Every run from scrimmage tells a story. Every run has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
I've been running with a football for more than a decade and a half now, since the early 1990s, when I played alongside my twin brother Ronde with the Cave Spring High School Knights football team in Roanoke, Virginia. We were teammates at the University of Virginia, too. For the whole of my professional sports career, I was a running back for the New York Giants in the National Football Conference (NFC) of the National Football League.
Running with a football is a specialized skill. Not everyone can do it. So I want to give you an idea of what it feels like.
Beginning, middle, and end. Pick a run, any run. I'll show you the beginning, middle, and end.
Well, maybe not any run. Some would make extremely short stories, one-word smack-down poems. Let's pick a running play that is more of a full-length novel, one that also happens to be one of the best TD runs that I have ever made.
I'll break it down, stride for stride.
December 17, 2005. Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Our opponents were the Kansas City Chiefs, with their explosive running back Larry Johnson, then just coming into his own in his third season in the league.
The day had high clouds and was cool, with the temperature hovering around forty degrees. A wind out of the west had kicked up earlier, sweeping across the synthetic FieldTurf at the stadium, but by kickoff it had died to a whisper. Perfect football weather.
This was my season. I was playing for pride ("Play proud" is the two-word blessing my mother Geraldine sends Ronde and me on every single one of our game days), I was playing to win (the Giants came into the battle with the Chiefs with nine wins and four losses, in the hunt for the play-offs), and I was playing for my dear departed friends and mentors, Wellington Mara and Bob Tisch, owners of the Giants, both of whom had passed away in the previous six weeks.
I took all those reasons with me to the line when we broke huddle near the end of the first half, a little under three minutes left in the second quarter. The Chiefs were ahead by a field goal, 0-3. We were injury-depleted and had a lot of guys playing nicked. I remember feeling a powerful sense of determination, a calm kind of euphoria. We were behind. I could not, would not, allow the score to stay that way.
Our offense, behind quarterback Eli Manning, had the ball on Kansas City's forty-one yard line. The always steady Eli, who has never uttered a single curse word in the huddle in the three years I've played with him, called "Forty/Fifty Slide East on Red." That meant Eli would hand off to me and I would follow a pulling guard around the right side.
That's not the real name of the play, which is more of an I-could-tell-you-but-then-I'd-have-to-kill-you secret, since the Giants don't change their nomenclature all that often and I wouldn't want our calls to get too public.
As he always did, Eli also called two additional plays, in case the Chiefs altered their defensive set or he saw something that would require him to "check off" or audibly change the called play once he scoped the opponents at the line of scrimmage. One of the checks was a quick (a short pass) and the other was a pitch to me for an off-tackle run on the left side.
I didn't much like the idea of the second check. An off-tackle run to the left would lead me straight at Kendrell Bell, linebacker on the Chiefs' right-side post, a photon-fast Pro Bowl perennial, college shot-putter, and former Pittsburgh Steeler who gobbled up running backs for breakfast. Part of the reason I've been successful at my job is that I know enough to avoid punishing tacklers like Kendrell Bell at all costs.
Whatever happened, whether I ran right or left, Jim Finn would be helping me -- "Finny," my fullback, a bulldozer-blade of a blocker who would blast away any tackler in my path.
As we broke huddle, the noise from the 78,000-plus fans swelled in intensity, increasing from sixty decibels, say, the sound of heavy traffic, to more like one hundred, just below a kickoff roar. I inhaled and caught the familiar smell of game day, a sweet mix of autumn air, liniment, and sweat.
Time spiraled down, collapsing as it always does as the center approaches the ball. My heart rate climbed. A team physician could have told you that it increased from its normal sixty beats per minute upward past eighty.
I lined up in I-formation six yards behind Eli, who stood surveying the defense with his 305-pound center, the bodyguard-samurai-bullet-stopper Shaun O'Hara. My respiration rose and then steadied, as if in tune with the mounting screams from the stands.
Shaun screamed louder than the fans, yelling, "Ninety-nine," identifying the key K.C. defender, and Eli echoed him, also shouting, "Ninety-nine."
Shaun went into his crouch; Eli cocked his head slightly to the left so I could hear him and then checked the play to the off-tackle left. "One Taco West, Twenty-Thirty Veer."
I would be heading straight at Kendrell Bell.
Eli began his cadence. In the huddle he had said "on four," meaning the snap would come on the fourth number in the series. "Seven, fifteen, forty" -- Shaun would hike the ball on the next count -- "two."
The time between the snap and the whistle in professional football has got to be the most compressed, heightened reality this side of military combat. It is a zone beyond thought. I didn't think, Well, right now Eli will swivel 180 degrees and pitch the ball back to me and I will follow Finny off my left foot.
It's not that way at all. I don't think. I act. Everything -- breathing, body movement, mental processes -- becomes automatic.
Eli got Shaun's snap, turned right, and made a single yard-long stride away from the line, so that he was back to the forty-five yard line by the time of his second half step. He pitched the ball to me, two yards behind him. The football sailed within a foot of Finny, who was already booming forward toward the line.
I took my first stride off my left foot, crossing my right leg toward the left side, thereby alerting Bell and his Chief cohorts, who were watching me and Eli like hawks, keying off our movements. I cocked both arms out to receive the ball.
A pitched football from Eli Manning is not a shrinking-violet kind of thing. It's definite. Hard. The ball came at me perfectly. Eli didn't spiral it, but tossed it lengthwise, so that it presented its fattest part to me. I broke off the blocks to meet it. In the midst of my second stride of the run, my right hand pushed the ball up into the basket of my left arm, snug against my bicep.
The moment I take possession of the ball, I become prey. The eleven predators on the Chiefs defense, weighing in at more than a ton (2,741 pounds to be exact, according to their official listed weights), are every ounce bent on my total obliteration.
People talk about quick feet, balance, and speed as ideal ingredients for a running back, but for me the most vital element might be sniper-quality vision. I am not aware of doing it, but I've seen telephoto shots of myself during a run, and my eyes are open so wide they appear unnatural.
I'm taking everything in. I resemble nothing so much as an antelope feeling the hot breath of the lion. The difference being that instead of running away from the predators, I have to run directly at them, an antelope heading straight for the pride.
Right away I saw a problem. The first predator, Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen, had penetrated four yards into our backfield. Giants veteran Bob Whitfield, our offensive tackle on the left side, adjusted quickly. Instead of firing off the line, he stood Allen up and pushed him outside. On my third stride I had a decision to make. I had to figure out a way to get around Allen and not lose my fullback.
I didn't linger over it. I made a stutter-cut to the right, choosing the inside, then veered back left (strides four and five) and came within an inch of Whitfield's firmly planted left cleat as I blew past him and Allen toward the line.
Finny had been there before me. There was daylight. Well, what the sportscasters call "daylight" anyway, but for me it's always getting eclipsed, closing down, about to go dark. I felt like I was running directly into white Chiefs jerseys. With a couple yards still to go to the line of scrimmage, I was cut off on my right by Kansas City defensive end Eric Hicks, rampaging in from the other side.
On my left, sure enough, Kendrell Bell. Number 99. I hunched, protecting the ball, preparing to get hit, and picked up speed. I knew from elementary physics that the best way to bust a tackle is not to shrink from it, not to act on your self-preservation instincts -- Slow down! Danger! You are about to hit a wall! Slow down! -- but rather to accelerate. Counterintuitive, I know. But it works.
Again, I wasn't puzzling out physics just then. My impulse to accelerate in the face of a tackle was automatic by now, ingrained by years of training, coaching, and experience. Momentum and speed carried me. Finny banged Bell just enough to slow him down, and with my sixth stride I was at the Kansas City forty-one. All that trouble and toil just to get to the race's starting line.
Beginning, middle, and end. The beginning was over. I now entered the middle of the story, the place where novels and movies and oftentimes football runs die a miserable death. I was still braced by Hicks and Bell to my right and left, and about to ram into Jeremy Shockey straight ahead of me.
Shockey. The guy is unbelievable, always running in overdrive, slamming it, jamming it, blowing up the playing field. He's well-celebrated as a go-to pass receiver. For me, he's a kick-ass blocker and the dynamo that lights up the Giants.
Right at that moment Shockey was stacking up not one, not two, but three Chiefs, linemen and linebackers, stopping them in their tracks with a little help ...
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.