top of bone the thickness of baseball bats, and then some fat padding atop that. Banana Republic, J. Crew, Express-their cuts are hopeless. When one can even find a stylish size 46 (or 56) jacket, the arms are too narrow. Shopping at H&M is an absurd farce for any proper guard, tackle or center. Skinny jeans and the hipster aesthetic are a conspiracy against people who can lift their own body weight straight up over their heads, and then do it again.
So as you watch the Super Bowl this Sunday, take a moment to consider the offensive linemen. They would appreciate it… even though they wouldn’t expect it.
Abe Sauer really has a hard time shopping.