NEW YORK -- The fields of the NFL are 100 yards long and 53 yards wide. On every given Sunday, these rectangles are home to wicked hits, wondrous feats and enough trash to fill the barge of Paul Tagliabue's choice.
We're talking garbage, man. Grade A, unexpurgated trash. In your face, up your hoosis, your mother, your sister, and while we're at it, your great aunt on your daddy's side, too. The NFL can pass rules about celebrations, spikes and the boys in the replay booth. It can concoct enough little regulations to fill a phone book. But its verbal pollution is here to stay; it's as much a part of the game as the pigskin itself.
"It goes along with all that macho BS," New York Jets defensive lineman Jeff Lageman says. "It's kind of weird, really. It's like the football field provides the release valve to let the psychotic in you come out."
"There's an awful lot of verbal abuse out there," adds Dan Hampton, who contributed his share of it in 12 years on the Chicago Bears' defensive line. "Webster would cringe if he heard some of the language."
One of the leading New York practitioners is Pepper Johnson of the Giants. Says Johnson, "It gets me going. The guys don't like it when I'm not talking mess, because they think I'm not ready."
Against the Cleveland Browns Sept. 22, Johnson's mess was in mid-season form. His primary target was tight end Scott Galbraith.
"He was on the kick-return team, standing by our bench, shouting out stuff, moving around," Johnson says. "He just looked so vulnerable, so I started hollering at him: 'We gonna beat up on you so bad today.' "
Soon after, Galbraith dropped a pass. Johnson wasted no time: "Oh, man, Joe [Morris] is gonna kill you in the meeting room. He's gonna throw a chair at you. And [Bill] Belichick is gonna cut you. I know Belichick. He don't like a tight end who can't catch.' "
When Galbraith did catch a ball later, Johnson tackled him from behind. Johnson laughs, says, "Before he could say anything good about catching the pass, I was dogging him about how slow he was. He went crazy on me. [But] after the game, I went up to him and we laughed and shook hands."
Tim McKyer is a Falcons cornerback and a consensus All-Trash selection. He started his career with the 49ers, who were playing the Eagles once when Philadelphia cornerback Izel Jenkins hammered Jerry Rice.
"He tried to take Jerry's head off," McKyer recalls. "Kind of ticked Jerry off. We were all on the sideline, and we were jawing Jenkins: 'Toast time! Toast time! Oooh boy, you gonna get cooked today. You gonna get two shades darker and your mama's not even gonna recognize you.' "
Says McKyer, "Seemed like the next play that Jerry beat him on a post."
"Success is the best revenge," says Todd Christensen, former Raiders tight end who, like Hampton, works in the booth for NBC. "In Houston a couple of years ago, a free safety was yapping and yapping. I scored three touchdowns. Socrates couldn't have been more eloquent."
The vast majority of trash comes from defensive players. Their job, after all, is to destroy what the offense is trying to do. Since they're almost frothing at the prospect of making a highlight-film hit, trash talking is just another form of aggression.
Defensive backs, mano a mano with wide receivers, tend to be the biggest talkers. Special-team players, a breed onto themselves, also are known to yap. Former Jet Bobby Jackson says Tom Newton, a backup fullback and special teamer, "was the talkingest guy I've ever seen. He'd go running down on a kickoff making all kinds of noises. 'Here I come! Neutron bomb!' "
Not many quarterbacks will get into it, though Hampton says fiery Phil Simms is an exception.
"He's probably the most talkative quarterback I ever played against," Hampton says. "I respect Simms. He's a heck of a quarterback. But you could pop him pretty good and say, 'Hey, I'll be back,' and he'd come right back at you every time: 'Oh, yeah? Well, go stick it in your replay booth.' "
Talking is not for everyone. Many players, particularly the premier ones, stay away from it altogether. Hampton says he never heard Walter Payton say a word. Ditto for Lee Roy Selmon. But then, you've also got such big talents/talkers as Eagles defensive tackle Jerome Brown and the 49ers' linebacker, Tim Harris, who may be the league's Most Voluble Player.
Apart from heat-of-the-battle trash, there's also pregame and postgame trash. Most of it is thoroughly recycled, says Irv Eatman, the Jets' offensive tackle and a six-year veteran. Eatman was acquired from Kansas City, where he experienced the superheated rivalry with the Raiders, so full of trash that Eatman says, "You could've done a court transcript after the game."
So what exactly are all these NFL talkers saying? "Of course, your virility is questioned, and, of course, your mother has all kinds of descendants," Christensen says.