Hit Parade

Reebok's 'Office Linebacker' -- aka Lester Speight of Baltimore -- has suddenly smashed his way into the spotlight

January 30, 2003|By KEVEN COWHERD

As much of America is discovering, when a company has "workplace issues" to resolve, the man to resolve them is Terry Tate: Office Linebacker.

Got a loutish employee who drains the last of the coffee without making a fresh pot?

Terry Tate, 6-foot-7, 320 pounds and built like a walk-in freezer, will level the fool with a crunching blindside tackle and deliver a scathing, in-your-face lecture on coffee-pot etiquette. Guess who'll be reaching for the Folgers next time the pot gets low?

Or say your workers are stretching their break times or making personal phone calls or playing computer games when they should be studying spreadsheets.

"Triple T," in his signature red No. 56 jersey, will deliver a world of pain to those goof-offs, everything from head butts to body slams, followed by loud rants over their whimpering, cringing bodies.

Pretty soon, Mr. CEO, your office will be humming like the factories in Mussolini's Italy.

Sit back and watch productivity soar, baby.

Actually, Terry Tate is only a fictional character, the star of that hilarious Reebok commercial introduced during the Super Bowl into a lineup of otherwise lame spots for beers and soft drinks, men's underwear and tax-filing services.

But the guy who plays Tate is real enough. He's a Baltimore native who was known as Lester Speight when he played high school football at Old Mill in Glen Burnie, college ball at Morgan State in the early '80s and pro ball with the USFL Baltimore Stars, and who's now an actor known as Rasta living in Los Angeles.

Anyway, the commercial, where Terry Tate is the office heavy at a company called "Felcher & Son," was a huge hit with viewers.

Reebok spent $4 million on the Super Sunday debut ad, and it's the centerpiece of a new $15 million campaign by the nation's No. 2 athletic supply company. Three more Terry Tate commercials are scheduled to roll out in 10-day intervals.

Response to the Tate ads, says Mickey Pant, chief marketing officer for Reebok, has been "phenomenal." He said so many people - over 525,000 as of Tuesday - had logged on to the company's Web site (www.reebok/terrytate.com) to view an extended version of the commercial that it burned up the server.

"I've never seen anything like it," Pant said. "If we play our cards right, he could be the next big advertising icon. He could be like the Energizer Bunny or `Where's the beef?' or something like that."

When I reached Rasta in New York the other day, he was already getting the mega-star treatment, being whisked across Manhattan in a stretch limo the size of a hotel lobby for an interview on MSNBC.

Meanwhile, he was still glowing from an earlier appearance on the Today show, where he'd pretended to straighten out some "workplace issues" involving the show's stars.

In one sketch, he "leveled" weatherman Al Roker with a vicious tackle for working a crossword puzzle on a commercial break when he should have been thinking about the upcoming segment.

In another, he had Matt Lauer whimpering and shrinking in fear - "Get ready for the pain!" - after the co-host tossed his empty soda can into a regular trash can instead of the recycle bin.

When I asked how the bit with Al Roker was filmed - after his gastric bypass operation, Roker is now down to about 87 pounds, and it looked like he got hit so hard, his head should have ended up in New Jersey - Rasta chuckled.

"We basically put a dummy in a chair," he said. "Then I came through like a blur."

And the next shot you saw was of Roker writhing in pain on the floor, glasses askew, looking like a guy who'd been smacked by a Chevy Silverado.

Rasta said, however, that even though the Al Roker hit was staged, the series of vicious hits he makes on his office colleagues - male and female - in the Terry Tate commercials are "100 percent real."

When I mentioned - um, with all due respect - that I found this hard to believe, due to the fact that any normal human being would be dead after being hit so hard, Rasta chuckled.

"Well, it's a mixture of actors and stunt people in the commercial," he said. "I don't know if you noticed, but I even hit a woman in the [commercial.] She's a stunt woman, and she said it was the hardest she'd ever been hit."

Anyway, his newfound stardom is heady stuff for a guy who tried pro wrestling after his football career ended, then drifted into acting and landed small roles in movies (mostly straight to video, but also Any Given Sunday and Meteor Man) and TV shows (including NYPD Blue and Malcolm in the Middle.)

His old football coach at Morgan, James Phillips, remembers Lester Speight as a quick, undersized defensive end - he weighed 210 and also ran track - who was "a serious guy, a guy who did what he was told, a good kid."

Now, though, he's Terry Tate, this huge, pumped-up Office Superhero, a snarling, larger-than-life tough guy who makes Mr. T look like a Cub Scout.

Now when he gets in elevators, perfect strangers recognize him, smile and say "Hit me!"

Now when he walks through offices, people tap him on the shoulder, point to a colleague on the phone and say: "She's making a long distance call."

As to where his career goes from here, Rasta says, "the stars are the limit."

The Terry Tate commercials, he says, "can definitely create a fan base that will be national as well as international. I hope it can give me some leverage in Hollywood."

In the next breath, he tells me that the limo has just arrived at the MSNBC studios, and he has to go now.

"You make sure you mention my city and how much I love them, and that my success is their success," Rasta says before hanging up.

Yes, sir. Whatever you say.

Just please don't hurt me.

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