It takes a certain kind of personality to enjoy the pounding a lineman takes day in and day out.
By JAMAL THALJI
Published September 3, 2004
You show up every day. You lift weights. You run sprints. You drill. But most of all, you hit.
Man, do you hit.
You don helmet and pads and you hit somebody. You hit your best pal. You hit the guy giving you a ride home after practice. You spend months knocking heads with those who understand you best, who know exactly what you're going through.
Then, finally, it's time. Game night.
Late in the fourth quarter. Someone poked your eye, and you hurt your finger poking right back. You're bleeding. You're bruised. Your knee is throbbing, brace or no brace. The tape on your ankle tugs at your leg hairs. Your foe ran out of things to say about your mother. And you're missing 10 pounds of sweat.
Then the moment comes. The tackle blocks down here. The guard traps there. A fist appears under someone's facemask. Then the hole appears. The running back hits it and doesn't look back.
And the crowd goes wild ... for the running back?
That's it. That's the life of a lineman.
All that work. All that effort. All that pain.
And no credit.
"It's kind of hard," said Pasco senior Jerry Carter. "But you know on the inside that you helped them get there."
* * *
Football without linemen?
"Try running a play without them," Zephyrhills coach Tom Fisher said.
It is the sport's most thankless, and most critical, assignment. They are the heart and soul of football - and most of the sound effects, too.
On offense and defense, it starts on the line. Nothing happens without them. Heck, the ball doesn't even get snapped without them.
"We lead the team everywhere we go," said Wesley Chapel's Danny Tolley, who starts at offensive and defensive tackle. "It starts and ends with us."
Coaches can always find kids who, to various degrees, can run, throw and catch the ball.
Linemen are different.
Linemen have to be groomed. They need time to lift weights, to condition, to train. They need to learn the complicated series of maneuvers they'll be called upon to execute. They have to prepare their minds and bodies for the rigorous physical demands that will be imposed upon them, over and over again.
"I think that's one of the problems, it really is a long process," said former Hudson coach Terry Voyles, now coaching Pasco's linemen. "It's not a short process. It takes two or three years to really groom a lineman."
What's the first step?
Hire a line coach.
"A line coach is a different breed," said first-year Hudson coach Mark Nash. "They live in a box. It's difficult as a coach day in, day out, to practice in game situations and focus on line play. It takes a special type of coach to not follow the ball and to follow the action, so to speak."
Said Pasco coach Dale Caparaso: "My opinion on grooming linemen is this: I hired Terry Voyles."
* * *
The next step is to find linemen. What to look for?
"Big ones," Voyles said.
That's a joke. At the high school level, linemen come in all shapes and sizes. It's not that coaches don't want huge, hulking lineman. "You can't teach size," said Ridgewood coach Troy Cornwell.
They just don't have a choice. And when they can choose, size isn't the first choice.
"The first thing is, I like athletic linemen," said Land O'Lakes' longtime line coach, Tom Carter. "Guys that are able to move. Technique will come once they start working, and if you have athleticism it's a lot easier to teach.
"Size isn't all that important to me. Would I rather have a 6-foot-4, 290-pound kid who can do the same things as a 5-11, 205-pound kid? Sure. But I'll take a 5-11, 205-pound kid with ability and desire before I'll take someone on the other spectrum with no ability and no desire to get better."
Said Gulf coach Keith Newton: "Sometimes you'll get big kids. But they're not very good kids. Some of our best blockers have been 185-200 pounds."
As important as athletic ability is, there's a mentality that coaches also seek.
"I think anybody who coaches line, the first thing they look for is toughness," said Mitchell coach Scott Schmitz. "How tough are you? Because it's the most physical position to play.
"If you're not tough, both physically and mentally, a good offensive or defensive lineman can take you out of your game pretty quick and dominate you."
Athletic ability is innate, but toughness can he honed. No one works harder than the heaviest guys on the field. They spend practice pounding the sled, then each other, then each other again when full-contact, 11-on-11 drills start.
"It's tough being a big guy," said Mitchell offensive guard Mike Toncich. "We're out there working the hardest. We're pushing the sled. We're doing the drills. All the running backs have to do is carry the ball a couple of yards."
Then there's mobility, which ties into athleticism.
"I really go with good feet," Voyles said. "You remember (New England Hall of Fame lineman) John Hannah? He said if (offensive linemen) couldn't dance then they can't be offensive linemen."
That's because a lineman's foe is likely also an athlete. And linemen have places to go and mere seconds to get there. Said Fisher: "Ever hear bigger, stronger, faster? I believe in the reverse: stronger, faster, bigger."
* * *
The biggest drawback to playing line isn't the constant physical play, or the grueling practices, or even that your game pants need to be taped around your considerable waist.
It's all the attention linemen get.
Which is none.
"They're the all-guts, no-glory guys," said Wesley Chapel line coach Brian Colding. "They just kind of quietly go about doing their job.
"The average fan sits and watches the game and they just see the back burst through and make a long gain, but most of the time they really don't see the hole created so that back could go through."
Linemen toil in near anonymity. Until something goes wrong. Schmitz, who played offensive guard and defensive end at Southern High School in Stronghurst, Ill., knows the feeling.
"They don't get credit when you win," Schmitz said, "and the coach just rips them when they lose."
The view isn't great, either.
"They don't see three-fourths of the game," Nash said. "They don't see the end zone dance or the great move to the perimeter. They just see the big, ugly kid in front of them that they've got to block."
* * *
But there are perks to the job. Like hitting.
And hitting. Did we mention the hitting?
"I just love the satisfaction of being able to block somebody into the ground," said Hudson senior offensive guard Justin Brown.
Tolley's eyes light up when he imagines a confused defense in front of his 6-foot-6, 300-pound frame.
"They don't know which way to go," he said, "and you're just sitting there waiting for them."
Pain is part of the game. Someone else's pain.
"I'd rather be a lineman over a cornerback or a running back," said Pasco's Carter. "Because you get to knock someone's head off."
They don't outgrow it, either. DeGennaro played guard at Hudson, and the coach can still savor his memories playing on the line: "The greatest feeling has got to be beating the guy in front of you."
And it helps if you're, well, a little twisted.
"When I'm on that football field it's like a switch kicks on and kicks off," said Pasco tackle Tony Fiscarelli. "After the game I'm a nice, calm person. I like to sit around and talk to my girlfriend.
"But during it, oh man, stay away from me."
Yeah, they're different all right.
"You've got to enjoy the contact," Land O'Lakes' Carter said. "A kind of sick mind doesn't hurt, a warped sense of humor and a little dirtiness about you. That always helps."