The locker room after practices at the Chargers training facility smells like a sweat sock. This news may not shock anyone, but, seriously—it reeks. Civilian clothes hang in the varnished wood cubbies, and news clips, pictures of family and announcements from the NFL adorn the sides. The floors along the walls are lined with gear and clothing. Humongous men pace around the room wearing towels or workout clothing, watching one of the three flat-panel TVs, kvetching about coaches, taking their showers or swapping recipes.
You read that right—recipes. Guard Mike Goff, feared for his demolition of defensive tackles, has earned a reputation as an excellent chef. Know how he learned? From the Food Network, of course.
“Emeril Lagasse made something good, so I wanted to recreate it,” Goff told me during a visit to the locker room. “So I was really determined to make it. It was some form of stuffed shells. It was not good, so it made me angry.”
The long-haired Goff has a round face and an easygoing way about him, but at that moment all I knew was I was glad not to be Emeril that night.
“I had to try and make it right after,” Goff said. “I scrapped the first attempt and went to the store. I was up cooking till 2 o'clock in the morning. After that I was totally hooked.”
These days, his house functions as the social headquarters for the remarkably successful crew of Chargers offensive lineman, whose often-thankless job it is to protect the quarterback from the defense and create holes through which running backs run. They've helped take the Chargers to a National Football League-best 14-2 record and a division championship and, in conjunction with fullback Lorenzo Neal and the tight ends, have cleared the way to make the Chargers the league leaders in rushing. Running behind these guys, running back LaDanian Tomlinson has scored more touchdowns and total points in a single season than any NFL player ever has before and won the Most Valuable Player award. In a league known for player movement, especially among offensive linemen, San Diego has kept five of its key guys together for three years, with rookie Marcus McNeill the only newcomer. The key to it all, they say, is knowing each other.
“I would say we're one of the closest-knit groups on the team. We all hang out; we all know each other's family,” said the other guard, Kris Dielman.
No other group on the team has to work so intimately. They are huge men—San Diego's linemen average 6 feet 4 inches and 312 pounds—but at the line of scrimmage, they crouch shoulder to shoulder in front of quarterback Philip Rivers, at the center of the play. They may be called upon to fall back into a protective bubble around Rivers, or they may have to hurl their bodies forward to clear a path for Tomlinson. A guard like Goff or Dielman might have to pull from his position and dance around his colleagues to the other side of the line to lead the blocking, or they may be asked to dash into the open field to clear the way for a screen pass. In such tight quarters, everyone has to know his assignment perfectly or the whole play might collapse. Tomlinson is such a great back that he could work around a few such errors, but his marvelous season would never have been without the efficient work of these six gents.
But who are these guys? Who even knows their names? Goff says people look at him and assume he's either a football player or a wrestler, but that hardly seems fair. I ventured into the Chargers locker room to learn a little more about Roman Oben, Shane Olivea, Nick Hardwick, McNeill, Dielman and Goff.
At home, Goff still likes to prepare the specialties of his TV sensei and has developed a flair for Cajun food. He invites a regular cast of linemen and friends to his house every Tuesday night, an event he stops just short of calling an eating club.
“I like spicy-hot food, so I try to sweat 'em out. I'll add more cayenne pepper or crushed red pepper, or something along those lines,” he said.
This year, Goff hosted Christmas dinner with a menu that included deep-fried turkeys, a ham, macaroni and cheese, yam casserole and a cheese-chorizo dip that teammates were still crowing about the next week. Ten Chargers attended, including all the linemen except McNeill.
A rookie, McNeill had his whole extended family in town, from siblings and cousins to aunts, uncles and grandparents. They came to his house and whipped up a dinner just like the ones he used to have back home in Decatur, Ga. He's so close to his family that his back is tattooed with an enormous spreading tree titled “McNeill” in looping script. It's a family tree, and this off-season he plans to have the names of his grandparents and siblings inscribed into the branches.
Drafted in the second round because of back trouble, McNeill has defied skeptics by playing in all 16 games this season. By now, he's gone from green rookie to grownup O-lineman, a fierce protector of Rivers' back. If you haven't read Michael Lewis' treatise on the position, The Blind Side, you need to know that the left tackle plays the left-most position on the line. A right-handed quarterback, like Rivers, turns away from the left side of the line when he throws, meaning he can't see the defensemen looking to cause him harm coming from that direction. As the protector of a $40.5 million asset, the left tackle is considered the most important job on the line.
Last summer, the Chargers were still hoping that veteran Roman Oben would be that guy, but they drafted the 6-foot-7, 337-pound McNeill as a backup and long-term replacement. Oben didn't come all the way back from off-season knee surgery until late in the season, and McNeill won the starting job. In training camp, he spent most of his time battling Steve Foley, the linebacker shot by an off-duty police officer before the season began.
“My competition level was getting where I was playing on the level he was playing. I knew I could play in this league,” McNeill told me. “When Foley went down, I took it hard.”
As a rookie, McNeill's assigned locker is in a different part of the room from the rest of the linemen. Above each cubby is a plastic placard inscribed with the player's name. Despite his excellent play, McNeill doesn't have one.
Roman Oben does. It reads: “The Chief.”
Fullback Lorenzo Neal granted him the nickname as a nod to the great Boston Celtics forward Larry Parrish. At 34, Oben, like Parrish once did, is coming back from injuries and must find new ways to contribute to the team. He serves as a backup and an extra blocker. Neal told me he gave Oben the name for his leadership and for the way he comes and works hard every day, even as his body deteriorates. After practice, Oben paced the locker room with a limp, talking to teammates and giving advice. He is older than all of his colleagues on the line, most of whom are in their early 20s. Only Goff is older than 30. Before I can speak with any of the younger guys, they insist I ask Oben's permission first.
Though we'd never met, I remembered Oben as a promising left tackle with the New York Giants in the late-1990s, a key blocker for a committee of running backs that included the youthful Tiki Barber. Born in Cameroon and raised in Washington, D.C., Oben realized early that he could satisfy one kind of bloodlust on the field and another in politics. He used his time in New Jersey to earn a master's degree in public administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University. As part of his degree program, he became an intern for Democratic Congressman Bill Pascrell. Often he advanced for the congressman, introducing him at rallies or in schools. Then he'd head back to the stadium for practice.
“I used to have to change in my car,” Oben told me. “I didn't want people to think I was less of a football player than the guy who thinks about football all day.”
When he joined the Cleveland Browns for the 2000 season, he had to complete his classes by flying back to Fairleigh Dickinson, Thursday through Saturday, for 10 weeks. As a newly resident Ohioan, he switched his internship to none other than now-presidential candidate (again) Rep. Dennis Kucinich.
“I think he has a great vision for America,” Oben said. “But he's not the most electable candidate. No Northern or Midwestern Democrat is going to get elected these days.”
Kucinich had Oben doing constituent casework, like helping veterans get handicapped license plates or old people get their social security checks. Oben admires him, even if Kucinich “threw too many football analogies at me.”
Nearby, center Nick Hardwick laughed at the lengthy story. At 283 pounds, Hardwick is the smallest man in the group, but his job demands he be the quickest thinker. (Quit snickering. Linemen typically score higher on the mental-ability tests than any other position in football.) During a game, the players learn what each play will be with about 17 seconds to spare before the ball's snapped. They approach the line and get into their stance. In those final two to three seconds, Hardwick, as the center, has to read the defense and call out adjustments to the blocking scheme before Rivers hollers “hike.” Then he has to get in the way of a man possibly as much as 100 pounds heavier than himself and keep that guy off Rivers or, tougher yet, move him out of the way for Tomlinson.
Before games, Hardwick makes a mental list of plays and possible variations on them. He visualizes his response to various defensive formations and what his linemates should do. He learned the habit as a wrestler in high school, when he was California state champion, and at Purdue University in Indiana. He switched to football only after watching fellow Boilermaker Drew Brees bask in Rose Bowl glory.
“I showed up, kinda lied to the coaches, told them I played football before,” Hardwick said. “I faked my way through it, stood at the back of the line and watched the other guys do the drills so I didn't look like a total fool when I got up there. I kinda mimicked everybody for a while, just paid real close attention when we were watching film.”
Surfers who hang out at South Coast Surf Shop or out at Tourmaline might spot Hardwick riding some waves. He picked up surfing from professional longboard surfer Billy “Butter” Joyce, whom Hardwick met at the shop.
But that's for the off-season.
“You can't do anything during the season. You only have energy to wake up in the morning,” Hardwick said. “We hang out, have some beer, Jim Beam or whatever, eat some food—we're eaters—anything with minimal effort, like go to baseball games. Anyplace we can go and sit down.”
Kris Dielman loves it when the gents of the line go to Padres games. The guard has become friends with brothers Marcus and Brian Giles, among other Pads, and he often sees them during the off-season. Dielman considered baseball as a career. He thinks they have it easier than football players.
“They wear and tear differently, over 162 games, but they don't go out and take a beating every week like we do,” he said. “But I chose the right sport. You get to go out there and go after people. They go after you; you go after them.”
But even tough guy Dielman has his weakness.
“I won't get in the water. I don't belong in the water,” he told me, shifting his weight on his feet. “If I can't see or touch the bottom, I'm not getting in it. I know how to swim, I don't care, I'm not getting in that water. If it's clear, I'll get in that. Hawaii's fine. Here, I won't get in—it's too cold, too dark. I don't need to fuck with that stuff.”
When he needs to be by himself, Dielman gets on his motorcycle and “disappears for a day,” often heading into the mountains around Julian.
Right tackle Shane Olivea also loves baseball, having grown up in Long Island, about four miles from JFK airport in Queens. He learned to love the Yankees, Rangers, Knicks and Giants. In his family, you rooted for all of those four or you found yourself “on the outside looking in.”
“I'm still a Giants fan—San Diego only employees me,” he said.
Olivea has more superstitions than a witch doctor. He tapes his wrists in the same way every game. If the team is winning, he tries to copy exactly the way he did things before the game, the next game. If the team loses, he changes all of them, right down to the way he drives to the stadium.
“It's a good thing we don't lose a lot, or I'd run out of ways to go,” he said.
It's a good thing he wasn't a Charger in 2000. The team lost so often then that Olivea would have to get to games by way of Seattle. Or Toledo. Or Albuquerque.
For the moment, he's got a route he can use pretty regularly. For the next three weeks, anyway, at which point I hope he'll need to find a route to Miami, for the Super Bowl.