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Along the 'O Line,' Trench Warfare Is Nothing Personal

September 04, 1986|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — At 9 a.m. the sun appears above the working class of football players known as offensive linemen and extracts sweat. It runs down their bull necks, powerful arms and heaving stomachs, saturates their gold pants and white jerseys and even seeps into the pads, tape, gloves and heavy, pinching knee braces they must wear.

Although encumbered by all this equipment, they still rustle over the Cal State Long Beach practice field with an unexpected nimbleness, their high-top shoes sifting straw-colored pieces of grass.

But unlike backs and pass receivers, there is nothing sleek about the 49er offensive linemen--280-pound tackle Mike Lilly's belly, bare beneath his No. 77, is so large it shimmers--and they carry no hint of romantic football glamour, which is the way they want it.

"They're blue-collar guys, they punch in, they punch out," said offensive line coach Art Valero. "They're nasty, hungry, aggressive, in control."

They don't score touchdowns or make headlines. They see themselves, not as individual glory seekers, but as anonymous warriors who make up a talented unit referred to always as "O Line."

Tackle Joe Iosefa tries to spread that philosophy to the rest of the team. After the practice last week, which the coaches had judged as unsatisfactory, Iosefa, 6 feet 3 and 290 pounds, told the entire offense in an emotional speech: "We ain't goin' nowhere with people doin' their own thing. We don't want individuals here. If you're an individual, just walk off the field and go home."

An offensive lineman's job is to protect the quarterback by warding off the charges and blows of maniacal defensive players, and also block to open paths for runners.

"You've got to have an attitude," said Iosefa, who made the All-Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. first team last season. "If you don't, you might as well forget it. You've got to be nasty, down to the bone. I don't like to hit people, but it's a job."

The offensive linemen think they are different and no one argues about that.

'Certain Unity and Pride'

"They have a certain unity and pride they think is unique, and it is," said Mike Sheppard, the head coach of the 49ers. "They're happy-go-lucky--until the ball is snapped."

Fun-loving and hard-working also describes Valero, 28, an enthusiastic, short, stocky man who once was an offensive linemen himself. He constantly encourages and teaches his players, promising them fun and excitement but never letting them stray too far from the work ethic.

"Go over and grab a drink," Valero said during practice. And as the players headed for water--which they would also pour over their heads--they heard him say, "And hustle right back."

The offensive linemen seem to immensely enjoy their private little club, whose doors are open to only a psychotic few.

"We're a close group," said Lilly, who is trying to reclaim his starting job at right tackle from Jeff Sherer.

An offensive lineman "needs a little more excitement than the average person. We're kind of crazy."

While Lilly cut the tape from around his ankles after practice, Jim Brooks, a bearded 6-4, 270-pound senior guard of whom Valero marvels, "Gee, what a stallion," changed into camouflage pants.

"Offensive linemen are not normal people," Brooks said. "We've got too much energy, we're kind of goofy, maybe because we've been hit in the head so many times."

Brooks has the personality suited for his job.

"I've always been outgoing," he said. "You have to be. You don't see too many quiet, to-themselves guys."

Brooks said he looked forward to the violence of line play. "It's fun and it gets my aggressions out," he said. "You have trouble with the girlfriend, you hit a little harder."

He said he has no tendency to carry his football habits with him when off the field.

"We have a confident feeling in society because we are larger than most people," Brooks said. "But you don't walk around being bullies."

Despite their outgoing nature, the offensive linemen attract little attention from fans or the media.

'You Have No Stats'

"You don't get recognition, you have to do it for the guys, your coach and yourself," said Spencer Battle, a 6-4, 275-pound senior guard. "You're not going to be in the newspaper. You have no stats (statistics are kept for every other position). If you're the type who needs attention, this is not for you."

But they are sustained by the recognition they get from teammates.

"If a running back gets publicity, you figure in the background someone has to be doing something," Lilly said. "They (runners) thank us a lot."

Brooks says offensive linemen have their own thrills.

"I live for the great block," he said. "It's the greatest feeling when you make a great block and see the running back go by. It's a feeling that keeps me from being jealous" of the more-frequent praise ball carriers and quarterbacks receive.

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