I was just a redshirting freshman in 1998, but I was honored when Shurmur told me I'd made his fight tape. I spent most of that season at tackle, personifying a turnstile in practice for speedy defense end Riall Johnson. But during our bye week, head coach Tyrone Willingham turned the offensive and defensive scout teams against each other in the annual "Pup Bowl." The Pup Bowl was a rare opportunity for our young players — as well as veterans buried on the depth chart — to compete against athletes with similar strength, skill and experience levels. It was mainly meant to revive our confidence and passion after many of us spent our first few months on The Farm overwhelmed and convinced we'd forgotten how to play football.
The Pup Bowl also was an unrivaled source of amusement for coaches and established players, who roared as our comedy of errors unfolded. Some of the rowdiest cheers came a few seconds after a routine pass play, when junior defensive end Jim Telesmanich took exception to my arguably late shove. I was trudging back to the huddle when I heard the furious footsteps. Frustrated by his third straight Pup Bowl appearance and unwilling to be hectored by a freshman, Telesmanich charged me, his eyes flush with rage. I turned around just in time to engulf him, awkwardly slamming him to the ground in what tight end and professional-wrestling aficionado Matt Wright dubbed a textbook "small package." I didn't hate Telesmanich; I actually admired his dedication to work through several injuries so he could battle every day in practice and help our offense prepare. Still, our Battle Royale went several rounds over the next two years, finally ceasing when Willingham stopped our skirmish during preparation for the 2000 Rose Bowl and ordered us to jog around the practice fields — holding hands.
In my five seasons at Stanford, I learned — as most players and seemingly all linemen do — much about the complicated role fighting plays in football. While it isn't embraced as an indelible element of the sport as it is in hockey, it's just as inevitable. It's nearly impossible to play a sport as wrought with passion and violence as football is without occasionally letting that emotion live on after a play has been blown dead. Every football player — with the possible exception of Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount — knows fighting is usually a moronic and unrewarding waste of energy. After all, pushing or punching a man covered in armor designed to withstand high-speed collisions is typically futile. But no matter how complicated and exotic football's schemes become, it remains so primal in nature — a visceral struggle for sacred parcels of territory — that the animalistic tendencies of its participants are bound to occasionally surface.
I've known for most of my life that I'm not a fighter — at least not a good one. On the last day of seventh grade, my friends and I decided that holding an all-night boxing tournament in a friend's barn would be the perfect way to celebrate summer vacation. After blocking a few stiff jabs with my face, my eyes watered and my vision blurred, but I saw clearly that the sweet science wasn't my favorite subject. That's why it always astounded me that even athletes as brainy as Stanford's were so often reduced to combatant children when one felt another wasn't playing fair. When football players — especially teammates — break into fisticuffs, it's important to remember that the conflict typically has nothing to do with the character of the athletes involved, and everything to do with the athletes simply seeing too much of each other.
Scott Giles is one of the nicest, most even-tempered people I've ever met. But after colliding with the clean-cut linebacker/defensive end for four seasons, he shoved me to the ground from behind while pursuing the ball carrier during a 2002 practice. A minor scuffle ensued, but a few minutes later, Giles apologized and we laughed on the sideline while recalling the ridiculous threats we'd exchanged. San Francisco 49ers center Eric Heitmann rivaled Giles for the title of "Cardinal's Kindest." But even Heitmann incited a minor fray in 1998 when he playfully sat atop Dorean Kass after pushing him to the ground during a one-on-one pass-protection drill. The veteran defensive tackle didn't see the humor in becoming a freshman's throne.
Marcus Hoover was a friendly, sportsmanlike defensive end with whom I'd never tussled during my first two years at tackle. That's why I was perplexed when he abandoned his pass-rush techniques and haphazardly flailed at me during a one-on-one drill late in 2000 fall camp. I seethed through the remainder of what became a spirited practice, only for Hoover to apologize immediately afterward, explaining that defensive ends coach Phil Zacharias had instructed him to pick a fight with me, hoping it would awaken all of our linemen from the dog days of August. I couldn't blame Hoover for heeding his coach's advice; Zacharias was far scarier than I ever was.
Another gentle giant, right tackle Kwame Harris played next to me for two seasons after I moved to guard, and we quickly developed the requisite chemistry to eliminate opposing tandems of linemen and linebackers. But we were both perfectionists, too, and our heated exchanges of constructive criticism following each series at practice often induced our teammates to separate us before we killed each other. What they didn't know, however, is that Harris and I loved and understood each other enough to bicker like Frank and Estelle Costanza between plays, only to have each other's backs when action resumed, and completely disregard our spats while gorging on chicken wings after practice.
Despite growing up in nearby Morgan Hill, I was a high school senior when I first attended a Stanford football game. I watched with a few fellow recruits in 1997 as the Cardinal outlasted Oregon in a wild 58-49 shootout. I remember seeing Chad Hutchinson sling four touchdown passes while the Ducks' defensive backs futilely tried to cover a wily wide receiver named Troy Walters. I also remember observing linebacker Sharcus Steen as he pleaded innocent after being ejected from the game for throwing a punch in a goal-line scrum. I made a mental note to never anger the imposing Steen, but ironically, it was he who taught me to not take gridiron altercations personally. I was competing for a starting job at right tackle during the spring of 1999 when I clung to Steen's jersey on a running play, prompting him to shower me with a flurry of uppercuts. I spent the rest of that afternoon fearing my days with a fully functional jaw were numbered, but as Steen made his way out of the locker room after practice, he boisterously slapped me on the back, smiled and nodded as if commending me for standing toe-to-toe.
To the surprise of many, mid-game fights are exceedingly rare. Most players jostle their opponents past the echo of the whistle, but the threat of penalties, ejections and retaliation are enough to curtail most blatant pugilism. The most pronounced punch I ever threw came against Oregon State in 2002. I can't recall what incited me to swing, but I landed a right haymaker to a Beaver defensive end's ear hole. The blow was devastating; not to him, of course — his helmet performed its duty brilliantly. But I was left with a hand, wrist and forearm that throbbed with the sensation of a million bees for the remainder of the contest.
Though that altercation was admittedly arbitrary, there were times I knew it was my duty as an offensive lineman to instigate extra-curricular activities, much like an enforcer's role in hockey. If a defensive player was excessively harassing a member of our offense, I knew the best way to derail his train of thought was to give him something to worry about besides his assignment. If a safety insisted on running his mouth to get in our receiver's head, I'd be sure to return the favor by hunting for his head at the conclusion of the next play. If a nose tackle sought to intimidate our green center, I'd make my presence known with a timely — yet legal and seldom malicious — hip shot or cut block, forcing him into a proverbial pissing contest that would make him forget all about maintaining his gap or pursuing our ball carrier.
It never took much to loathe California, but in the final game of my collegiate career, a Golden Bears defensive end gave me another reason by inexplicably tackling me by my knees long after a play run to the opposite side of the field. I retaliated immediately, but my vicious crotch shot left me with a fistful of cloth — reinforcing my long-held belief that all Golden Bears are castrated upon enrollment. I set my grudge aside long enough to perform well despite our lopsided loss. But in the waning moments of that disastrous 2002 season, I sought redemption. On our final offensive series, I was fortunate enough to pick up that dirty Golden Bear on an inside move, easily washing him past our quarterback. I then disengaged long enough to let him saunter downfield before I sprinted the fastest 10 yards of my life and buried my helmet into his right kidney. With our 2-9 record nearly cemented, I wasn't exactly worried about being suspended from our bowl game. I wasn't even penalized — although a meaningless flag would have been a small price for the pleasure of rupturing that weenie's internal organs after he intentionally attacked my previously injured legs. I wondered how the nearby official missed my spiteful swan song. My only explanation is that he saw what the dastardly defensive end did to set me off, and like me, he wanted to give that dirty Golden Bear something to think about the next time he sat down to pee.
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