I was recently talking with a few of my former teammates who will be together in Canton this summer for the Enshrinement weekend. We talked about how great it will be to have a good number of teammates back together. But we all agreed - it's not going to be like some old-timers reunion. It's going to feel as if we just finished playing yesterday. That's because there is a bond among us that is unbelievable.
The relationships developed in football are everlasting. There is no better feeling than eating, sleeping, working together with a group of people for months on end, all focused on one common goal. The locker room and the field of play draw men together like no other profession. Relationships on and off the field make for unique experiences.
Even the relationships between combatants in the NFL are special. A lot of people probably don't understand or realize this aspect of the game. Dan Dierdorf… Rayfield Wright… Ron Yary… these are guys I lined up against throughout my career. But they weren't just opponents. You played against them during the season and then you were teammates in the Pro Bowl. The competition creates a respect, and then you build a social relationship that is special. It's a special bond.
First of all, when you stop to think about it, the opportunity just to make a football team is incredible in its own right. If you're lucky enough to sustain that success, you have to look at what an opportunity that is. Only 1,200, maybe 1,300 guys in the world are doing what you do. And to be fortunate enough to be capable of playing for more than the average lifespan for an NFL career, which is just four years, makes it all the more special.
That's not something I realized right from the start. It comes with some age and some maturity. You learn how special it really is to be playing professional football. It becomes even more special on Sundays, when you have 65-70,000 screaming fans showering you with absolute adoration. You get those crowds on the collegiate level, too, but it's a little different in the pros.
Looking back, I understand how privileged I was to play professional football. I remember the draft being a real phenomenal thing for me. The year was 1971, and there wasn't any of the hype and buildup for the draft that there is today. Going into it, the only information I got was that I might be drafted in the fifth or sixth round, which was fine with me. From there, I'd go to some team's training camp and hope to make a team.
To my surprise, the Rams drafted me in the first round, 20th overall. All I could think was, "Whoa! This is real now." As a kid, playing professional football was the furthest thing from my mind. It just wasn't something I aspired to. I figured I'd go to school, get an education, and go to work in whatever field I happened to study in college. My future as an NFL player was a reality. The draft made playing in the NFL a reality.
One of the things I love about the game of football is that the individual challenges are so unique. And especially for a defensive lineman like myself, those challenges are rather large. You find yourself going one-on-one, facing one individual play in and play out. The game is a combination of 11 individual battles each play, coordinated toa gameplan for 60 minutes.
Eleven individuals working as one, consistently at a high level of efficiency.
Football is certainly the ultimate team sport. At the same time, though, it's also 11 individuals each playing their part.
There's a unique respect between the players. Especially for those who have been honored with the immortality of the Hall of Fame. But the same feeling is there at every level of the game - warriors respect warriors and the work they do. That's what makes playing the game of football, especially at the professional level, so great.
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