Stoked with Stokes

While not an official prerequisite for success, it's always helpful if a NFL offensive lineman approaches his life with a unique viewpoint. If nothing else, distinctiveness makes it impossible for defensive linemen to identify what may be normal or to predict what to expect from an adversary from down to down.

It's basically all about keeping the other guy off-balance, isn't it?

Of course, this is a phenomenon teammates and opponents of Barry Stokes have become familiar with during his somewhat chaotic but regularly entertaining career.

Some might say Stokes resides in an exclusive neighborhood located somewhat off-center.

"It depends on what you think off-center is," said Shaun O'Hara, the Giants center, who played with Stokes the last two seasons with the Browns. Stokes, one of the many mid-level free agents the organization signed during the off-season, began the exhibition season as the Giants starting left guard. It was behind his textbook block in the second quarter against the Chiefs that Ron Dayne found the open space for his 67-yard touchdown run.

This is the kind of work the Giants expect of Stokes, who has come to know the value of fundamentals and versatility. It's essentially what convinced the Giants to sign both Stokes and O'Hara, even though the Browns offensive line may have had as many problems as the Giants did in 2003.

"It was very similar," O'Hara said. "We had a lot of injuries, like the Giants did. It was time for a change. Things like that happen. We would have both liked to go back to Cleveland, but it seemed clear the Browns were looking to go in another direction. You see it every year. Some teams don't want a player anymore and they go somewhere else and end up in the Pro Bowl. We're hoping that happens to us."

Since the Lions signed him as an undrafted free agent in 1996, Stokes has taken his share of blows from teams who have waived him. The Lions, Jaguars, Falcons and Rams disposed of him before he made his NFL debut in 1998 with the Dolphins. But after signing with the Browns in 2002, Stokes started all 16 games at left guard, the only offensive starter to play every snap. He started 13 of 14 games played last year.

"I've had classic battles with people in the past and many people wonder why I do it," Stokes said. "Well, this is the only time that you have. Your career gets shorter and shorter. The years go quickly by for me. So you take advantage of it when you can. I hope that somewhere down the line some of these players will say they played against Barry Stokes. Hopefully, it's said at some point."

Stokes, a guard/tackle, and O'Hara, a center, were signed in hopes they could play major roles in the latest restructuring of the line. And if the season started today, Stokes would be in the spot formerly occupied by the injured Rich Seubert (broken leg) with O'Hara just to his right.

If so, the Giants line will greet a character whose unconventional personality strangely may be the most defined of any of the players still in camp.

"With Barry, what you see is what you get," O'Hara said. "You love to have him on your line and your team. He'll keep your energy going. I've enjoyed playing with him in Cleveland and I was excited when I found out he'd signed with the Giants. He's an added personality. Where ever he goes he's kind of like Pigpen [the Peanuts character]. He leaves a trail. Not a dust trail. But a legacy."

Stokes was somewhat of a media star in Cleveland, doing television spots – "Stoked with Stokes" – and radio shows during his two years there. One young fan from his years with the Browns traveled to Albany to cheer Stokes during the first day of training camp. Turns out Stokes not only inspired him to become a more disciplined football player, but fired him up with improvised dashes from the tunnel during introductions that quickly endeared him with all Browns fans.

"You'll see, you'll see," O'Hara said. "You need to wait. Why would I want to show the cards now? He cranks it up on Sunday. People will get a real thrill out of him."

Said Stokes: "It's different every time out. You just never know. You don't try to imitate anyone. You're just getting ready for the game and your excitement takes over."

Stokes is also deeply involved with a foundation he established that aids young cancer victims. "These kids have no idea why this is all happening to them," Stokes said. "I have a deep feeling for these kids."

Stokes is also easy to pick out without his helmet since he has the longest hair of any of the players, a reddish, brown mane that cascades in front of his eyes when he moves.

"He's a gregarious personality, like Robert Gallery [the long-haired offensive lineman drafted No. 2 by the Raiders]. But there's no barber here," Coughlin said.

He's been growing it since last July and sometimes pulls it into a topknot reminiscent of those worn by samurais and sumo wrestlers. The fashion expression first caught Coughlin's eye shortly after his reunion with Stokes, a former practice squad player for him in Jacksonville.

"We were in the locker room and he asked me how things were going," Stokes said. "I said, Great coach, I have this cool mirror here so I can look at myself.' He told me, ‘I'll tell you what you need to do; you need to cut that hair.' "

It's unlikely that's going to happen. Still, he has tremendous respect for Coughlin.

"I came here with an overall good feeling," Stokes said. "I knew Tom Coughlin and that the guys he would bring here would like to work. And I liked Pat Flaherty, the offensive line coach, right away. We bonded right off the bat. The whole thing felt right to me."

If it ultimately feels right for the Giants this season, a big part of the reason may be Stokes, the guy on the line who plays just left of center.

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