Poking fun at sensationalistic sports movies is like harpooning Charlie Weis in a barrel. Still, a few moments from "The Program" - a 1993 movie about the pitfalls of high-stakes football at fictional "Eastern State University" - are so comically dubious as to merit another look as Stanford heads east to South Bend, Indiana this week to battle one of the nation's most storied football programs.
The film's many plot holes, visual inconsistencies and timeline gaffes are obvious to any adult who has ever watched, let alone played, college football. But none of those blunders - including the fact that the Timberwolves appear to employ just two assistant coaches - can touch the inane, vulgar verbiage permeating Wolf Den Stadium.
The trash talk in "The Program" is ridiculous, even by Hollywood standards. Star middle linebacker "Alvin Mack", who doesn't let his illiteracy interfere with his game-day wizardry, intimidates opponents with pre-snap death threats from 10 yards away - no matter that offensive players typically can't hear their own quarterback in packed stadiums. Mack accuses one running back of shooting his mother, and torments another for impregnating his sister. Goofy right tackle "Bud-Lite Kaminski" has the superhuman lung capacity to sing ditties and sling dopey insults at defensive ends while exchanging epic body blows. After ESU scores a touchdown, Kaminski excuses himself from the dialogue, saying, "My dogeys just reached the end zone, and I've got to do some celebrating."
Like most high school recruits, I was convinced that playing college football would be exactly like life at ESU, fancy jock dorms and all. I was wrong, and not just because none of my Stanford teammates meticulously applied skeleton face paint before games like 'roid-raging Timberwolves defensive tackle "Steve Lattimer". One of the most common questions people ask me about my experience as a Cardinal offensive lineman from 1998 to 2002 is, "What do guys really say on the field?" My answer, which almost always disappoints, is "Almost nothing." The conversations may be longer and more poignant among perimeter players, but oxygen is a precious commodity in the trenches, and most linemen don't care to waste their painful breaths on idle chitchat. Still, I heard and mentally preserved plenty of verbal gems during my five seasons on The Farm, most of which stand out for the comic relief they brought to otherwise stressful games, monotonous practices and boring meetings.
In-game verbal sparring is so rare and typically so inarticulate that the occasional instances when opponents "didn't have something nice to say" stand out compared to the much more common gestures of good sportsmanship. The rule is simple: If you're dominating your opponent, you needn't say anything; if you're being dominated, you have nothing to say. Cleveland Browns nose tackle Shaun Rogers has always made his own rules, and at 350 pounds, he is entitled to do so. Rogers was the immovable roadblock in the middle of Texas' defensive line when we corralled the Longhorns in 2000. In one of the most frightening displays I have ever seen, Rogers hoisted one of my 300-pound fellow linemen off the ground with one arm, sent him rolling toward my feet and quipped, "You ain't man enough for me." After Rogers drove me five yards into the backfield on an extra point, I had to question my own masculinity as well.
Most of the ribbing our Stanford teams absorbed from opponents was based on the misconception that we were eggheads who happened to play football. During pre-game stretching before our 2001 victory at Oregon, a Ducks defensive back proclaimed that we would rather be trading stocks on Wall Street than playing football. I guess nobody informed him that having interests beyond the gridiron doesn't diminish a player's abilities on it. Slippery Oregon State defensive tackle Eric Manning gave me fits throughout our 2002 contest - that is until he slipped. When Manning lost traction and belly-flopped during his pass rush, I smothered him, sarcastically declaring that he had just been owned. Manning shoved me, calling me a "smart nerd." I replied that I was glad to hear his fine OSU education put to use. The adjacent official could only snicker at our childish spat and tell us to cut it out. Further bickering probably would have landed us in timeout with no post-game snack. During a post-practice conversation about trash talk, Cardinal wide receiver Ryan Wells once claimed defensive backs are the most egregious offenders. But Wells, who embraced blocking as enthusiastically as scoring touchdowns, knew yappy cornerbacks could be muzzled, and it typically took just one well-timed cut block to do so.
It isn't that opposing linemen are shy. In fact, combative yet respectful relationships often form between players who beat in each other's brains several years in a row. In the middle of our 2001 showdown with UCLA, Bruins defensive tackle Ken Kocher struck up a conversation about our 1998 California high school all-star team that beat Texas in a fundraising game for Shriners Hospitals for Children. It seemed like an odd time to reminisce, but I felt it would be impolite to shun the man I had been brawling with all afternoon. If offensive linemen are generally acknowledged as some of the most cerebral players in football, defensive linemen are an underrated font of innocuous commentary. In 2000, an Arizona State defensive end noticed that he and left tackle Kirk Chambers were wearing identical cleats, and asked if that meant they were brothers. In 2001, Washington State defensive tackle Rien Long and I watched a long fourth-quarter pass bounce off the hands of our wide-open wide receiver, who would have walked into the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown. I appreciated Long's empathy when he shook his head and said, "Now that's just shitty."
There is an axiom that says some of the most memorable moments in a football player's career occur during practice. The same is true for meetings, as well as meals and road trips, and I present some of my former Cardinal teammates as proof. Reserve fullback and deadpan artist Byron Glaspie left our Pac-10 championship ring ceremony at John Arrillaga's sparkling estate convinced that if he were ever that wealthy, he would purchase llamas. But Glaspie delivered his most legendary line at practice. When walk-on linebacker Pat Jacobs furiously hurled his helmet after missing a tackle, Glaspie approached Jacobs and put the incident in perspective, saying, "I've seen you miss a million tackles; what made that one so special?" Prior to facing a particularly hostile opponent in 2002, head coach Buddy Teevens instructed our scout teams to be as chippy and inciting as possible, forcing our starters to practice self-restraint and avoid penalties for retaliation. Our offense took the mandated cheap shots and insults in stride until linebacker Capp Culver crossed the line, calling starting center and fellow native Texan Tom Kolich a "f---ing democrat." Them were fighting words, but most of us were too busy laughing to notice the ensuing melee.
Coaches are the most frequent practitioners of unintentional comedy. Despite spending plenty of time and effort preparing their talking points, Freudian slips and misspoken statements abound. Concerned that young tackles Chambers, Kwame Harris and I lacked conviction in our assignment calls, tackles and tight ends coach Chuck Moller ordered us to "elude confidence." I think he meant to say "exude confidence," but it's tough to recall without a photogenic memory. Moller also raised eyebrows during a blocking drill for tight ends when he bellowed, "Don't stop until I give you the clap!" Wanting us to look sharp and properly represent Stanford during our first road trip of the season, head coach Tyrone Willingham prohibited us from "running around the hotel in daisy shorts." He apparently feared that "Dukes of Hazzard" reruns on TNN would inspire his football team to sashay through the lobby in skimpy, denim cutoffs.
Stanford (3-2) and Notre Dame (3-1) both enter Saturday's game with winning records, and this season's incarnation of Cardinal football is the most aggressive in several years. Still, a clash of swaggering prima donnas looking to run their mouths seems unlikely. Both teams seem to understand that bravado never made a tackle and macho oration has yet to score a touchdown. It is doubtful that Cardinal linebacker and leading tackler Pat Maynor will threaten to bust open Fighting Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen's gut and watch him die a la ESU's Mack, or that Stanford quarterback Tavita Pritchard will urge his offense to "put the women and children to bed and go lookin' for dinner," as ESU field general Joe Kane did before a crucial drive. Athletes as bright as Notre Dame's and Stanford's realize that football is brutal enough without baiting opposing players into further violence. And while the Cardinal look to exit Notre Dame Stadium happy and healthy for their stretch run of six straight Pac-10 games, they can rest assured of one thing: Even the Fighting Irish's most vicious words will never hurt them.
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