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.
Playing center is one of the most important jobs in football. It involves a lot more than just hiking and blocking. In the seconds between leaving the huddle and snapping the ball, the center must evaluate the defensive formation he sees in light of the play just called. He must anticipate what the defense is going to do—say, blitz a linebacker or a safety, or try some stunt—and then adjust the blocking assignments to cope with it. Donovan McNabb, the Eagles' star quarterback, studies game tapes all week with Fraley, and the two work together closely on the field. "Hank and I work as a team," McNabb says. "Everything that people see me do starts with Hank." While the center is making adjustments to the blocking scheme, shouting out changes in code, the quarterback is shouting out his own changes to running backs and receivers —or he may change the play altogether. Each must listen to the other. Fraley has to be alert to the changes called by the quarterback, and vice versa. All of this takes place in the seconds before every offensive play, often in a stadium roaring with noise, before a defense that is deliberately trying to disguise its intentions. "Hank's calls influence a lot," says McNabb. "Suppose I see that we don't have enough blockers to handle everyone coming at me. If Hank makes a check to counter that, and I miss it, I'll ending up throwing hot"—dumping the ball quickly to a pre-designated "hot" receiver—"when I'm protected." In that scenario McNabb's hot pass not only aborts the called play but will also probably go to a receiver who is not expecting the ball.
But as important as the center's position is, it is also peculiarly invisible. The eyes of everyone watching a football game move away from the center the very second he snaps the ball, and except for the linemen who battle with and against him, hardly anyone notices where he ends up when the play is over. Usually it's in a bruising heap. His is arguably the most difficult and least rewarding role in all of sport. What center is ever featured in a highlights reel unless he makes a big mistake? What center has ever been carried off the field by his triumphant teammates after a big win?
In recreational football the offensive line is a repository for boys too fat, too slow, or too awkward to be trusted with the ball. Many an aspiring footballer has quit the game forever after a few days of getting ignominiously knocked around in practice. Once you become a blocker, the only glory you will ever taste is team glory.
Dave Alexander, who played center for the Eagles a decade ago, now coaches his two sons in recreational football back in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They are big, like their father—"destined for the line the day they first walked on the field," he says with a fatherly chuckle. "And the thing that strikes me is, when the team scores a touchdown, there's nobody on the field who is happier than they are. For linemen, it's not about people slapping you on the back or having your name announced on the loudspeaker, it's about making the numbers change on the scoreboard. It's weird, but even after all the years I played, I never fully appreciated that until now." A quarterback, a running back, a receiver, a linebacker, a cornerback, a safety, or even a defensive lineman can dazzle the crowd, even in a losing effort. Players in these other positions can amass all-star statistics: touchdowns, sacks, interceptions, tackles. Not an offensive lineman. If the team loses, he loses. And of all the jobs on the offensive line, center is the least desirable, at least when one is starting out. Among other things, don't forget, the center is the guy who has to let the quarterback lay hands on the underside of his butt—a matter whose awkwardness for teenage boys cannot be overestimated. So the job attracts big, sturdy boys who aren't easily embarrassed, or who are willing to swallow a little ridicule in order to make the team. Many a star football player pays lip service to the principle of Team First; but for the big man at center, the team is all there is.
The terms "offensive" and "defensive" are misleading when they refer to linemen. Along the line of scrimmage defensive linemen essentially play offense, in that their job is to attack, to go after the man with the ball; offensive linemen play defense. On the snap of the ball defensive linemen cut loose with everything they've got, using strength, speed, and cunning to avoid blockers and make the tackle. Defensive linemen tend to be intimidating men—loud, fast, and emotional. They live by furious blasts of effort, launching themselves toward the opposing team's backfield. Offensive linemen have a more placid, controlled nature; they tend to be neither glory seekers nor hotheads. Their job is to absorb the onslaught. The keys to their success are not fury and cunning but footwork and balance. Because he is in charge, the center usually epitomizes these traits. On most football teams he is the least mercurial man on the roster. And, in contrast to the stereotype of the big dumb football player, at the pro level the center's role demands a high degree of self-possession and analytical skill.
Of all pro football players, offensive linemen are the least likely to be taken for athletes off the field. Fraley likes to wow pickup players on the racquetball court, where he proves surprisingly nimble. He doesn't always tell his humbled opponents what he does for a living.
Stan Walters, the pro-bowl tackle in the Eagles' one Super Bowl appearance (1981, a loss to the Oakland Raiders) was the same. He moved with his family to a suburb of Atlanta years after he retired, and was washing his car one weekend afternoon when a group of men from his neighborhood, with no idea of his past, invited him to join them in a game of touch football.
"It was the first time I had played football since I played for the Eagles," Walters told me recently. "I had a ball. I hadn't had so much fun playing football since I was a kid. I was running the ball, kicking it, knocking guys on their asses, throwing touchdown passes, catching touchdown passes. And on the way home a couple of guys were walking up the road from me when one of them turns to his buddy and says, 'Man, that fat guy can really play!'"
None of Fraley's old coaches—from his high school team, in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, or from his team at Robert Morris University, a small school near Pittsburgh, where he played Division I-AA college ball—envisioned him as future pro. Neither did the NFL. He wasn't drafted by any pro team out of college. In the highly specialized world of professional football, at about 300 pounds he was considered too small to be a guard, and at six-two was considered too short (and short-armed) to play offensive tackle—a job that requires handling the outside rush of defensive ends, some of the fastest and most powerful big men in the game. He made it onto the Eagles by impressing the coaches with his intelligence and work ethic, qualities that especially appeal to the team's head coach, the massively rotund Andy Reid, himself a former offensive lineman. The team reflects Reid's personality, which is—well, bovine. He is a resolute nonconductor of electricity. Winning for Reid is strictly method, not magic. When he was interviewed for the job, he arrived with a three-ring binder that spelled out in precise detail his method for building a championship team. He had been working on it for years. Reid likes players who share his calm, workmanlike approach—and no one conforms better than Fraley, who even looks like a younger version of his head coach.
Fraley stays late to study tapes with both the offensive line and the quarterbacks, and then takes the tapes home at night. He memorizes formations and tendencies, and scours the images for clues to his opponents' intentions. Players often develop subtle habits that give away what they intend to do; sometimes linebackers will set their feet differently if they plan to blitz, or linemen will lean slightly in the direction they intend to charge. Fraley knows from personal experience how unconscious this is. In his rookie year he had the habit of drumming his fingers lightly on the ball during the snap count until it was time to hike it. Hollis Thomas, one of the Eagles' defensive linemen, had kindly pointed it out.
"Look, kid," he told Fraley. "As soon as those fingers stop, I know you're going to hike the ball. It gives me an extra second on every play."
On his ritual visit to the field before the Patriots game, Fraley spent a few minutes stretching in the end zone with Jon Runyan, and then the two sat and talked awhile. A light drizzle was falling. When Runyan headed back to the locker room, Fraley walked, as he always does, to one of the end zones. He tapped the metal goalpost twice and repeated a personal incantation: "It's going to be a great day, a great game."
By game time the swirling clouds and drizzle had given way to a sunny, steamy afternoon. The stands were filled with stomping, cheering fans. The loudspeakers blared music and pre-game announcements as Fraley did his last-minute footwork drills and went through a couple of snaps with McNabb.
From a media booth high above, Phil Simms, the CBS-TV color man, surveyed the playing field with Greg Gumbel, the play-by-play man. Setting up the context for the game, noting that both teams had lost their opener, Simms said, "The week of suffering is almost over for both teams."
Fraley's assignment against the Patriots was to block the giant nose tackle, Ted Washington, who is listed at 365 pounds but weighs closer to 400. It's hard to imagine a 310-pound man looking overmatched, but when Fraley squatted for the first snap with Washington leaning directly over him, he looked small.
All his nerves settled down after the initial crash of pads and the first hard tumble. Fraley likes the feeling of hitting and getting hit. It wakes him up. His team's opening drive faltered on a couple of dropped passes, and it wasn't until the second Eagles offensive series that the team made a big play. On the third down, with nine yards to go, Eagles tight end Chad Lewis caught a pass for a big gain and a first down on New England's half of the field—but there was a flag.
Emerging from the huddle before the play, Fraley had seen Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi sneaking up to blitz. Fraley had shouted out a protection scheme that called for him to pick up the linebacker, and for the left guard, John Welbourn, to slide right and pick up the nose tackle, now Jarvis Green (giving Washington a break). But on the snap of the ball Green had charged to his right, into Fraley, who, turning to block Bruschi, was caught off balance. He rolled his ankle, and went sprawling backwards. When Fraley fell, Green crashed down on him like a man who has been charging a door that is suddenly flung open.
Fraley heard the roar of the crowd as Lewis made the catch, but then spotted the yellow flag alongside his knee. He knew how the play had looked to the ref: as though the center had grabbed Green's jersey as he fell, yanking the nose tackle down with him—which might actually have been a smart move. He pulled himself up on one knee and pleaded with the ref, "I wasn't holding!"
To no avail. In the mess of action on the line of scrimmage, appearance is always reality.
"Looks like it's going to come back," Gumbel said.
The penalty wiped out the first down and any sense of momentum, and left the team with nineteen yards to go for a first down. The loudspeaker boomed out Fraley's name as the offending player, and the CBS camera, for the first time in the game, zeroed in on the center, his hands on his hips, seething.
"That's the center, Hank Fraley," Simms said—one of only two times Fraley was recognized in the broadcast of the game.
CBS ran a replay that clearly showed Fraley had not grabbed Green. But neither Simms nor Gumbel noted it. Patriots safety Rodney Harrison shouted across at Fraley, "Cheap-shot artist!"
"Fuck you," Fraley said.
The Eagles failed to get a first down and finished the first quarter trailing the Patriots 3-0. The hometown crowd was starting to boo. But the Eagles came right back in the second quarter, driving the ball down the field sixty-five yards in eight plays, to the Patriots' two-yard line. Fraley helped steer the drive with furious effort, orchestrating the grunt work that most often makes a play succeed or fail: reading New England's defenses; shouting "Jam! Jam!" to alert the line to an overloaded defensive front; designating the "mike," or middle linebacker (which, given the various ways New England's defense lines up, can be a different player each time); shouting "Fan!" to signal a scheme of sliding blocks that might send the two players on his left in one direction and himself with the two players on his right in another. On this drive everything seemed to work, even a missed block. When Eagles running back Brian Westbrook swept around the left end, Hank slipped his block and raced after him. He lunged in vain at a linebacker, who deftly sidestepped him, and crashed emptily to earth. He was struggling to his feet when another Patriots player accidentally ran smack into him and went flying several yards farther upfield, landing upside down.
Fraley's fellow lineman Welbourn helped the center to his feet. "I saw you down, so I ran my guy right into you," he explained, grinning.
The downed Patriots player pointed at Fraley menacingly, as if to say, That was an unfair hit, sixty-three, and I'm going to remember you.
The drive led to a critical third-down play just two yards from the goal line. This is where offensive and defensive linemen are suddenly the most visibly important players on the field. The CBS cameras now focused and lingered on big Ted Washington.
"It's hard to run up the middle when you play the New England Patriots when Ted Washington is inside," Simms said. "Number ninety-two. Bill Belichick [the Patriots' head coach] says he's just a boulder. You got to double-team him at least. So that's why when you see the Eagles run it, most likely when he's in there, they're gonna try to go outside."
"He's a classic nose guard," Gumbel said.
"I think what people don't understand is that this is not a fat guy," Simms said. "He's six-foot-five, three hundred and sixty pounds, he's pretty athletic, and he is tremendous at stopping the running game up the middle."
As is often the case, the announcers were dead wrong about what was coming. Reid, speaking by radio to McNabb, called a running play right up the middle, and it proved to be the perfect call. New England's defense had guessed wrong. Betting that the Eagles would not run right at Washington, they planned to execute an "out charge." Fraley spotted it instantly. The Patriots' two nose tackles, Washington and Ty Warren, at the center of their six-man front, slanted outward in opposite directions, leaving only the middle linebacker, Roman Phifer, to handle whatever happened to come straight up the middle. The Eagles' play called for fullback Jon Ritchie to precede Duce Staley into the hole, knocking the linebacker out of the way so that Staley could sail into the end zone.
At the snap Washington lunged, as expected, to Fraley's right, and Warren to his left. Fraley threw himself at Warren, knocking both of them to the ground. Washington went down, hit by the two blockers on the left side of the line. Ritchie nailed Phifer, but the Patriots linebacker managed to break free and grab Staley before he crossed the goal line. The running back and the linebacker collided and were stymied, a meeting of equal and opposite forces. They teetered near the line. Fraley rose to one knee and threw himself into the two men; they all fell over the goal line.
The referee's arms shot straight up. On the ground in a pile of tangled players, Fraley heard the crowd erupt with joy. "Touchdown!" Gumbel shouted. "The Eagles put some points on the board for the first time this season, and take the lead."
Fireworks exploded overhead, and a great guttural roar shook the stadium. The state-of-the-art sound system blasted out the Eagles' fight song. Staley danced off with the ball, and the cameras and announcers celebrated him. Fraley pulled himself off the pile and got ready to block for the extra point. The kick sailed between the uprights, and the center trotted off the field, unnoticed and elated. He was greeted with high fives on the sidelines, and McNabb slapped him gleefully on his helmet. The team knew Staley hadn't scored by himself.
This proved to be the high point of the afternoon for the Eagles and their fans. The Patriots went on to score two touchdowns in succession, taking a 17-7 lead by halftime. As the sun began to set behind the upper tier of the stands, its light replaced by the gentler glare of stadium lights, the Eagles' hopes were fading. Their offense not only wasn't scoring but was continually failing to manage even a first down. The boos grew louder and louder.
On one third-down play late in the game Fraley hit his man, fell to the ground, rolled, and saw the ball drop a few feet away; an attacking linebacker had knocked it from McNabb's hands. Fraley leaped for it. Deep in a pile of wrestling big men, scrambling for the loose ball, he grabbed hold of something and pulled. It turned out to be the helmet of a Patriots player. In the melee he did finally get his hands on the football. It's not unusual for the ball to change hands several times at the bottom of such a seething pile before the referee can untangle the players and declare which team has legitimate possession. Often possession falls to whoever has the ball last. Fraley gripped the ball tight. Patriots defensive lineman Richard Seymour reached under Fraley's jersey and grabbed a fistful of his ample flesh (he would have a purple welt after the game), trying to force him to release the ball. There was punching, kicking, gouging. "You don't want to be there," Fraley would say later. By the time Fraley saw daylight again, the referee had concluded that the rightful owner of the fumbled ball was Patriots defensive end Willie McGinest, and was shouting "Blue ball! Blue ball!"
"Aw, ref," Fraley complained. "He never even had it."
It was an omen. The Patriots scored another touchdown. The Eagles managed a field goal in the fourth quarter, closing the gap to 24-10, but all hope died when a McNabb pass was intercepted by Bruschi, who ran it back eighteen yards for another New England touchdown.
Down by three touchdowns with only five minutes left to play, the Eagles were still battling. Their pride was on the line—as were their jobs. When a player stops trying, even in the hopeless final moments of a loss, it will be obvious on the game tapes. To be branded a quitter is a quick ticket to waivers. Very few pro football players feel any sense of job security. For all the affection of his coaches and teammates, and despite his generous contract extension, Fraley always feels he's only one or two bad games away from being on the bench—or even out of football altogether. Letting down also brings the risk of injury. In the final minutes of a blowout the winning team's defense often turns up the intensity, seeing a chance to run up its stats. A sack, a tackle, or an interception in the final minutes of a rout looks just as good on the score sheet as one earlier in the game.
Reveling in success, seeing the disappointment on the faces of the Eagles, some of the Patriots tried to further demoralize them.
"You suck!" one linebacker repeatedly shouted at the Eagles' offensive line. Others joined in: "You guys are overrated!" "Y'all have lost a step— you're getting old!"
The incorrect holding call at the beginning of the game continued to haunt Fraley. "Cheap-shot artist!" a linebacker shouted at him again. At the end of one play the whistle blew in time to stop a charging linebacker from blind-siding Fraley at the knees. "Hey, sixty-three, you know I was coming for you," the player taunted.
Long before this, Eagles fans had started leaving, and wide expanses of empty seats expressed the home town's disgust. The final minutes of the 31-10 disaster were attended by only a few thousand spectators, most of whom appeared to be staying in order to heckle and jeer.
After the game a cloud of gloom hung in the steamy twilight of the Eagles' locker room. The team's big-name players lingered in the showers, hoping that the waiting horde of reporters and cameras might thin or give up entirely. In a corner Fraley slowly pulled on his big boxer shorts and then his blue jeans. He was bruised, stiff, and tired. His thigh hurt, he had a purpling welt on his side, and he had strained something in his ankle when he fell over in the first quarter.
"I've got to get that checked out," he said glumly.
After a victory offensive linemen can get trampled in the locker room by packs of reporters chasing down the players who made the big plays. But though the star players speak for the team in victory, in defeat sometimes the big, easygoing linemen are the only players willing to stare down the cameras and take the questions without rancor. By the time Fraley had his pants on, the pack had gathered. His face was still pink from the shower, and he squinted in the bright camera lights.
"How does it feel to start off losing two in a row?" one reporter asked.
"I don't think we're doubting ourselves," Fraley said, stiff and serious. "If you doubt yourself, you start to panic, and if you panic, you don't play well. We just have to execute on offense."
He was asked about the poor offensive showing, and about the second sub-par performance by Donovan McNabb. More lights flicked on. Fraley mopped the sweat off his brow.
"I'm just going to have to look and see what I can do better," he said, diplomatically avoiding passing judgment on his teammate.
When the reporters realized that Fraley was too self-possessed to say anything remotely newsworthy, they abruptly clicked off their lights and headed for Chad Lewis, who had dropped a couple of big passes.
Fraley was left to finish stuffing his bag with his gear. After glancing up over his big shoulder at the reporters, he winked at me and smiled.
"Man," he said, "am I ever hungry."
(Despite the depths of doubt and disbelief reached by the team's fans and the media after these two opening losses, the Eagles won nine of their next ten games.)