Big Guys, Long Runs

What's so likable about NFL linemen carrying the ball?

September 19, 2006|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,SUN REPORTER

Maybe the moment becomes magic because, all of a sudden, a million-dollar pro athlete reminds you exactly of your out-of-shape cousin Otto.

But when a roly-poly NFL lineman finds himself with the football and takes off down the field, seemingly plodding through a sea of oatmeal, the ensuing chase is thrilling and comical and sort of touching all at the same time.

In the first two weeks of the season, Ravens fans have been treated on successive Sundays to just that sort of entertaining spectacle, as twice beefy hometown heroes have come up with errant balls. Both times, their sprints wound down to jogs and ended in wheezing finishes along the sideline.

On Sunday, it was 6-foot, 310-pound defensive tackle Kelly Gregg returning a fumble 59 yards - a team record, by the way - and being nudged out of bounds and lying exhausted at the Oakland Raiders' 15-yard line in the Ravens' 28-6 win. The week before, 6-foot-4, 340-pound rookie Haloti Ngata went 60 yards with an interception before he ran out of gas and tiptoed out of bounds in a 27-0 shutout of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"A defensive lineman has just one speed, and that's however fast he can run," said former Ravens big-guy defensive tackle Tony Siragusa, now an analyst for Fox Sports. "With the skill guys, it's not just how fast they can run, it's how fast they can stop and change direction. A defensive lineman isn't built to do that. If he starts thinking about making a cut or something, every ligament and cartilage in his body screams out, `Don't do it, don't do it!'"

A chubby guy under a full head of steam with a football under his arm is such great sports theater, the scene invariably makes national sports news.

In 2003, Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Sam Adams made the cover of Sports Illustrated for his 37-yard touchdown return of an interception against the New England Patriots. For the 350-pound Adams, a former Raven now with the Cincinnati Bengals, it wasn't even his first interception taken for a touchdown. He had brought back another one 25 yards against Troy Aikman and the Dallas Cowboys in 1998.

Most of the time, though, big people wearing 90-something on their backs who unexpectedly find themselves with the ball do not wind up doing celebration shimmies in the end zone.

The Seattle Seahawks' now-retired 306-pound defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy made two interceptions in 1999 but returned them for a total of just 12 yards.

According to Neil Zender, an NFL Films producer who several years ago put together a piece on linemen thrust into the unfamiliar role of ball carrier, one of Kennedy's returns took him 2 yards forward and about 15 yards sideways.

"You hear his teammates on the sidelines giving it to him, like, `Way to run, big tubby,' and `What blazing speed,'" Zender said.

"There's this instant of paralysis and it's, `Oh my God, what do I do now?'" Zender added. "It's just funny to see someone who is actually pretty athletic look like a complete bozo."

Sometimes those bozo moments will go on to define a player in fans' minds. Jim Marshall, a defensive end who played most of his outstanding career with the Minnesota Vikings in the 1960s and '70s, when linemen were generally sleeker, holds the NFL all-time record for recoveries of opponents' fumbles with 29. But it's his 1964 wrong-way return of a fumble against the San Francisco 49ers, when he carried the ball to his own end zone and tossed it away in celebration, resulting in a safety, that is etched in posterity.

Cowboys defensive tackle Leon Lett was a solid performer for Dallas but is probably best recalled for showboating with the football as he neared the end zone with a recovered fumble in the January 1993 Super Bowl. Buffalo receiver Don Beebe raced up from behind and stripped Lett of the ball, robbing the Cowboys of the chance to set a record for most points scored in the Super Bowl.

But most defensive lineman-cum-ball carrier moments still result in jubilation, if not in the end zone, and become grist for merciless teammates.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre delighted in imitating then-35-year-old defensive end Reggie White gasping for oxygen on the sideline after the late Hall of Fame defender had returned an interception 46 yards against Seattle in 1996.

That neither Ngata nor Gregg was able to reach the end zone has made both targets of good-natured ribbing in their own locker room.

On Sunday, Ravens linebacker Adalius Thomas wryly noted that perhaps the linemen needed some parachute training to help their speed.

However, Siragusa, who played at 340 pounds and returned a fumble by Steve McNair 7 yards nine years ago, said that though the dream of being a touchdown-maker is every lineman's fantasy, there's a harsh reality to be faced.

"You practice every day and you're working hard and you watch these skill guys catch balls and run it into the end zone and you think, `I could do that,'" Siragusa said. "But then the time comes when you get in the open field and you see the end zone in front of you and all of sudden you realize that there's a whole bunch of guys behind you and some of them run about 10 seconds faster than you do."

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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