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 five days. Wednesday, Part 2: Players despise the other teams.
It was a TV timeout in 1997 under steely December skies at Arrowhead Stadium. Oakland Raiders defenders gathered in groups, milled about or ambled over to the visitors’ sideline.
Not Chester McGlockton.
The 6-foot-3, 334-pound defensive tackle made a beeline for Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer and appeared to shout something.
Turns out, it wasn’t an angry remark or a taunt, but a plea.
“Tell your guys to stop going at my knees,” McGlockton yelled. “I want to play for you next season.”
Imagine that. A hard-hitting Hatfield cavorting with Coach McCoy. It was the kind of disclosure that would make the skin crawl of any fan on one side or the other of that bitter feud. But for the late McGlockton, who in fact would play for the Chiefs the following season, it was merely conducting business.
NFL fans might despise rival teams with the heat of a thousand suns, but it’s pretty much a myth to think their favorite players feel the same way.
Consider the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys. The bad blood between those clubs could fill the Schuylkill River. But did you know Troy Aikman flirted with the idea of coming out of retirement to play for the E-A-G-L-E-S?
That was in 2002, Aikman’s second year as a color analyst, when the Cowboys quarterback had been out of the NFL for more than a year.
At halftime, Aikman stepped out of the Fox booth and called the Eagles coach. Reid wanted him to come to Philadelphia as soon as he could, so he would be ready to play the following week, in a Monday night game at San Francisco.
Now any self-respecting Cowboys fan would want Aikman to end the conversation there — click — but the future Hall of Famer, then 35, was all ears.
“Andy was giving me all the reasons why this would be good, why this would work,” said Aikman, who reminded Reid he was in the middle of a broadcast and promised to call him back after the game when he was driving to his home in Santa Barbara.
True to his word, Aikman called Reid back and promised to sleep on it.
“So I went to bed that night and said, ‘I can wake up tomorrow and spend a couple of nice days in Santa Barbara, or I can be in frigid Philadelphia getting my brains kicked in,’ ” Aikman recalled.
He called Reid the next day and politely declined the offer. The Eagles wound up making the playoffs, anyway, behind the strong play of backup A.J. Feeley. But it could have been Aikman, and he made it clear the decision was not based on any residual ill will toward Philadelphia.
“The decision for me not to come back and play had absolutely nothing to do with that,” Aikman said. “The reason I didn’t go and play for Philadelphia is because I knew that it was just going to be for a few games to end the season. There was no future in it.”
In the era of free agency, when players are constantly switching teams, most can’t afford to limit their options by swearing off potential employers. Seattle fans didn’t like it one bit last month when, after a win over the Cowboys, star Seahawks safety Earl Thomas chased down Dallas coach Jason Garrett told him to “come get me” should Thomas be on the open market. Video of that private exchange went viral.
“I went to the locker room to talk to [Dez] Bryant, and I saw Coach Garrett,” Thomas told reporters, according to ESPN. “I’ve always been a Cowboys fan growing up. But the biggest thing when I say, ‘Come get me’ is, I don’t literally mean like, ‘Come get me now.’ I’m still in the prime of my career. I still want to be here, but when Seattle kicks me to the curb, please — the Cowboys — come get me. That’s the only place I would rather be if I get kicked to the curb. So that’s what I meant by it. People take life too serious. That’s just who I am.”
Steelers vs. Ravens, Packers vs. Bears, Redskins vs. Cowboys — fans’ blood boils, sure. But down deep, most players stay pretty even-keeled about those rivalries.
“Most of the teams that people think you hate are in your division or your conference,” Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana said. “I remember my first Pro Bowl. As I was walking around the pool, a group of guys from teams I was supposed to hate said, ‘Hey, come over here and sit down. You’re going to have a beer with us.’ It was a bunch of guys I’d known and seen. They said, ‘Oh, and by the way, you’re buying.’
“You see those guys in the offseason. There’s not that hatred everybody thinks. But when you’re playing against them, yeah, you want to beat them more than anything.”
That fraternal feeling is on display after virtually every game, when lots of players exchange handshakes and hugs, trade jerseys, and kneel in prayer together at midfield.
“It’s like, ‘OK, that was then, and this is now,’ ” said former Baltimore coach Brian Billick. “All that pregame talk is more bravado than anything. Fans take it to another level, and some players can get drawn into it. When they go to the grocery store, or the cleaners or movies, they can get drawn into it.”
Put simply by former San Francisco running back Roger Craig: “The game is about respect. If anybody’s not doing that, they’re playing the game for the wrong reasons.”
During the game, it’s a different story. Former 49ers linebacker Gary Plummer remembers harnessing the hate, whether it was real or synthesized.
“You have to manufacture intensity,” Plummer said. “It’s impossible to be that intense 24 hours a day. So somehow, some way, you have to raise the intensity in order to thrive on game day. To do that, the easiest way for a defensive player is to be angry. And what’s easier to be angrier about than the guy across from you trying to keep you from doing your job?”
Once, when playing Buffalo, Plummer slipped his hand under the face mask of massive Bills guard Ruben Brown and gave his mug a shove.
“He very calmly after the play walked over and said, ‘That’s the last time you’re going to do that. Otherwise, this is going to be a long day for you,’ ” Plummer recalled.
“I guess it’s going to be a long day,” Plummer shot back. “Because I’m going to do it every … play.”
Intensity goal achieved.
Defensive back Toi Cook, who spent 11 seasons in the NFL including three with those 49ers, didn’t embrace the same philosophy.
“For me, it was like boxing,” he said. “It’s getting from Point A to Point B with your punches. The moment you get really mad and reach back for that extra oomph, you get hit three times.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer