Jimmy Greenfield figures every one of his fingers has been broken at one time or another - at least it has felt that way.
Welcome to life as a center.
"Bottom of the pile, you get stepped on, hear a crack, you just tape it up, keep playing," said Greenfield, a senior on the Western Tech football team. "Last year, I tore a ligament in my left thumb in about the second game of the season, but I didn't miss a beat."
The 6-foot-1, 178-pound Greenfield simply thinks of his injuries as an occupational hazard of the position he has played since he began playing at age 6 in the Arbutus recreation league. And Greenfield's toughness, brains and unselfishness are traits considered a prerequisite by many area coaches when choosing a player for the position that may be the most mentally and physically challenging on the football field.
"Once I broke my left pinky finger in the knuckle during the preseason and it puffed up like a balloon. I just sucked it up and played," said two-time All-Metro Adam Hendrix, who played at Hereford. Now the No. 2 center as a redshirt freshman at Delaware, Hendrix has played through a strained anterior cruciate ligament in his knee, head and neck aches, and "generally being sore all over."
"You don't mind the pain that much - busting your butt builds character, maturity," Hendrix said. "But it kind of ticks you off that the running backs, the quarterbacks get all the accolades, but you never let anybody see you with your head down."
Greenfield's specialty is as a long snapper, and "for how small I am, I can snap it pretty far with a lot of power - probably about 15 to 18 yards right into the guy's chest," he said.
"Sometimes, you really get rocked. But the big thing is that you're in on every play - and you also get to rock people all day."
The streamlined Greenfield has the strength of a bull and the durability of a bungy cord. His body type fits into the mold of the player into whom the position has evolved: "A guy who is tough, agile and can bounce back, play after play," said Forest Park coach Obie Barnes. It also helps, said Barnes, if the player "is a little bit of a loner. Not the team clown, but direct, articulate, not afraid to take on the responsibility of hurting someone's feelings."
"You have to be a real craftsman to get the ball off without being clobbered," said Gilman coach Biff Poggi. "He's got to be thick-skinned because it can be a thankless job. You tend to build your team up the middle, and every offense starts with the center-quarterback exchange, and whenever the fumbled snap occurs, it's the center's fault."
City coach George Petrides once served as a center to former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, when Schmoke quarterbacked the City College football teams. "Ideally, I want the most reliable player - the very best lineman - to be the center," said Petrides. "He can snap the ball the quickest, make the most difficult of blocks and has to be quick laterally, both right and left. Plus he's got to be intelligent, and make quick decisions."
Poggi considers center to be "a skill position because he's the quarterback of the offensive line. You have to be able to trust his vision. He's got to see the field, call out the adjustments to the defense."
At Lake Clifton, line coach Troy Buckson has a freshman and sophomore competing for the starting position.
"The way I teach my centers, they have to know all the plays, the positions and everybody's blocking assignments. It's a lot of information to throw at them, and it can be a thankless job," said Buckson.
The reward, Buckson said, "is when they can look down the field and see a running back going 30 or 40 yards to finish a touchdown, or when a quarterback completes a pass for a touchdown."
Annapolis has had four All-County centers since 1990 as part of the Panthers' Wing-T offense. This year, 6-foot, 230-pound Sung Yang replaces 5-11, 230-pound All-Metro Kion Mackell, who opened gaping holes for 2,000-yard rushers Rayvon Johnson in 1999 and Eric Venerable last fall.
Yang "is a tight-end type with good feet, size and quickness," said Annapolis coach Roy Brown. "Height is not as important as having a big body. Foot speed is vital with the first two or three steps being very important."
It's not a thankless job, said Yang, "because my coaches and teammates appreciate what I do."
Sun staff writer Pat O'Malley contributed to this article.