We hear the clichés every Sunday: Football is a war, a battle in the trenches, a test of wills. In the NFL lexicon, games are violent clashes of manhood against manhood; coaches are field generals and players are soldiers. Not so long ago, the game’s players were living, steam-breathing personifications of that militaristic image. Stories of the ‘glory days’ of professional football abound. Incidents of biting opposing players in post play pileups and eye-gouging opponents at the line of scrimmage were commonplace.
When Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus was asked if he ever intentionally hurt an opposing player, he answered: “I never set out to hurt anyone deliberately . . . unless, it was, you know, important, like a league game, or something.”
How, then, would a player like Butkus react when, after three hours of knocking heads in the conference championship games this Sunday, players from both squads embrace, exchange pleasantries, and even hold hands and pray together after the final whistle sounds? In 1997, Denver’s Bill Romanowski caused a national incident when he spit at San Francisco’s J.J. Stokes. Today’s players help one another up after tackles, pat each other on the back after good plays, and hug each other after the game is over.
“When I played, you very seldom went out of your way to run over to meet an opponent after a game,” notes Roman Gabriel, who played QB for the Los Angeles Rams and the Philadelphia Eagles from 1962 to ’77, and now serves as radio commentator for the Carolina Panthers. “I don’t remember too many players making the point to run across the field and say, ‘Oh, I love you, you played such a great game.’ When we played, the game was more of a battle. After a game now, you have groups of players mingling on the field, hugging and shaking hands more than I think what we did.”
And that’s not all. During a wildcard playoff game two years ago, Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre hugged and high-fived Tampa Bay defensive lineman Warren Sapp after the latter sacked him for a loss. Yet this incident is merely one example of a rapidly evolving paradox in the contemporary NFL—friendly violence. Between whistles, players engage in one of the world’s most physically punishing sports, yet, when a play is over, they share an uncommon, and unlikely, bond.
“Athletes at all levels have an opportunity to practice that sportsmanship and that control a little better than others, simply because of the environment they’re in,” says Steve Brennan, a sports psychology consultant in Omaha, Nebraska. “If somebody has an argument with their spouse or somebody like that, sometimes it lingers for quite a while, whereas in athletics, there’s just too much stuff going on and you can’t procrastinate if somebody took a cheap shot at you.”
Sapp says his interaction with Favre was not about being friendly, but rather a direct result of his “being in the quarterback’s face all day. There’s going to be talk out there with me no matter what, believe me.”
“I’m not on the field trying to make friends, but we’re still human beings,” adds Giants safety Sam Garnes, one of the hardest-hitting players in the league today. “I’m going to hit people, but I’m not out there to end somebody’s career. I know a lot of the guys on other teams. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with talking to them after the game and saying, ‘What’s up?’ It doesn’t affect the way I play.”
Not everyone is so sure. Former Giant linebacker Harry Carson, for instance, says he doesn’t watch NFL games as much as he used to because of what he sees as a reduction in player intensity. “I’ll watch a game now and see players congratulating guys who made plays against them and I’ll say, ‘What’s this?’ ” notes Carson, who played in New York from 1976 to ’88. “But that’s the nature of what’s going on now. Today, I think some of the aggressiveness has been taken out of the game. Because opposing players do know one another, they’re not as hostile taking the field.”
In fact, it might be difficult today to find a player who isn’t familiar with many of his opponents. With an increasing number of cable sports networks has come an increasing amount of televised sports, allowing each player to gain a recognition not possible years ago. “With technology the way it is, where distances don’t mean as much today, [players] get to see each other,” says Dr. Len Zaichkowsky, a sports psychologist at Boston University. “It’s the rare person who doesn’t know anybody else as people get to the elite level. So it’s more common they’re going to interact.”
Another reason for the familiarity might be the advent of true free agency in the NFL. Before 1987, relatively few established players changed teams during their careers, unless they were traded—which didn’t happen often. In 1987, however, the players’ union fought for, and received, a less restrictive form of free agency, meaning that players had more flexibility in what teams they negotiated and signed with when their contracts expired.
“Now a guy you’re playing against today might be your teammate tomorrow,” says Carson. “I think it’s definitely had an impact.”
Gabriel sees more of a marketing angle. The postgame lovefests, he says, give today’s players extra camera time (without the face-obscuring helmet, of course) to show an aspect of their personality not always visible during the game.
“I think it’s an extension of the coverage nowadays,” Gabriel says. “It’s almost as though this is another way for you to be seen, rather than just getting into the locker room and getting things done. To me, I think that [postgame fraternizing] is just an extension of all the exposure and the PR the players are getting today.”
Whether today’s players aren’t as angry toward their opponents as their older counterparts were, as veterans like Carson and Gabriel imply, is debatable. But they certainly aren’t as angry after the game is over. Consider the Giants’ final home game of the 1999 season. New York had a game against Minnesota with playoff implications: win and, for all intents and purposes, they were in. Yet following a 34-17 stinker of a loss, with their postseason hopes all but dashed, there were several Giants players hugging, laughing, and praying with their Viking opponents.
“Well, just because we lost, we’re not going to be like ‘Fuck you,’ ” says New York offensive lineman Roman Oben, who chatted with Vikings’ defensive tackle Tony Williams, whom he played against in college and blocked during the game.
More so than ever, the modern player demonstrates that congeniality does not necessarily have an inverse relationship to performance. “I think there’s that fear,” observes Zaichkowsky, “And it might be true in some cases. That there are some people who, once they get to know somebody, they treat them just a little bit differently—in a softer kind of way—but if it’s an unknown person they treat them as the enemy. But some of the people who I identify as really competitive people, they don’t much care. They can do it.”
Not that postgame fraternizing began in the ’90s. Jack Ham, a linebacker on Pittsburgh’s vaunted “Steel Curtain” defenses of the ’70s, recalls several incidents when he and fellow Steeler linebacker Jack Lambert “had a few beers with guys we played against after the game.” Once, following a 1982 playoff game at Three Rivers Stadium, he and Lambert met Jack Rudnay, the starting center for their opponent—the Kansas City Chiefs—after the game was over. The difference is the players did their socializing in private—”I think we sat in the sauna,” Ham notes—rather than on the field.
“But we talked to other guys on other teams if we knew them,” says Ham, who works as a football commentator for CBS radio in addition to running a business in Pittsburgh. “I don’t really see anything wrong with it.”
So what do players talk about with guys they just spent the past three hours trying to, metaphorically speaking, decapitate? Well, just about anything but the game, players say. Most players who gather after the game usually know each other from college, having either played with or against each other in school. Others are former teammates separated by free agency. Still more know each other because they share the same agents or endorsement deals. Usually, players ask about families or off-season plans.
There’s also the prayer circle, a relatively new addition to the postgame ritual. Traditionally, football teams have always had a moment of prayer in the locker room prior to the game. Now players from opposing sides frequently hold hands and pray after the game is over, often at or near the center of the field. Many of the athletes who participate in the prayer circles are members of one of two organizations—the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA), which started in the ’50s, and Athletes in Action (AIA), which started in the ’70s. Membership in these organizations, and others like them, has grown in recent years. Both the FCA and AIA encourage members to openly express their faith, and the on-field prayer is merely an outcropping of that. While most old-school players say they admire the expression of religious faith, they would prefer the observances took place in private, somewhere off the field and away from the camera.
“I’m a Catholic but I don’t think that you need to have 20 or 30 guys kneeling at the 50-yard line,” says Gabriel. “To me, that doesn’t have anything to do with playing the game. I think that’s showing off.”
Linebacker Scott Gaylon, who joined in a postgame prayer circle following the Giants-Vikings game, says, however, that he doesn’t think the shared spiritual moment impacts the way players approach the game. He also says he and others involved aren’t trying to make any political or religious statements. “The game is important, but it’s nothing personal,” he explains. “When it’s over, we all come together and thank God for the gift he has given us—the ability to play this game. That’s all.”
Indeed, today’s players say that the football-as-war mentality stops at the press box. “All that stuff is hype from the media,” says veteran Jets cornerback Aaron Glenn. “The thing is, the media and a lot of people try to put this as more than just a game. During a game, you’re out there competing. After the game, we don’t hate anybody who plays on another team. It’s just a fact when you’re playing a game, you have to do things to try to win. And after the game, it’s over with.”