YOU COULD HOLD your own in an argument that Forrest Gregg, now coach of the Cleveland Browns, was the finest offensive lineman who ever had his ears rung by a head-slap. You could, because Gregg's 188 consecutive games included all the Green Bay seasons of the apotheosis Lombardi, who called Gregg "the finest player I ever coached"; because coeval all-pro Jimmy Ringo said watching Gregg play tackle "is like watching a grant bullfighter or ballet dancer"; because Gregg shifted from all-pro guard to all-pro tackle as smoothly as a sideman laying down the clarinet and picking up the alto; because he was ensconced young in football's Valhalla at Canton, Ohio; and because . . . oh, who the hell ever watches interior linemen anyway? Not even Forrest Gregg.
Watch the guards, the initiates counsel, ever so somberly, if you would understand what's really happening in football, and Forrest Gregg has tried that. "Watching a game on the tube," he confessed before he became a head coach, "I start off looking at the offensive linemen. But then if it's exciting, I'll react just like any other fan and look at the quarter back."
"The press is not geared to write about what happens in the middle of the line," said Len Hauss, he who has got slapped for thirteen seasons as the Washington Redskins' center. "And the television people are not geared to take pictures of it. So they give the public what they want to see, what they want to read about. Yes, it's unfair, but that's the way it is ."
Don't the offensive linemen get a little more recognition in this age of instant replay? "Well, yes," Hauss said, smiling. "Now they announce your name on the p.a. when you're caught for holding. But otherwise they leave us pretty much to ourselves."
And that is all right with George Starke, resident right tackle for the Redskins since thy were humiliated in that Debacle of New Orleans in the middle of the 1973 season. "Certainly I feel ignored by the media," said Starke, the biggest Art History major who ever play tight end at Columbia. "But I don't mind it, because it is the ignorance of the average person who writes about football which feeds the ignorance of the average person who reads about football."
George Starke talks like that. He plays football, as he does everything else, as well as he can. But the game is "filler" in his 29-year-old life, while he decides what he will do with the rest of it. George is in no hurry to decide what his serious business will be, "but I like creative endeavors." Jimmy Ringo, the old center, would say Starke is already in the right line of work. Ringo, a splendid football player, may have had the ideal disposition toward the abrasive abnegation that is life on the offensive line.
It was "desire to create," the old Packer explained, that kept him knocking noses for so many years against tackles who out weighed him thirty and forty pounds. "Defense is destruction," Ringo said, "but a smooth offense is a creation, a beautiful thing." He went on to describe a long gainer on a short tackle trap with the rapture of Casals reciting the eternal verities of Bach.
The tight end, the quarterback, the runner and the wide receiver are the football team's transmission, the four-on-the-floor that convert energy into flashy speed and glorious distance. The interior line is what is under the floor - the grinding guts that make the machine go, and are paid attention until it stops. Maybe not even then.
The offensive lineman may not move until the ball does. He must hold statue-still in a silly position, like a dog pointing grouse, while his adversary may shift and shift position, snorting and pawing the ground like a rhino on the scent. When the ball does move, the offensive lineman may not use his hands (or at least not get caught at it), while his antagonist may shove and maul him with elan and impunity.
"It isn't that bad," says George Starke. "We know the [quarterback's] count, so we know when the ball is going to move. The defensive linemen have their advantages, but we aren't exactly overwhelmed. The offense scores points. You don't see any 0-0 games, do you? It can't be to unfair."
Stop bitching and pull your oar, Valjean. Someone has to pick the cotton. If you can keep your head when all about you are beating on it, and all that. The creed of the interior offensive lineman seems to be a long-suffering cool.
"An offensive lineman usually has a technical approach to the game; a defensive player can get by on instinctive reactions and emotion." Thus spake Vince Lombardi in A Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football , as useful a book as there has been on the game. Author Paul Zimmerman of the New York Post, who neither winced nor cried aloud as he moonlighted as a pulling guard for the Paterson (New Jersey) Pioneers of the semi-pro Eastern Football Conference, could dig it.
Zimmerman cites the exceptional Ron Mix, 250-pound tackle and a complete athlete who never felt the need to psych himself up like Rod Steiger preparing for a scene of "On the Waterfront." "My skills were mechanical, not instinctive," Mix explained himself, "and emotionally I have the temperament of an offensive lineman. I don't have to lock myself in a room before a game and try to get mean in order to play well. Football is still a game for me.
"An offensive player is a thinking man," Mix concluded. "He might be just as vicious as a defensive man, but his viciousness is usually within the rules."
How vicioius is vicious? "I may have lost my perspective," says George Starke, "but I have seldom seen anything really dirty take place. I know nobody has ever done anything dirty to me. Professional football is rough enough when it's played legally."
Starke is one of the reasons why this year's Washington team may be more successful than anyone dares (since Redskins' president Edward Bennett Williams' immoderate assessment of last year's potential) predict. This, the seventh year of the first George Allen administration, may be the first one in which Supercoach can employ five offensive linemen out of choice, rather than necessity. Allen might even have an extra man or two.
In the middle there is Len Hauss, in his 36th year and looking more like Mount Rushmore than ever after perfect attendance in 182 straight games. Playing center in the National Football League may seem a little easier two years after the doctors gave you the idea you weren't odds-on to live, which was an impression Hauss got when they were separating him from a dangerous blood clot. And maybe playing center in the NFL just gets harder and harder. Anyway, it won't daunt Leonard Hauss, who is mentally tough.
"It's done that for me, all right," Hauss said."I'm the mentally toughest S.O.B. in this organization," he declared, sweeping an iron-band forearm to indicate the Dickinson College training compound where forty of nature's most favored creatures were establishing themselves as Washington Redskins and forty other magnificent specimens were about to find out that they weren't quite, and would never be.
Certainly in some cases the deficiency would be in mental toughness, an expression which endures around football camps despite years of attribution by conning coaches and recycling by media romanticists. "If you don't know what I mean by mental toughness," Leonard Hauss said patiently, "I don't guess I can explain it to you. But I can tell you what it does for me. It enables me to take a beating, get no recognition for what I do . . . Actually that doesn't bother me anyway . . . Well, a little bit, deep inside, it does. . .
"But mental toughness enables me to come right back the next week and do the absolutely best damn job I can."
The guards who were to play on either side of Hauss this year both had half his time in NFL travail, but both were imbued with the special mental toughess of men who have known despair. Terry Hermeling and Paul Laaveg spent many months playing out the tragedy of pitiable young giants, cruelly struck down by crippling injury at an age that should be the peak of a professional athlete's powers.
Hermeling's right knee was ripped apart at Carlisle in 1974. He missed that entire season, having tendons transplanted and the like. At the beginning of the training for 1975 Hermeling could jog and that was all. It wasn't expected that Terry would play much more football, but he persevered, and in the sixth game, they sent him in because they needed somebody at tackle. He could play, he discovered.
Last year Hermeling, at 30, made a startling transition, taking over the guard slot held by Walt Sweeney - a position Hermeling had never played before. In one of Coach Allen's baseball analogies, they were telling a veteran third baseman, with a history of injury, to turn himself into a shortstop. Preposterous. But Terry Hermeling retired to a phone booth and came out as a guard, a good one.
"Guard is a harder position," said newly retired Ray Schoenke, who was a one-man bench for the Redskins in all George Allen's seasons. "It requires more agility and more concentration. If you're at right tackle and the play goes left, you're pretty much out of it. But at guard you're always at the point of attack.
"Terry could make it because he was an excellent tackle, with good lateral movement. "The [guard] position demands more because more things can happen. You must be able to read that secondary, almost like a quarterback, and make adjustments. At guard you are frequently in control of plays."
Left guard Paul Laaveg had the agility and concentration to control plays for the Redskins in 1973-74. He was approaching all-pro status at Carlisle in '75. But somebody's knee slammed against his head in the third regular-season game and Laaveg's neck has never been the same. By the fifth game, he was done for the year.
Laaveg seemed ready to play last year, after a term in traction, but then a knee injury cut another year out of his athletic life.
Paul was back at Carlisle in July and, Coach Allen said on August 30, "nobody worked harder . . . I have the highest regard . . . Anything I can do to help him in any career . . ." Ave atque vale . Paul Laaveg had had enough of Tylenol and sympathy."I have the neck of an old man," said Laaveg, 28. He was embarrassed by his performance, he said, "and tired of the pain, so I'm quitting."
Ron Saul, who materialized from Houston as a result of Coach Allen's unremitting phone calls, played in Laaveg's place last year and could again. Dan Nugent is also ready to play.
The tackle on that side is Tim Stokes, young as Allen's regulars go. Both men have evinced mental toughness, particularly Stokes, who went to the mat with redskins management over his contract and reached agreement at precisely the hour Allen's patience ran out. Stokes is suspected of all-pro potential. So is the right tackle, George Starke, roughly 245 pounds of cool, to whom football has never been "the whole thing."
A tight end at Columbia, Starke might have been catching passes from Marty Domres there in the '68 season, but he missed it. A compulsive traveler, Starke did Canada that summer on about five bucks and missed early football practice.
"My buddy had about $50," he recalls, "but some people in Toronto let us use a house. A guy in a gas station in Buffalo loaned us fifty. We learned a lot. Like you don't have to pay tolls. There's always a little office on the side where you can leave your name and have them send you a bill."
Starke, who went to classes as little as possible in high school at New Rochelle, New York, was the first high-school All-American to go to Columbia. First, in the interest of travel, he accepted invitations to a number of campuses including Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Syracuses. At each of them Starke asked one question: What would happen to his scholarship is he stopped playing football? The answers varied only in candor, so George settled on Columbia. The only academic obstacle was staying in high school long enough to take his college board examinations.
"It seemed a mammoth waste of time," Starke says. "High school is geared to the average student, who needs to be led by hand, spoon-fed. I didn't go to class very often, but I got my work done.
"I cut classes, but I was always in the library. Reading was my passion.
"I picked out the biggest books," he explains: Tolstoy and Dostoevsku, Hawaii and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich . "I read so fast that the little ones wouldn't last me."
Penalized for absenteeism, Starke had his grades cut back to Cs and Ds. There was "a lot of heat" about cutting classes, but he was never expelled. George is clearly aware he got special treatment. "New Rochelle had problems," he says. "They were trying to work a lot of poor blacks into the system. I was their good example: the best-known athlete, and black. You don't throw your good example out of school."
George Starke believes in the good example value in education. In the spring of 1972, qualified as a teacher, he joined his father, a school principal in Yonkers, wich was as always "next to the biggest city in the world" and had some of the world's "more serious" slums.
"I mean serious slums," Starke says. "The schools were like prisons." And that spring there was a teachers' strike. "My father arranged somehow to feed kids breakfast and lunch. Some of their homes had no heat, so they'd come to eat and stay warm. I enlisted some of my friends from Columbia and we'd take about thirty kids each and teach them whatever we felt like. The subjects didn't matter so much as the fact that kids need strong images."
The story recalled another time people tried to use George Starke as a good example. "In my senior year in high school a coach at the University of Virginia - he had just moved from the University of Connecticut, where he'd give me a sales pitch - called and asked me to be the guy to desegergate Virginia's athletic program." That was an offer made the following year to Starke's present roommate, Jean Fugett. They both could refuse.
After he'd been too late for football as a sophomore at Columbia, Starke was talked into playing basketball by classmate Jim McMillian, now a seven-year veteran of the National Basketball Association. Starke was good enough to be starting center at Columbia for two years.
But the football coaches had him tabbed. They wanted him as an offensive tackle; he wanted to play tight end. "I wanted to be the big fish in a little pond," he admits. "At 245 I'd be the biggest tight end in the Ivy League, maybe the biggest in the country. I made a deal: if I couldn't do a 4.8 forty [a forty-yard sprint in football equipment] I'd play tackle for them; if I could they'd let me play tight end."
Starke could.For comparison, defensive linemen Dallas Hickman of this year's Redskins can do a 4.7 forty and that make him the fastest of all Redskins linemen.
Columbia's end of the Ivy League's little pond was murky. "We played Calvin [Hill] and those guys," Starke remembers. "Yale beat us about 55-0, I think. I guess we won three games in two years." But George Starke was the big fish, catching twenty-four passes for 293 yards and one of Columbia's few touchdowns in 1969. He caught eleven more in his senior year and Washington drafted him as a tackle in the 11th round in 1971, George Allen's first year. "They had no intention of keeping me on the team," Starke says. After a week at Carlisle he was traded to Kansas City.
"Pro football was never a goal of mine," Starke says now. "If I'd been serious about pro ball I wouldn't have gone to Columbia in the first place. But then, faced with the prospect of getting a job, hustling 9-to-5 every day, twelve months a year . . ."
Starke was the last man cut from the Kansas City squad, putting him in the worst of all possible employment situations. It is too late to catch on with another team. "We could really use you," some of them will say, "but our roster is set. You understand."
Starke understood when the Chief's management advised him to stick around and stay in shape. "People get hurt," they reminded him.
George was watching the last game of the '71 season on television when there was a knock on the door and a little man offered to take him to dinner. The little man had a Dallas connection. It would be cool to go to dinner, Starke said, but he wasn't going to sign.
"I had officially retired in my mind," Starke says, "at age 23, Hank Stram [Kansas City coach] had promised and promised to bring me up, but nothing happened. I was disgusted."
The little scout persisted. "Small-minded," Starke said (he never calls football this business), "he thought I was trying to drive the price up. From $15,000 he went to $20,000. Finally I asked how about a cash bonus. I settled for $500, which got me a plane ticket to New York, where I wanted to be."
Before joining his father in teaching, George Starke went to work on himself that winter, determined to present himself at the Cowboys' camp at Thousand Oaks, California, as a tight end.
George's short-ranged goal was to stay on the Dallas roster until the first of August, when the NFL Champion Cowboys would play the College All-Stars. He made it. "Rookies get a half-game check," he had it figured. "And they don't even get in the game, I picked up better than eight hundred bucks."
That was as close as Starke came to playing for Dallas. "Yeah, they decided that unprintable Fugett was a better tight end than I was," Starke said, raising his voice. "Shows you what a stupid organization Dallas has." He was talking in the lobby of the Redskins dorm at Dickinson College and Fugett was ignoring him.
The Cowboys gave him another chance, Starke said, and it gave him another insight into football mentality. "They said maybe I could make it at guard if I put on a little wieght. But when they saw I couldn't pass-block Bob Lilly - at 230 pounds - I had to go." Lilly, a 270-pounder, was a perennial all-pro defensive tackle who was in the Texas hall of Fame about twenty minutes after he retired. "The Cowboy organization is computer-oriented and says it believes in trying men at different positions," Starke explained. "Giving me a 'chance' like that a guard saved face; it gave them a reason to cut me."
Line coach Mike McCormick saw to it that the Redskins got Starke as soon as he was available and turned him back into a tackle. Taxi-Squad Checkers was still being played in '72, so for three weeks or so Starke was "released." Signed again, he was later informed that he had been injured in practice, and placed on injuried reserve. In '73 Starke was tested in George Allen's rookie crucible, the "special" teams. In the purge after the 19-3 embarrassment at New Orleans Starke got a regular job and has kept it.
And he is, to use his expression, "at peace with it." There is physical contact on every play, Starke acknowledges. "But we're going at each other from two or three feet away," he says. "There's not the momentum Larry Brown had, accelerating for five or six yards or more before he ran into anybody. Now, that is hitting."
Nor does Starke think the pay is bad, relatively, even though offensive linemen are the least spoiled of all pro football's opulent eminences.
An established journeyman guard or tackle ought to be making $60,000. If he's still able to pay after six years and still in his twenties, he rates $80,000, maybe a little better. "A little less in Dallas," George Starke said of those estimates. "We're the poor relatives of basketball, and baseball salaries are going crazy too. But what's the American median income, $10,000? Yeah, I know. We [offensive linemen] are the workhorse who knock ourselves out and don't get any pub[licity] for it. The defensive tackle gets the pub. I block my DE fifty times and nobody hears about it; he quarterback and he gets the pub. So it's my obligation - to me - to make as much money as I can. That's what professional sports is all about."
Len Hauss, who has taken his bumps for fourteen years for praise that was usually so faint as to be nearly inaudible, agreed on the pucity of pub his department gets. "But a man who goes through life seeking recognition for himself," Hauss said, "and feeling sorry for himself when he doesn't get it, isn't much of a man anyway. Is he?
Starke thinks offensive linemen have been over-pitied by the rule-changers already. He thinks it's a mistake to forbid the head-slap, that open-handed pat with which the defenders box the offensive linemen's ears at the snap of a ball. "They talk about injuries," Starke says disdainfully. "That's bull. What the head-slap is supposed to do is make you flinch, anticipating it; if you flinch, in that split second your man can get by you. So you learn not to flinch.
"Face it: football is a rough game. The defense has to use their hands. Most of these rules are put in to stick George Allen£ anyway. His defense is always ahead of everybody's. The other teams can't do things as well as Allen does, so they try to legislate the advantages out of existence."
"I got slapped a lot," Ray Schoenke recalls, "and I used my fist a lot. You can counter the head slap, but you can't stop it. I remember raising my hand to stop a slap by Roger Brown [300-pound Detroit tackle] and he swung right through my hand, I think they should have the head slap. Anything goes within reason. There's 'illegal use of hands' on every play, but I wouldn't call it holding unless somebody's pulling on my jersey. You can't stop a 270-pound man without using your arms.
"If there's anything unreasonable," Schoenke said, "you have to work it our between the two of you. Buck Buchanan [Kansas City tackle] was working me over pretty good one game and I warned him. He didn't stop so I started punching his ribs. We worked it out."
Schoenke doesn't think offensive linemen's pay is so bad these days. "Offensive linemen are hard to find," he says, "so if you master it you can play a long time. No, you don't get publicity, but you can earn respect within your industry, peer respect. You have to be realistic, pragmatic, but there are great rewards. I felt I owned a little piece of Larry Brown's success.
"I got all I wanted out of football."
So he wouldn't mind if his son became an offensive lineman? "I think Eric is destined," Ray Schoenke said. "He's 11 years old and he weighs 160."
So Schoenke agrees with two parts of George Starke's three-point stance that the pro game of the Seventies is not too tough, not too dirty and not too important, "I'd wager it was worse in the Fifties," he said. "The players today are more educated, more sophisticated and more aware of what's important about the game.
"It behooves each player to prolong the career of every other player as much as possible."
Football is George Starke's business. "My business is whatever I'm doing at the time," he says. In spring of 1976 it was television commercials. Starke wrote and produced a series of commercials for a foster home care agency in New York. He studied the uses of film at Columbia and is at home with it. In January 1976, George carried [WORD ILLEGIBLE] camera and 10,000 feet of film [WORD ILLEGIBLE] China. But at the border, on [WORD ILLEGIBLE] from Hong Kong, the Chinese [WORD ILLEGIBLE] put a lead seal on the film [WORD ILLEGIBLE]
"The Chinese don't [WORD ILLEGIBLE] sional film crews," Starke [WORD ILLEGIBLE] "since a European guy did [WORD ILLEGIBLE] garde kind of thing in '71. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Shanghai in black and [WORD ILLEGIBLE] wasn't really bad, but they missed [WORD ILLEGIBLE] subtleties.
"They weren't tough about [WORD ILLEGIBLE] camera and I could have circumvented their restriction. But I wouldn't violate their hospitality. We had a marvelous time and I got beautiful slides."
The slides were interesting enough for Starke to be invited to brief people at the War College, the finishing school for American generals on the other side of the tracks in Carlisle. Starke had proposed to film a light documentary on the Chinese approach to athletics, partly because the China Travel Service asks why you want to travel in China.
"They don't allow tourists," Starke said. "If you're David and Julie you get the serious B.S. But we were there in their most transitional period. They were mourning Chou En-lai. Theaters, ballets, were all suspended."
Then George Starke, offensive tackle and world citizen, went on to talk about the Chinese multiudes as if he were talking about that microcosm of men who scroonch down in front of Billy Kilmer.
"Nobody outside themselves really understands them. Nobody. Bit a lot of people like to think they do, so they make up a lot of stuff.
"And it's all bull---."