Sport January 2004

A Beautiful Mind

As the Philadelphia Eagles' Hank Fraley demonstrates, the behemoth who snaps the ball must also be one of the most mentally nimble players on the field

If you take a walk around Lincoln Financial Field, Philadelphia's new football stadium, half an hour before game time, you will find a summary history of the city's seventy-year-old NFL franchise in the jerseys worn by its fans. Many old-timers still wear the team's traditional kelly green, a cheerful shade that matched the infamous synthetic turf in Veterans Stadium—the much reviled gigantic concrete bowl, home to Philadelphia's pro baseball and football teams for thirty-one years, that sits brooding, empty, and forsaken across Pattison Avenue, awaiting its date with implosion. Marking that old era you'll find jerseys bearing the numbers of retired heroes such as Harold Carmichael (17), Bill Bergey (66), Ron Jaworski (7), Randall Cunningham (12), Seth Joyner (59), Jerome Brown (99), Reggie White (92), and a multitude of others. Nine years ago the team's current owner, Jeffrey Lurie, began remaking the franchise, and one of his first changes was to chuck the cheerful green for a more à la mode shade. (We live in a period that disdains bold colors.) So now a metallic teal predominates among the masses who move into position before a game. Just about every starting player on the current Eagles roster is represented, from the obvious ones—quarterback Donovan McNabb (5) and running back Duce Staley (22)—to receivers, defensive backs, kickers, linebackers, and even linemen. The scarcest jersey numbers are those of offensive linemen, but even they are here. Pro-bowl tackles Jon Runyan (69) and Tra Thomas (72) are represented, as are guards Jermane Mayberry (71) and John Welbourn (76). But search as you might, and I have searched high and low, you will be hard-pressed to find one among these thousands sporting the number 63, worn by Hank Fraley.

This despite the fact that Fraley has started almost every Eagles game for the past three seasons, and has handled the ball on at least three fourths of the team's offensive plays during that period—the most successful stretch of football the Eagles have played in more than twenty years. He played a critical role in orchestrating most of those plays. He was rewarded for his skills last year with a $1.4 million signing bonus and a five-year, million-dollar-a-year contract extension—precisely the kind of deal sought in vain by Staley, the Eagles' star running back.

Fraley is the center. He is the guy who squats and offers his wide rear end to the quarterback before almost every offensive play, who snaps the ball into the star's hands and then braces himself to be run over. He has never scored a touchdown. He has never passed, kicked, caught, or carried the football in a game—not in high school, college, or the NFL. Not once.

He doesn't look like a professional athlete. He weighs more than 300 pounds. Even when he's wearing shoulder pads, his middle is the widest part of his body. He looks soft. His midsection spills over the stretched elastic waist of his skintight white-and-silver uniform pants. It is not a pretty sight. Even in the ever rounder, oversized, overweight world of football linemen, Fraley seems especially doughy. And the impression comes from more than just his physique. He has a mildness, a sweetness of character, that goes with the softness of his body. His teammates dubbed him "Honeybuns," or "Buns," after a practice session in his rookie season when he was beset by a stubborn bumblebee, which prompted Tra Thomas to joke that he must be "sweet as a honeybun." He has small, narrow eyes of pale green, a pug nose, and pouty lips. These features are all pinched at the center of a broad, flat, pink landscape of cheeks and neck. His chin is little more than a lightly cupped shadow in the great roundness that rises from the neck of his jersey. Even his wan stubble of fair beard fails to suggest so much as a hint of jawline.

Fraley likes to come out to the field early on game day, hours before kickoff. It calms him. There is something cathedral-like about the empty stadium in the pregnant calm before game time: the lush flat rectangle of pampered, perfect grass, carefully manicured and lined, is surrounded by towering walls of silent seats. It is thrilling to stand at the center of such a monumental space, and humbling. Small flocks of pigeons soar in sudden graceful fits in the empty enclosure. High above, the big gray undersides of commercial jets slide low across the framed patch of sky on their approach to nearby Philadelphia International Airport. The new stadium has an airy feel, as though it were constructed from ropes and cloth instead of concrete and steel. It is the boldest achievement yet in Lurie's ongoing makeover of the Eagles, and is such an aesthetic triumph that many locals worry it may be too nice—that it doesn't feel like blue-collar Philly and could ruin the team's surly, working-class image. Fraley has no such worries. He spends much of his time on the field crashing into that turf, and he appreciates the more yielding texture of real grass, even if it is threaded with millions of green-plastic strands to make it more durable.

On September 14, the Eagles played the New England Patriots in the second regular-season game played at Lincoln Financial Field. The Eagles had christened the new facility the Monday before, with a gaudy celebration before a national ABC-TV audience, and then had executed a humiliating swan dive, losing 17-0 to the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The loss sent the team's local critics, on radio and TV and in print, into awful spasms of doubt and blame, but it didn't especially rile Fraley and his teammates. They always hate to lose, but it was, after all, only the first of sixteen games. They had been defeated by the league's top-ranked team, and the game had actually been close the whole way. Fraley was concerned mostly about three passing plays in which he had found himself disastrously out of position.

Three times he had left a wide opening off his right hip for Tampa's star defensive tackle, Warren Sapp. The first time he was out of position, he had gotten lucky. Sapp had had an opening to Fraley's right but had gone left. But the second and third times, Sapp had shot right past him, charged into the backfield, and disrupted the play. Mistakes like that can lose a close football game—and if uncorrected, can end a career. He knew Sapp was fast enough to beat even the league's best blocker sometimes; but for it to have happened three times meant that there was something wrong with Fraley's technique. He left the locker room that night wondering what it was.

Two days later, after devouring a small alp of food in the cafeteria of the Eagles' practice facility, Fraley filled another plate and retired to a classroom to study the game tapes in slow motion. In each of those plays he was supposed to have snapped the ball and then stepped back immediately with his right foot, pivoted left, and prepared to absorb Sapp's charge. But in all three plays, he noticed, after snapping the ball he had taken not one long step back with his right foot but two short steps—the first more like a little hop. Despite their manly job descriptions, offensive linemen are a bit like the dancing hippos in Fantasia. Footwork is as careful and deliberate for them as for a ballerina. Fraley tries to perfect his footwork every day, in practice and at home. So it was frustrating to watch himself unconsciously ad-libbing a hop into the movement. Where had that come from? He hadn't even been aware that he was doing it, but it had been enough to give Sapp the advantage. In the week leading up to the Patriots game, Fraley practiced at home to restore the proper rhythm: snap, long step back with the right foot, pivot left, brace.

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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