The word conjures up the image of a frothing man with a body roughly the same size as a foreign pickup truck, the general demeanor of a badly wounded rhino and the IQ of a citrus tree.
Jack Reynolds was a linebacker. He weighed 240 pounds and played for the Rams and the San Francisco 49ers. He was nicknamed “Hacksaw” because after a loss in a college game, he took that tool and cut an automobile in half, sawing away in a mad frenzy for nearly eight hours before the vehicle parted between the front and rear seats.
Dick Butkus was a linebacker. He weighed 220 pounds and played for the Chicago Bears with such ferocity that the fans at Soldier Field used to fall into a hush when Butkus approached a ballcarrier so they could hear the man scream.
There have been many others. There was Ray Nitschke. The name pretty much tells you all you need to know about the guy. At birth, he reportedly slapped the doctor and made him cry.
Sam Huff is a New York Giants legend. Opponents used to accuse him of carrying clods of dirt in his gnarly hands and trying to rub them in the eyes of fallen ballcarriers.
Linebacker Chuck Howley of the Dallas Cowboys used to make a weird noise just before he smashed into a running back. Opponents likened the sound to a cross between the death bellow of a grizzly bear and the sound a man makes when the garage door slams on his shins.
Linebackers are traditionally huge muscle men, guys whose immediate ancestors liked to draw pictures. On cave walls.
So why in the name of compound fractures are Torii Lehr and Mark McGrath linebackers?
“They are definitely not Dick Butkus-types,” Cal Lutheran Coach Bob Shoup said of his linebackers. “They are not linebacker types at all. They are soft-spoken and they are outstanding students and very bright young men. They are not the type to eat raw meat.
“They are the kind of guys you’d want your sister to date.”
Shoup cannot be talking about linebackers. Attila the Hun might have refused to allow his sister to date a linebacker.
Lehr and McGrath, however, crack the linebacker mold. They are smart, well-mannered and articulate. And very small by linebacker standards, each of them weighing just a notch more than 190 pounds.
For most linebackers, lunch weighs more than 190 pounds.
Lehr and McGrath do, however, have one thing in common with the average linebacker: They love to hear ballcarriers moan.
Lehr leads Cal Lutheran in the moan-evoking category this season. He has made 46 tackles in three games, 14 of them unassisted. McGrath is the team’s third-leading tackler with 26, 6 of them unassisted. He also leads the team with 4 fumble recoveries.
Last season, Lehr had 120 tackles, 70 of them one-on-one slam dances. McGrath had 96 tackles last season, 35 of them unassisted.
Together, they form the core of the Kingsmen defense. They are rough and tough and smart and quick. But . . .
“They are definitely on the smallish side,” Shoup said. “We have defensive backs who are the same size as these guys. But Lehr and McGrath have to handle offensive linemen, not just the wide receivers.”
That is why linebackers have traditionally been large and mean. They are asked to be quick enough to cover wide receivers and tight ends and to chase down fleet running backs. But they also are required to fight their way through hulking linemen, men who, even at the Division II level, often weigh 260 and 270 pounds and whose primary objective is to bury linebackers so far into the turf that only their cleats are visible.
“The guys I go against each week are always bigger than me,” Lehr said. “And usually much bigger. The guards, mostly. My first game for Cal Lutheran was as a sophomore and we were playing Sacramento State. On the first play I had to take on a guy we had watched on film, a guy his own coach had nicknamed Hammerhead. The adrenaline was really pumping. I was pretty nervous. But I dealt with it OK.”
Lehr has performed much better than OK since. He is a legitimate Division II All-American candidate this year.
“He’s not physically imposing, but he’s very strong,” Shoup said. “He has some real explosiveness. He’s a very gifted athlete. He succeeds because he’s so much quicker than a lineman and also because he’s so intelligent. He always gets his way to the football. He and McGrath just don’t make mistakes too often.”
Lehr was an all-state linebacker at Boulder City High in Nevada and was named the most valuable player in a North-South all-star game in Las Vegas. But because of his lack of bulk he attracted about as much attention as a weird guy in New York City.
“My senior year I filled out all kinds of college questionnaires about football,” he said. “They’d ask height and weight and things like that. When I filled those areas in, I never heard from those schools again. I knew what that meant. None of the Division I schools wanted me. It was pretty disappointing.
“Both of my parents graduated from the University of Nebraska, and growing up I always thought I’d play football there.”
Not a chance. Linebackers tend to weigh the same at Nebraska as Rhode Island. To clarify that, linebackers at Nebraska tend to weigh the same as the state of Rhode Island. Lehr thought he had played his last football game, so he used his skills as a discus thrower to garner a track scholarship to attend the University of Nevada at Reno.
“But I really missed football,” he said.
His high school track coach knew Cal Lutheran track coach Don Green, and Lehr was introduced to him. Shoup had seen Lehr play in the Nevada all-star game and was impressed, and the two coaches agreed to allow Lehr to participate in track and field in the spring and football in the fall.
“I really started to like throwing the discus, and I wanted to be able to do both,” Lehr said.
That combination is not too unusual, but the athletic combination of his linebacking partner, McGrath, is a bizarre one. McGrath is also a volleyball player, and while that sport requires athletic ability, it isn’t exactly football. And it definitely is not a linebacker-type endeavor.
Linebackers worry about getting smashed in the face by a rock-hard helmet or having a 280-pound man snap the ligaments in their knees. Volleyball players tend to fret about getting grains of sand in their nostrils.
“I think I might have laughed a little when I heard about that,” Shoup said. “It really is a strange combination. . . . I’ve never heard of another linebacker doing that.”
But Shoup has never laughed at the way Lehr and McGrath play football.
“I never considered playing them anywhere else,” he said. “They’re in the right place. They are linebackers.”