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NFL Myths: Forget the clichés, offensive linemen might be the smartest players in the locker room

There are many myths about what happens inside and outside the locker rooms in the NFL. As Super Bowl LII approaches, The Times will examine some of these assumptions over the next five days. Today: Offensive linemen are nothing but oversize human brutes.

You see the huge, human frames and the jerseys barely covering the round bellies. Their arms are covered with scrapes and bruises, their helmets scratched and gauged, the paint chipped from opposing facemasks slamming into them.

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Every snap looks the same. The ball gets snapped and then, whack, a quick human car crash.

Who in their right mind would want to be an offensive lineman?

They’re battering rams. They’re the biggest guys on the field. And,unless you know what you’re looking at, it all looks pretty brainless.

“Battering ram or brute? That’s a really nice way of putting it,” former NFL center Nick Hardwick said. “What I think is when most people think of the offensive line, they just think it’s a huge fat guy who stands in the way and runs into other fat guys.”

While there’s some truth in that — NFL offensive linemen are almost always on the plus side of 300 pounds — there is also much more to it.

“It takes somebody special to want to do a job that’s thankless and that involves donating a significant portion of your body to get the ball to move three yards forward or to protect somebody else,” Hardwick said. “You have a lot of very smart guys and you have a lot of very caring guys in that room.”

In fact they might be, as a general rule, the smartest in an NFL locker room.

Brian Billick, who won the Super Bowl as the coach of the Baltimore Ravens in 2001, said the offensive linemen are definitely different from the other players.

“They’re not meatheads. They’re a bunch of old women is what they are,” Billick joked. “They’re going to complain and get in their knitting circle and [say] `We’re not running enough’ this, that and the other.

“As a whole, they’re probably the brightest position group on the team.”

They’ll acknowledge they’re different. Offensive lineman are the only players who never get to tackle or touch the football. They rarely get attention from fans or the media. And, they probably didn’t grow up with dreams about blocking for quarterbacks and running backs.

“It’s fair to say it. Incredibly fair to say that,” Hardwick said, laughing. “But you get in where you fit in. You love the game, you have an aggressive streak about you, it’s a great outlet and you’re willing to do whatever it takes just to be a part of the team.”

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Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung, who was named to the Pro Bowl this week, didn’t even want to play football when he was growing up.

“I was actually forced into football. I grew up this complete nerd. I loved art. I loved computers,” Okung said. “Really, I loved all things that weren’t football. My mom said, ‘Hey … I want to make sure you’re going to be a man.’ So, she threw me into football to get disciplined and for character development and integrity stuff.

“And, I just happened to be good at it.”

While the league is full of stories about quarterbacks growing up idolizing Joe Montana, Troy Aikman and Michael Vick, Okung said the linemen he’s played alongside all had different interests.

Instead of poring over books and magazines about football greats, Okung spent his time wondering about ancient civilizations and Alexander the Great.

“Most guys I know, when we sit down and have conversations, we talk world events. We talk politics. Rarely do we talk about football outside of game plans and issues like that,” Okung said. “Four or five years ago, I went out and ran with the bulls. And, I was so surprised that only the offensive linemen would know about it. I would tell the [defensive backs] and other guys, and they had no idea what I was talking about.”

This past season, the Chargers locker room spent a lot of time talking about cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin.

“If you heard anyone talking about it,” Okung said, “it’s because I brought it up.”

The demands of the position require players to look at the defense and try to figure what they’re going to do. They have to process all this while matching up with some of the best athletes in the world.

“I like to say we’re the most athletic guys on the field. In my situation, you’re playing a guy who runs a 4.4 [40-yard dash], who lifts all the weight in the world, jumps a 40-inch vertical,” Okung said. “And, my job is to stay in front of this guy? Whether he spins or uses power, my job is to stay in front of him and keep him off the quarterback.

“…But I was coding when I was a teenager. Learning concepts wasn’t a hard thing for me.”

Solving those problems before and after each snap is enough to give linemen a high. Hardwick, who played all 11 of his NFL seasons with the Chargers, still gets his fix as the team’s radio analyst. His favorite pastime? Figuring out defenses with three or more cornerbacks on the field.

“It’s the most stimulating by far. If I were to have a drug of choice, it would be Nickel, Dime, sub-pass protection,” he said. “That’s my Zelda. That’s my Mario Kart. That’s my ‘Game of Thrones’. Whatever you want to call it. That’s my drug.”

And he knows how to push it. If a friend or family member didn’t understand, he’d tell them where to look.

“I’d give them an assignment: Next game, don’t follow the ball around. Pick out one offensive lineman and just watch him,” Hardwick said. “Watch him every play that you can. And, come back to me and tell me how different the game is. … I’ve had so many friends who have followed my career, who over time after watching me for so many games, they’ll be like ‘The offensive line is fascinating. There are so many details about it. It’s so intricate.’ ”

Brutes? Hardly.

For linemen in the NFL, it’s as much physics as physical.

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