The NFL is celebrating its 100th season, and there are many behind-the-scenes stories still to be told. Over the course of this season, Times NFL writer Sam Farmer will pull back the curtain and tell some of those, through the eyes of the players and coaches who lived them.
Channeling his inner jerk for laughs
Peyton Manning is a funny guy, and never funnier than in his famous United Way skit on an episode of “Saturday Night Live” in 2007. If you haven’t seen it, check it out below. It’s a parody of a heartwarming charity commercial that opens with the five-time NFL MVP playing football with a group of young kids in an urban park.
The spoof ad starts innocently enough, with the wholesome Manning encouraging everyone in the huddle to practice teamwork and have fun. But when he steps back into shotgun it’s a different story. He starts directing traffic the way he would in an NFL game, barking at his pint-sized teammates, rocketing point-blank spirals at them, and angrily scolding them. (It’s actually a Nerf ball that looks like a real football.)
He drills a kid in the back with a pass, knocks him over, then screams at him, “Get your head out of your …” He tells another, “I can’t even look at you,” and gives him a 20-minute timeout in the portable toilet. He kneels and impatiently tells a third scared-looking youngster, “OK, I’m sorry, do you want to lose? I throw. You catch. It’s not that hard, OK?”
Later in the ad, Manning teaches them how to break into a car, uses a kid as a prop to pick up a woman and, with a beer in one hand, drops an F-bomb as he tells them about a stint in prison.
The tag line at the end: “Spend time with your kids … so Peyton Manning doesn’t.”
It’s a classic skit, but one that almost didn’t happen. Manning felt uncomfortable with it when he read the script. It was too edgy for him.
“I remember they showed it to me, and I kind of had that, ‘Ooh, I don’t know’ moment,” he said. “Because they put those sound effects with it [of the footballs thumping the kids]. I was just like, ‘Wow. I will go all the way up to the edge. Is this too much?’ And they convinced me. The director said, ‘You’ve got to understand, you’re a charitable guy. That’s why we’re going to go to the extreme and make it funny.’”
Manning didn’t have a difficult time finding his inspiration.
“I remember the [director] saying, ‘I want you to treat these kids like they’re rookie wide receivers with bad attitudes.’ I said, ‘I can channel that. I know what that is.’ It’s one thing if they’re a rookie, you kind of have some compassion. But if he had a bad attitude or was lazy or whatnot, you kind of lost your patience with him.
“So that’s what I was trying to channel. But there was some improv. I told the kid to go sit in the port-o-let; that was an improv.”
Then there were the stage parents.
“Some of the kids, their parents were there watching,” he said. “And I heard one of the parents tell the director, ‘I want him to hit MY kid in the face.’ That kind of freed me up. I was like, ‘OK, if you want your kid to get a little more air time and take one in the head from me, I’ll do it. I’ll knock your kid out.’”
Turns out, the skit was a classic. Manning still hears about it. He was at an event in New York recently and a distinguished gentleman approached him.
“He walked up to me and said, ‘You hit my kid in the face with a football back in 2007,’” Manning said. “I said, ‘Excuse me?’
“He said, ‘You pegged him in the face on Saturday Night Live. My kid goes around and shows it to girls. Shows it to them on YouTube and it works for him. He’s in his mid-20s and he’s working in New York.’”
Not everyone was so tickled by the skit.
“I got a little blowback,” Manning said. “I got some fan mail from people. I remember one person saying, ‘I was watching Saturday Night Live with my 10-year-old and didn’t really appreciate that.’ I didn’t write her back, but I was like, ‘Why was your 10-year-old watching Saturday Night Live?’ Before you check me, let’s check everything here.”
Don’t tug on Superman’s cape
Even to seasoned NFL blockers, the late Reggie White was terrifying. The Hall of Fame defensive end had forklift strength, so he could put a 320-pound tackle on roller skates, move him briskly backward, casually toss him aside and swoop in on a quarterback like a bird of prey.
So the really smart offensive linemen would do anything to avoid angering the 300-pound White, an ordained minister, who played 15 seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers and — for a final season — the Carolina Panthers.
Former Arizona Cardinals center Ed Cunningham recalls a home game against the Eagles in 1992, when teammate Mark May went to extremes to make sure White had a pleasant, not-too-agitating game — even if it meant May delivering a beatdown to someone on his own team.
How Cunningham remembers it:
“Mark May is one of the most headstrong, opinionated humans — not just teammates — I’ve ever known. He has an opinion, and he’s going to tell it right to your face. So we were getting ready to play the Eagles, and Reggie was still Reggie. He was right in his prime. And Mark May, who came from the Washington Redskins and had been a Hog [a member of their legendary offensive line] and had played against Reggie all the time, was playing as a guard.
“Our right tackle gets hurt, and Mark May, a late-career guard whose feet weren’t moving quite as quick, had to move to right tackle. That means against the Eagles he drew Reggie White. And the whole week Mark was in a funk. He was working so hard in practice, lifting extra weights. He was pretty freaked out.
“So we go out for warmups before the game, and Mark walks all the way across the field to Reggie, puts out his hand, and about three hours before the game starts politicking him. ‘Hey, Reg, how ya doing, man? How’s the church going? Should I send a donation directly to you, or the church?’
“He comes back and I said, ‘Mark, what are you doing?’ He said, ‘Ed, if you’re going to play Reggie White, and he’s happy, it’s a whole different day than if he’s angry.’ So Mark knew. If Reggie’s having a good time, he’s just hard to block. If he’s angry, he’s going to make you look like a fool. That’s the difference when Reggie turned the switch.
“We go out for the first snap and there’s a TV timeout. Mark walks over to the Eagles and starts saying hi to all the guys. He tells me, ‘Yeah, we know each other from the Pro Bowl. We’re all pals.’ I’m like, ‘Mark, you’ve never done this before. Come on, man.’ And he’s real nervous.
“So the game goes on and we’ve got this new tight end-slash-fullback named Butch Rolle. He was one of these guys who could only play angry. So he was always in people’s face, talking smack from the minute he walked on the field. He comes in, and the very first play, the fullback was supposed to go over and help block Reggie with Mark, so we could run an outside run play.
“Butch gets over there, dives at Reggie’s kneecap, cuts him to the ground, and jumps up and starts cussing at Reggie White who is grabbing at his knee. You don’t cut Reggie. You don’t cuss at him.
“Mark grabbed Butch by the collar, dragged him into the huddle, and I’ve never heard someone get berated like that in my life. He said, ‘If you do that again, I will kick your [butt] on live TV.’ And off he went for the rest of the game.”
The then-Phoenix Cardinals lost that day 31-14, but White was denied a sack. He had 14 that season.
John Randle: Soul Man
During the draft, everyone makes a big deal out of the rookie class. These young guys are going to be game changers. But that’s typically not the case. A select few make a splash right away, but most of the players who make a roster and stick around need some time to make the transition to the pros. They aren’t rock stars right away.
For instance, the Minnesota Vikings selected North Carolina State center Garrett Bradbury in the opening round this year. He was a premier interior lineman in college football and stands a good chance of doing very well in the NFL. The Vikings like what they see so far. It’s unfair, though, to place early and unrealistic expectations on what he’ll be as a rookie.
Matt Birk played center for the Vikings, and wound up having a Hall of Fame-caliber career with Minnesota and Baltimore, making six Pro Bowls and winning a Super Bowl. He was a sixth-round pick from Harvard, and didn’t have anything close to those early expectations on him. However, he did have Hall of Fame defensive tackle John Randle weighing plenty heavy on him, and that was quite enough.
The way Birk recalls it:
“It was my first training camp, and every day, he was just dominating me. I’m not exaggerating, with Johnny there was no half-speed, it was game-day speed all the time — walk-throughs, practice, all the time. Literally, I never blocked him.
“You’re a big, strong football player. You come from college where you’re kind of the man, especially if you’re playing in the Ivy League and you get drafted. You’re used to just dominating people. And this was the opposite. I was totally powerless. I felt like I’d never played football before, never did anything right. You almost feel like giving up. If there were 100 points awarded every play, he was getting all 100. There was no 70-30, or 80-20. It was 100-0 on every play.
“So it takes its toll. You’re wondering, ‘Why am I here? I can’t do this.’ You’re in a bad spot, mentally. And Johnny was just Johnny. He never let up on you, never let up on anybody.
“Weeks into it, and lunch is the only time you feel like a human being. Because you don’t have to talk about football or watch football. You just get that half-hour to yourself. So I was looking forward to that little mental break before we went out to practice and the domination would ensue.
“I was walking through the food line, scooping food up, and he comes in — just a bounce in his step. He’s always kind of loud and boisterous. Guy just radiated energy. He comes over and puts his face right down in my food. Then he goes to the other side of me and sticks his face down in food. It was like a power move, like I’m going to embarrass you.
“It was sort of funny, but then he looks up with me with just laser focus. His whole demeanor changed. He looked me right in the eyes and said, ‘Today at practice, I’m going to take your soul.’ He just let it hang there. He kept looking at me, and I was like, ‘Uhhh.’ I believed him. He was capable of doing whatever he wanted to me. That was just about my entire rookie year.”
Eventually, Birk would go on to become a fixture on the offensive line, and one of the better centers to play the game. Oh, and he did reclaim his soul from Randle.
“I remember there was a play at practice where I got him, and I got him good,” Birk said.
“On the next play, there was going to be a double-team on him, and I think he knew it.
“He was so mad about the play before that he was like a bull, kicking his back leg up and spitting on my hand. Grunting like a bull. I remember we came off on him as hard as we could. … We didn’t move him.”
Randle was the proverbial example of the guy you’d hate to play against, but would love to have on your team.