(This happens often: the Hurricanes are 11-0 and favored to win the national championship against Nebraska in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 3.) As the players walk through the dining room, dressed in their baggy sweatshirts and drooping shorts, the other patrons, sharply dressed, look up from their plates, their forks poised at their lips, disbelieving, gawking. The smallest of the seven is 6-foot-2, 294 pounds, the largest 6-9, 335. Three are black, four are white. They have scruffy facial hair, shaved heads, shoulder-length hair with ponytails, cornrowed hair, earrings, gold chains, tattoos and perpetual scowls. They look like a younger, slightly spiffed-up biker gang. Most of their teammates refuse to be seen in public with them. They refer to themselves as ''animals.'' Their coach, Larry Coker, calls them ''scary.'' They're ''weird, off the wall, the most politically incorrect people I've ever met,'' says Ken Dorsey, the team's laid-back quarterback, with a sly grin. ''I try not to let my girlfriend near them. They're the guys your mom always warned you about.'' Of Dorsey, the linemen say: ''What do you expect? He comes from a 'Brady Bunch' family.''
Yet what makes these players truly noteworthy is not their size or demeanor but what they have accomplished both on and off the field. They are primarily responsible for the team's 21-game winning streak over two years. They helped turn Dorsey, a smart, self-possessed quarterback with limited physical skills, into a Heisman Trophy candidate. (The award was won by Eric Crouch of Nebraska.) They also have turned themselves into what Bobby Bowden, the coach of Florida State University, calls ''the best offensive line we've played against -- ever.'' And yet, only one of the seven was highly recruited out of high school.
Perhaps even more remarkably, they have changed the culture of football at Miami. First, they revamped the Canes' outlaw image and restored the school's program to national prominence after years of decay brought on by recruiting violations and subsequent probations. Then they were primarily responsible for the hiring as head coach of Coker, a 22-year assistant who would certainly have been passed over for a more glamorous, high-profile candidate. And finally, the linemen helped to integrate their team in a way few teams ever have, despite the fact that the team is as culturally and racially diverse as any in the land.
Only the three black players -- Bryant McKinnie, 22, a 6-9, 335-pound senior tackle; Ed Wilkins, 22, a 6-4, 318-pound junior guard; and Vernon Carey, 20, a sophomore tackle who goes 6-5, 363 pounds, had parents born here. The parents of the four white linemen were born abroad: in Canada (Brett Romberg, 22, a 6-2, 290-pound junior center); Cuba (Joaquin Gonzalez, 22, a 6-5, 292-pound senior tackle); Poland (Martin Bibla, 22, a senior guard who is 6-4, 300); and Iran (Sherko Haji-Rasouli, 21, a 6-6, 326-pound junior guard). Romberg, of Norwegian ancestry, speaks Norwegian, Lithuanian, Serbo-Croatian, some Spanish and English. Haji-Rasouli speaks Persian, Spanish, some German and English. Bibla speaks Polish, Russian and English. Gonzalez speaks Spanish and English. They have taught one another vulgar expressions in each of their many languages.
After one of their last home victories, a 59-0 rout of Syracuse, five of the linemen went to dinner at Monty's. They sat outside in the warm darkness for hours, drinking rum and fruit juice washed down with beer, eating prodigious amounts of food, eyeballing the beautiful Cuban-American girls and explaining, in words that often give new meaning to the term ''offensive line,'' how they have accomplished all they have. (Only McKinnie, undergoing treatment for back spasms, and Haji-Rasouli, out for the season with a knee injury, were missing.)
''It's our pride to protect Dorsey, the skinny, little runt,'' says Romberg, who calls himself the Viking.
''Dorsey's mom is cool,'' says Gonzalez, a Miami native.
''Mrs. Brady,''Romberg says.
''Dorsey refuses to hang with us,'' Gonzalez adds. And for good reason. Whenever Romberg and Gonzalez catch Dorsey playing kissy-face with his girlfriend on campus, they both stick their fingers in their mouths and make a vomiting sound. (Dorsey says: ''They put on these innocent faces to fool my mom. But she loves them because they keep me safe.'')
Dorsey is the most cosseted quarterback in football. Defenders rarely lay a hand on him, much less tackle him. He has been sacked only three times in 21 games, a phenomenal record he owes to his tenacious offensive line. Their protection allowed Dorsey to set a school record for career passing touchdowns at 58 and still climbing.
And they make a point of humbling brash opponents. Before the Canes stomped Syracuse by 59-0, Syracuse's all-American defensive end, Dwight Freeney, said he was going to assure himself of a multimillion-dollar professional contract by sacking Dorsey at the expense of McKinnie, who would play opposite him.
For Freeney -- who subsequently denied making the statement -- this was a particularly foolish and ill-considered boast. McKinnie, an all-American himself and considered the best lineman in college by a wide margin, has never allowed a quarterback sack, not even going back to his high school days. Early in the game, as Dorsey stepped back to pass, Freeney charged straight at McKinnie. The 6-9 McKinnie backpedaled in his crouch and then rose up and up until he towered over the 6-1 Freeney, who promptly disappeared from view. On another passing play, Freeney tried to race around McKinnie. But the quick McKinnie simply blocked Freeney farther and farther from Dorsey, until it looked as if he were politely ushering Freeney out of the Orange Bowl. And so it went, for the entire game. Not only didn't Freeney touch Dorsey; he made only one tackle.
The waitress appears with their drinks and appetizers, huge platters of nachos, shrimp, chicken wings. They immediately start reaching across the table to sample each other's food, while at the same time ordering more sweet rum drinks and pitchers of beer. And that's before the main course -- racks and racks of spareribs and french fries. Carey, under age, orders a rum drink with the rum on the side. When it arrives he passes it around to his friends.
Carey was the top high school lineman in the country in 1998, but none of the others were so highly recruited. Bibla and Romberg were considered too small. Haji-Rasouli was thought to be fat and lazy. Even McKinnie wasn't highly rated. Prohibited from playing in the Pop Warner League at 12 -- because at 6-2, 220-plus, he was too big -- he didn't even play football until his junior year of high school. Instead, he joined his mother's step-aerobics class and played the bass drum in the band until his coach, seeing him on the field, drafted him onto the team. Gonzalez is the most unlikely of the bunch. He went to Miami not as a football player but as a student, winning an academic scholarship (and turning down Harvard in the process). He made the team as a walk-on. Today, he is the emotional and intellectual leader of the offensive line. In the Hurricanes' final home game of the year, a 65-7 trouncing of Washington, Gonzalez, worried about a letdown, kept his linemen on course. With the Canes ahead, 37-0, he stood on a bench on the sidelines and warned them ''to be smart, stay hip if the other guys throw a punch, because they got nothing else to play for. Remember, we don't have to be hoodlums anymore. We win with class because this season is something special.''
Gonzalez's ''hoodlum'' comment was meant to distance this year's Canes from the Canes of the 80's and 90's. Those teams trash-talked, dished out cheap shots, got in fights and regularly found their way onto police blotters for punching out girlfriends, smoking pot, shooting guns and getting into fights at bars. Fans at schools like Notre Dame and Boston College used to hold up signs saying, ''Catholics vs. Convicts.'' Even on campus the outlaw Canes were so arrogant that other students cowered before them. This year's players, says an alumnus, ''are just nice guys, students like everybody else.'' The Canes carry this ''nice guy'' image even onto the field. Gonzalez likes to talk about his tender moments with Temple's Dan Klecko, the son of the former New York Jet defensive lineman, Joe Klecko. ''When I line up against Klecko, I tell him, 'Bro, you got the most beautiful blue eyes I've ever seen,''' Gonzalez says. ''After the play I help him up and pat him on the behind. Sometimes I put my arm around him and hug him like we're gay. He moans, 'Why me?''' The waitress appears with more huge platters of spareribs and more drinks. They've all ordered the same ribs, and yet they still reach across the table to sample one another's food. ''What makes us so good,'' Gonzalez says, ''is that we weren't heavily recruited.'' ''Hey, I was No. 1 in Canada,'' Romberg says. ''Exactly!'' Gonzalez says. ''We're all tight,'' Romberg says, ''because we pretty much came as nothing.'' ''We all have a passion to win, not make the N.F.L.,'' Gonzalez says. This year's Hurricanes may be the only football team in the country so self-motivated that the players ban their coaches from summer workouts. They train themselves, police themselves and even staged a rebellion when it looked like Coker wouldn't get the head coaching job. When the athletic director, Paul Dee, announced a search to replace the previous head coach, Butch Davies, the players were incensed. They walked into Dee's office, en masse, and told him, according to Romberg, ''We won't play at U.M. unless Coach Coker is named head coach.'' Dee quickly gave in, and the mild-mannered Coker was given the top job. ''We play harder for Coach Coker,'' Gonzalez says. ''Still, I get angry that other coaches are making $2 million a year and he's only getting $650,000.''
Offensive linemen are the least appreciated and least understood of all football players. They are huge, often fat men, not unlike sumo wrestlers, with subtle talents, quick feet and extraordinary balance, as well as brute strength. Even the name, offensive lineman, is a misnomer. In Miami's pass-oriented offense, they are more often defenders than attackers, whose assignment is to protect, to effect an absence of turmoil. They do this by acting as one, a solid wall, so that their individual achievement is less visible than their group achievement. The Canes' offensive line is the best such group in the country, Gonzalez says, because they are selfless and because they adjust to one another's strengths and weaknesses. They act as a unit, both on and off the field. ''If your only business is on the field,'' Romberg says, ''you won't know each other. We don't do anything without each other because we all have the same interests.'' He grins, and holds up his drink. ''Alcohol, women and food.'' ''We play together on instinct,'' Gonzalez says. ''We all move in the same direction at the same time. We're smart, we're all on the same page and we're always thinking about a play before it happens. ''If I mess up,'' he adds, ''I don't care if my coaches rip me. But if these guys do. . . . '' Carey says, ''When I had to do my summer sprints, Bibs and Brett, they yellin' at me, 'Come on, bro, you can do this.' So I made it. If the coach says, 'Good job, Vern,' that's O.K. But from my teammates, it means more.'' ''Jeez, look at that babe!'' Romberg says. ''I can't stand it. I came to Miami for the women and the weather. What's not to like in Miami? After practice I lie on the AstroTurf in my jock to tan. Chrissakes, it's 4 degrees back home.'' ''I hated Penn State and Notre Dame,'' says Bibla, from Mountaintop, Pa. ''Miami was a culture shock at first, but I embraced it with both arms. I pierced my ears, got a tattoo and dyed my hair blond. My hometown was depressing, gloomy, dark weather like in 'Deer Hunter.' My father owned a motel, and me and my older brother had to get up at 4 a.m. to check in guests. We were always struggling.'' ''Bibs never even drank before he got here,'' Romberg says. ''Now he's an alkie,'' Gonzalez says. Bibla grins, raises his glass and makes a ghetto gang sign with his fingers. ''Bibs thinks he's a brother,'' says Carey, who developed his habitual scowl growing up in a Miami ghetto. ''I grew up in Liberty City, and I never saw no white guys.'' ''I grew up in a black town in New Jersey,'' Wilkins says, who comes from Plainfield and has cornrowed hair and a soft, articulate voice. ''Now, I hang with white guys. But that's not unusual on this team.''
''We never thought we'd be hangin' with a bunch of redneck white guys,'' Carey says. ''We learned from the older guys, like Joaquin, how to hang with whites.'' ''When Vernon got here he looked mean, scary,'' Gonzalez says. ''Look at his scowl.'' Carey scowls on cue, then laughs. ''But he's the nicest guy.'' ''I never had relationships with white guys before,'' Carey says. ''Growin' up in the hood, you didn't be social. When I go back to the hood I gotta adapt.'' He scowls. Everyone laughs. ''When they recruit blacks at F.S.U.,'' Carey says, ''first thing they show you is FAMU.'' Florida A&M is the black college near Florida State University; both are in Tallahassee, a Deep South town that has more in common with rural Georgia than Florida. When black recruits arrive at F.S.U., which is predominantly white, they are quickly steered to the nearby FAMU campus with its pretty black coeds. It is not uncommon for black F.S.U. players to spend more of their free time at FAMU than at their own campus. ''My high school buddy was black,'' Gonzalez says. ''When we went on recruiting trips I never saw him the whole weekend. At most schools, white and black recruits don't interact.'' ''At Miami,'' Romberg says, ''we knew if we wanted to be successful we couldn't have that.'' ''When I was recruited at U.M.,'' Wilkins says, ''they sent me out with a white guy. I thought that was kinda weird. But Miami is the most culturally diverse place in the country. Look at Romberg,'' he says, grinning. ''He's a bigot. He's always asking me questions about blacks, not because he's retarded, just ignorant.'' ''All Canadians are jerks,'' Bibla says. ''Vernon calls me a cracker, then laughs his butt off,'' Romberg says. ''But it's never racism. I call him a monkey. In the locker room I pour baby powder down his back and call him a silverback like in the movie 'Congo.' When he got calluses on his elbows, I said, 'Didn't they lay enough straw in your cage?''' ''You gotta pay the price to be in our circle,'' Bibla says. ''Trust, baby,'' Gonzalez says. ''Romberg's a wimp for his Cuban girlfriend,'' Bibla says. ''After the Boston College game,'' Carey says, smiling now. ''We all in a club and Brett's girl come and drag him out because she don't want him to be with the guys.'' ''Wimp!'' Gonzalez screams. Then he says, ''Our joking makes us close.'' ''No taboos,'' Romberg says. ''Like Bibs's mom, she's got this deep voice, so when she calls and I answer, I say, ''Hey, Bibs, it's your dad.' But she is well built.'' ''My mom hides her money between her breasts,'' Bibla says. ''She calls it the Polish piggy bank.'' Wilkins just shakes his head. ''Black guys don't talk about their moms like that.'' ''We don't rag on black guys' moms,'' Romberg says. ''We don't tamper with Dorsey much either. We got cutthroat material on him, stuff that will make a grown man fight. But Dorsey takes it too seriously. If we go to dirt on him he'll start to think, and, my God, our season's over.'' ''We know who can take it and who can't,'' Gonzalez says.
After the plates are cleared, Wilkins and Carey leave. Gonzalez, Romberg and Bibla stay behind to finish their drinks and ogle the girls drifting by the table and dancing off to their right. At one point, Bibla and Romberg stand on their chairs to better survey the women. Gonzalez doesn't notice the women. He's talking with great passion. ''We've got a chance to be the national champions,'' he says. ''You know, I could have gone to Yale or Harvard on scholarship and made connections for life, become an ad exec in New York, a Gordon Gecko, greed is good. But all I ever dreamed of was playing for Miami in the Orange Bowl. So I told this Harvard recruiter, 'Look, dude, Harvard sounds great, but my mind is made up.' I love this program. ''The best thing ever happened to me was I had to prove myself. It made me a better player. It gave me character. All of us. We are the hardest-working football team in America, on the field and off. We don't do it for the N.F.L. or money but for school pride and a championship ring on our finger 30 years from now.'' He looks up at Romberg and Bibla, who are calling out to passing women. ''This program is what it is because of guys like us,'' he says. Romberg yells to a Cuban girl, 'Hey, baby, bring it over here and I'll show you my. . . . ''' Gonzalez laughs and says, ''Guys like us? That's sick, isn't it?''
Special thanks to Scott Martineau for securing permission to post this article on our site.