And he’s a legitimate 350!” I heard some analyst say during the week leading up to the draft, talking about some prospect or another, and I laughed, only not with much humor, because, honestly, if “legitimate” and “350” can be uttered in the same sentence, is this sport doomed, or what? Forget concussions and bounties. Just look at the size. We’re breeding lab rats for our on-field entertainment, and that can’t be good — I mean, for the rats. No matter how much sugar water we give them. For the people doing the experiments, well, monetarily, sure.
“Legitimate 350!” made me immediately think of a lineman named Shaun Rogers. It had been almost seven years since I’d sat down over the course of a couple of days with Rogers, who was then a 26-year-old defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions coming off a Pro Bowl season. This was about the time the NFL had started to unveil really, really large defensive guys with the overall agility of ballet dancers and the girth of the truly obese. I was in the middle of writing a book about the 1958 Giants, when linemen weighed what strong safeties do now, and I was finding myself geekily drawn to the new species of fat, insanely talented goliaths.
I wanted to write about the best of them. And Shaun was the best of the best. At just 6-foot-4, he weighed about 340 pounds. But he sure wore it well. At the Lions’ training camp, in drill after drill, I watched him do the tiptoe thing through the crosshatched-ropes course with the finesse of a Fantasia elephant. I saw him dart past blockers with the moves of a water strider.
This was all more than a revelation; it was as if I were hallucinating. Despite a belly that was always afloat around his waist when he moved, like a mobile inner tube or water balloon, his synapse-twitch speed hypnotized me. As did his stomach. He was a good 50 or 60 or 100 pounds heavier than nature intended him to be. He was not only too good to be true, he was too large to be true, which meant that he was on a dangerous path. Upper bodies can always grow — from weight work, and nutrition, and supplements, and whatever drug — but knees and hips can’t. The species’ lower skeleton and musculature cannot support weight like that. Not for long. Let’s save the brain for another discussion. This one is about much simpler physics.
Here’s why I thought of Shaun instantly, the moment I heard about the “legitimate” 350-pounder: Rogers was not just agile, but one of the smartest, nicest, most thoughtful, self-deprecating, and likable guys I’d ever interviewed. He made a comedy routine out of the moments when he lingered in front of the pastry case of a local restaurant after a lunch we’d had, before imposing self-discipline and walking away. He chalked up all his success to everyone who’d helped him.
Half the time we spent talking in the hometown-Houston townhouse he’d just bought, we talked about life and stuff. When I asked him what he saw himself doing after football, he said he’d like to teach kids, maybe high school. One time, in the middle of a conversation in the kitchen, he spontaneously hopped up to sit on a counter, twisting and planting his butt on the linoleum like a gymnast sticking a landing. Or, at least, with the skill of someone who was fit and weighed 180. Except that he weighed, probably, twice that.
It worried me, that stomach, that upper body, kind of the way I’d worry if he were a cousin. Or a second cousin. But for me, that was a good flight home. I’d just happily hung out with a potential future Hall of Famer. I’m sure athletes think that most sportswriters are a pain — most sportswriters tend to feel the same thing about athletes. This was one time when I thought, I’d have paid my own airfare just to hang with this guy. It had been that much fun, and that rewarding, and that faith-inducing: Who knew? The big-sport machine produces real people sometimes.
That season, he was a Pro Bowl starter again. The next year, when Shaun was suspended for four games because of testing positive for a “banned substance” and his agent said it was an “appetite-suppressing” pill, I decided to believe it. Hey, I’d seen him use admirable discipline in turning down the cake.
The following season, in 2007, a late-night highlight clip caught my eye: a really fat defensive lineman intercepting a pass at his own 34, taking off toward the other goal line and outrunning the entire offense. Shaun outran Denver’s running backs. He outran their wide receivers. He went 66 yards, for a touchdown. Untouched. Unreal.
The following spring, Shaun was accused of assaulting an “exotic dancer” with a gun stuck in his waistband in a strip club on the west side of Detroit. I thought, Oh, Shaun, come on. You know better than this. You’re blowing a shot at Canton, and immortality. You’re the king of the giants. You don’t have to hang in places like the Loose Ends Players Den. Literally or figuratively.
The woman’s charges were dismissed one month later. Thereafter, his defensive stats started to lose weight, even if he didn’t. Two years later, the Lions traded Shaun to Cleveland. Following that first season with the Browns, he was arrested and charged with trying to carry a gun through the X-ray machine in the Cleveland airport. At the end of the 2010 season, the Browns let him go, and three weeks later, the Saints, defensively coached by one Gregg Williams, signed him.
Last season, for the first time in his career, Shaun recorded no sacks, and when New Orleans let him go, I remember being tremendously relieved: Whatever was turning this optimistic, nimble, baby-faced kid into a shell of what he’d been, my guess was that it had a lot to do with the world of professional football. Finally out of the game, alive and intact at 32, he’d lose weight, find the teaching job, and, surrounded by sane people with long-term, big-picture values, salvage a real life, instead of a limping, concussed, tragedy of a final act.
Then, last month, on the first day of the draft, a team signed Shaun Rogers. My Giants. The team that’s been the one constant of my life. The team to which my radio show is devoted. The team about which I’ve written a best-selling book. The team in whose upper deck I’ve stood and screamed more loudly than those two guys in front of me in blue construction helmets. The team that’s as close to a religion as I have. We had signed an over-the-hill, too-big, vulnerable, aging athlete.
And here was my first thought as a fan when I read about the signing a few minutes after it had been announced — and it’s still my only thought as a fan right now: This is a great signing. Sure, he’s a shadow of the old Shaun Rogers, but this is a guy who might come off the bench for six sacks, and might face-plant a running back in the backfield on a key third down in the first round of the playoffs, or disable a quarterback (or two), the way LT used to.
So what if Rogers’s judgment about life’s choices seems to be forebodingly questionable? Hardly unique among my favorite pack of athletes. He’s sure as hell more talented than our suspended-for-banned-substances interior-lineman pickup last year, Jimmy Kennedy, a first-rounder who plummeted into oblivion. And our last lovable but obese middleman, Fred Robbins.
No question: This was another great Jerry Reese off-the-radar acquisition.
Yes, sure, I’ll grant you: Former players are shooting themselves, suing the league en masse about their dementia, declaring bankruptcy. And yes, as the father of a kid who was concussed once playing in high school, if I ever have any grandkids, I’ll do whatever the hell I can to keep them off the football field.
But I’m not a man. I’m a fan: the guy who has always said that I hope I’d never have to choose between my marriage and my team, because my team would win. So let me speak for all Giant fans, Shaun: No matter what the risk to your own future might be: Go out and hurt someone this year, OK? Help bring us a second ring in a row, big man. Be a Giant.