Getting them lined up for the photo was the best part.
“Yo, Big E! Get in here.”
“Where’s my shirt, man?”
“Picture time! All right!”
“Get Ledgehead in here.”
“Hey, Tiptoe, get out of the front, man. You never smile.”
“At least he’s got his pants on this time.”
“BIG E, GET IN HERE!”
“Why they taking our picture?”
“Yo, Lomas, your calves cramping yet?”
“Oh, funny, funny.”
“Hey, photo man. What kind of lens you using?”
“Must be one of them super wide angle lenses.”
“BIG E, GET IN HERE!”
You would have thought it was a family portrait — which, in a way, it was. Offensive linemen may not get much credit, but they do get close. You try squatting in stretch pants next to the same guy, week after week, year after year, feeling his sweat, smelling his breath, rolling in the mud alongside him. “We have to like each other,” says Lomas Brown. Who else would?
Did I mention Lomas was a trombone player?
Yes. In the high school band. And Roman Fortin was a quarterback. And Kevin Glover was a basketball star. And all of this, of course, was B.C. — Before the Change. Let’s face it: No one grows up wanting to be a lineman. They all want to be quarterbacks or wide receivers or trombone players, and then some coach notices they are twice the size of the kid sitting next to them and, suddenly, it’s, “Young man, how do you feel about blocking?”
From such murky waters do linemen spawn and, like schools of big fish, begin traveling together upstream, pushing against the force of their defensive enemies. It’s a nasty, thankless, co-dependent job, like oarsmen on a Viking ship. “If four of us make the right play and one makes the wrong play, we still lose,” says Glover.
But enough serious stuff. We’re here to talk about camaraderie. The Lions’ offensive line. The beef in front of Barry Sanders. The “Road Crew.” They are closer than most. Not only do they share everything from bowling to gumbo to Big & Tall shops to nasty jokes about each other, but ever since November, they have locked arms in unity for teammate Mike Utley, who may be paralyzed for life.
“We never stop thinking about Mike,” Fortin says.
“He really brought us together,” says Eric Andolsek.
“The tightest I ever felt with these guys,” says young Scott Conover, nodding to his fellow behemoths, “was that first game after Mike got hurt. We were more like family than football players.”
Let’s meet the family, shall we? Lomas Brown NICKNAME BY TEAMMATES: “Calfless” (“because he has no calves,”
NOTABLE MEASUREMENT: 52 Extra Long sports coat.
ORIGINAL POSITION: Trombone player in high school band.
“I didn’t even know what varsity sports were,” Brown recalls. “The principal saw me after I registered for the band, saw how big I was, and he took me by the arm and signed me up for football. . . .
“At first, I didn’t like hitting people. And I didn’t like getting hit, either. They had this drill where you hold the ball while a guy gets to hit you three times, hard as he can. This guy whaled me. I went down and I said,
‘Oh, man! Do I really want to play this sport?’ . . .
“Then I went to college early, when I was 16, and the very first day of spring practice the other guys beat on me so bad — because I was the youngest
— that I left the field and I was crying. I went to the chaplain and told him I didn’t think I could make it in football. I was still crying when I left, and I called my mother and told her I was coming home.”
This is an offensive tackle?
Uh-huh. Not only that, but as a two-time Pro Bowler, Brown is recognized as one of the best in the NFL. He is also the publicity leader of Detroit’s
“Road Crew,” a tag he originated for the offensive line because “we pave the road for Barry Sanders.” For all his accomplishments, Brown is still so timid about his size (6-4, 287 pounds) that when he goes to church or a restaurant, once he sits down, he refuses to stand until it’s time to leave.
Ah, but on the field, size is a blessing. Brown’s blocking is what helps Sanders race for all those yards and gives Erik Kramer enough time to throw those passes.
Not that his teammates are impressed. The other day, someone stuck a magazine ad on Brown’s locker: a picture of a chicken’s legs.
“Lomas has no calves,” says Kramer, deadpan. “We need to get him some implants or something. Look at the man. He’s got the tallest ankles in the NFL!” Eric Andolsek NICKNAME BY TEAMMATES: “Table” (“because he’s wide enough to be one,” says Ken Dallafior).
INTENDED TO BE: Running back.
NECK SIZE: “Uh, 20-something.”
Eric Andolsek would be perfectly proportioned — if someone stretched him to eight feet tall. Instead, at 6-2, his body suggests a weightlifter who had a piano dropped on his head, so that now his chin, neck and shoulders are on the same plane. Somehow, the shape works on Andolsek, a warm, pleasant man with (I hope) a good sense of humor.
“I didn’t want to be a lineman, either,’ he admits. “I wanted to be a running back. I figured since I was bigger than most of the kids my age, I’d just run right over them.
“My first football team, I think I was in sixth grade, the coach saw me, he said, ‘Let me see you snap the ball.’ I snapped it a couple times, and he said, ‘You’re the center.’ “
Andolsek, the Lions’ left guard, comes from Louisiana, and his wife reportedly makes a mean gumbo, which the “Road Crew” has enjoyed at the dinner table — along with other meals courtesy of Rodney Peete and Barry Sanders.
“Who eats the most when you guys go out?” Andolsek is asked.
“Barry,” he says.
Andolsek’s theory on why the offensive line is so tight is pretty simple:
“We’re all big; we’re all pretty gentle, and we’re all really nice guys.”
Except when you ask one about the other. Here’s Ken Dallafior on Andolsek’s anatomy: “He looks like a table, doesn’t he? One time, we were gonna play poker, and we figured we’d just turn Eric on all fours, with those ears sticking out, and play on his back.”
Nice guys. Ken Dallafior NICKNAME BY TEAMMATES: “Hooch” (“because he’s like that big dog in ‘Turner and Hooch,’ ” says Brown).
WEIGHT IN FOURTH GRADE: 130 pounds.
MEASUREMENTS: 51-51-51-50. (That’s what he says.)
“The reason offensive lines are so close-knit,’ Dallafior postulates, “is because they don’t get respect from anyone outside the team. We have to count on each other for respect.
“Also, when you’re on the line, you’re not one of five people. You’re five people, thinking as one. You have to each pick up the right defensive guy. If one gets past, he can make the tackle.”
Dallafior has had plenty of time to think. He is the oldest member of the offensive line (32) and put in several years in the USFL before joining the San Diego Chargers in 1985. He also never intended to be a lineman — his dream was to play fullback — but from an early age he was destined to be, as they say in Texas, a big ‘un. As a school kid, he couldn’t play Pop Warner football because he exceeded the weight limit.
“The funny thing is, my Dad is only 5-foot-6, and my mom is 5-foot-2,” he said. “And here I am, 6-foot-4, 280.
“I think I was adopted.”
Dallafior took over for Utley. Like his teammates, Dallafior often wears a
No. 60 T-shirt under his uniform to honor his fallen teammate. “That whole situation put things in perspective for us,” he says. “Nobody complains about injuries anymore.”
No. They just tease one another about their body shapes. By the way, lest you think it’s always the other guy . . .
“Me? I’m a Ledgehead,” Dallafior says, squeezing his forehead above his nose. “You see this lump? You get it from your helmet. Pretty soon it starts to stick out like a ledge. Then you can put a beer on it and stuff.”
A beer? Kevin Glover NICKNAME BY TEAMMATES: “Hairless” (“just look at him,” says Andolsek).
ORIGINAL FANTASY: “To play in the NBA.”
MEASUREMENTS: “Just say ‘Big.’ “
If you ask me, Kevin Glover had his finest moment last week during the Dallas-Detroit playoff showdown, when loudmouth Jack Del Rio began screaming across the line at Lions quarterback Erik Kramer.
“Hey Kramer!’ Del Rio snarled. “You’re gonna blow this game! You’re gonna lose it, Kramer!”
Glover looked up and, doing his best “Saturday Night Live” impersonation, hollered, “NOT!”
His teammates cracked up. Glover just grinned. He is the man in the middle, the center, the ball-snapper, the intellectual leader of the bunch, with a calming confidence that suggests someone you can trust. If they were casting the Lions in a movie, he might be played by actor Danny Glover, who is no relation. Of course, Danny would have to put on a few pounds.
“The way you know your line is good,” Glover explains, “is when you know what the other guy is doing without saying anything. A lot of times, we have to adjust to the defense two seconds before the ball is snapped. Sometimes, all we have time to do is glance at each other. But that’s enough. We know who to pick up; it’s like we read each others minds.”
Glover says he does not look into the eyes of the man across from him, because “I’m not blocking his face.” But he does admit to a little conversation at the line of scrimmage, like the time the Lions played Green Bay and former teammate Jerry Holmes. At one point, Holmes, a cornerback, came up tight as if to blitz, and Glover and the guys yelled across, “Hey, Jerry. How you doin’? How’s Patricia? . . . You buy that Yugo yet?”
“We all got into this game as kids,” Glover says, smiling again. “The whole idea was to have fun.” Scott Conover NICKNAME BY TEAMMATES: “Tiptoe” (“because he’s always sneaking around,” says Brown).
ANOTHER NICKNAME BY TEAMMATES: “Rookie, go get lunch.”
HEIGHT IN NINTH GRADE: 6-foot.
Conover is the baby of the bunch. Only 23 years old, he stepped into the starting role at right tackle when Eric Sanders went down against the Jets. It’s awfully hard to be a rookie offensive lineman — mostly because there are so many veteran defensive linemen.
“I always wanted to play defense,” he admits. “I liked the linebackers, because they were the toughest guys out there. But nobody asks you if you want to be a lineman in school. They just put you there.”
And there you stay. You listen to Conover, you listen to the other Lions offensive linemen, even the back-ups, and it’s the same story of transformation. Roman Fortin, the tight end, was a high school quarterback — until he ripped his hand open dunking a basketball. Eric Sanders was a pre-med student and a member of his high school ski team. Bubba Paris, who recently joined the team, has been known to preach religion, often to opposing linemen.
So what is it that draws these mammoth men together in a lonely quest to keep the bad guys at bay, while the running backs and quarterbacks get all the glory? Who knows? Like Conover says, one day you find yourself in a three-point stance and, next thing you know, that’s what you do for a living.
On Sunday, the “Road Crew” will be out there against Washington, sweating and bleeding and groaning and heaving — and you probably won’t notice anything they do, unless they make a mistake. But their teammates will notice.
And their wives and families will notice. And a guy watching from a bed in Denver will notice. And that’s enough.
“You have to like this job,” says Dallafior. “And you like it when you’re with good people . . . like these guys.”
Hey, did you hear that, Table, Calfless, Hairless and Tiptoe? A compliment!
Uh, by the way, if you run into these men on the street, I wouldn’t use any of the above nicknames.
They’re nice guys.
But not that nice.