SPARTANBURG Most of us would love to play professional football. But even if we wore an XXXXL golf shirt and were athletic and driven and took up lots of space we wouldnt play offensive line.
Wed say we would. But wed be lying.
After two hours of practice Tuesday the Carolina Panthers split up and the offensive line and the defensive line go at each other a final time at the edge of the field. Its just the big men. The big men attract a big crowd that includes Carolina Panther general manager Marty Hurney and head coach Ron Rivera.
For 15 minutes they slam and grab and crash and clutch in the humidity and the heat.
There are no open field runs, stunning catches or pretty spirals. It's as much fighting as football.
This is a tough way to end a practice.
What do you expect?" asks tackle Byron Bell.
Wouldnt you rather run out for a pass or throw one than block 300-pound teammates?
Not really, says Bell. I think everybody on the fields got a hard job. Theres nothing easy about playing ball.
Bell, 23, will not complain. A season ago he was an undrafted rookie out of New Mexico. The Lobos won one game when he was a junior and one when he was a senior.
And here he was three months after the draft signing a free-agent contract with a juggernaut that had won as many games in 2010 as the Lobos had in 2009 and 10 combined.
Quiet and courteous almost all offensive linemen are courteous -- Bell will start at right tackle for Carolina this season. He replaces Jeff Otah, who was traded to the New York Jets, failed a physical, shipped back to the Panthers and cut loose like a barge.
Bell also replaces Otah as the teams biggest player. Otah is 6-6 and 350 pounds, Bell 6-5 and 340.
But Bell doesnt remind me of Otah. Even on the other side of the small Wofford table at which we sit Bell isnt as imposing a presence as his predecessor. Another difference: Bell plays.
The offensive line is becoming solidified every day, says Rivera. The addition of (rookie) Amini (Silatolu) and the extra year for Byron have really helped that group.
The offensive line is tight. At camps past theyd gather in an RV, and only honorary linemen, players at other positions with offensive-line like qualities, were allowed inside.
This camp they rented a golf cart and attached a sign: The Heavy Hauler, Property of the Offensive Line. Downhill the cart becomes one of the five fastest vehicles not in Spartanburg but in Spartanburg County.
How does an undrafted player get the attention of his coaches? He arrives with size and talent. He studies. He works. He listens to veteran linemen Geoff Hangartner, Jordan Gross and Ryan Kalil. He shares what he learned last season with Silatolu.
Geoff in my opinion is a Pro Bowl guy, hes an All-Pro, says Bell. I have a lot of respect for Geoff and Jordan and Kalil and all those guys and coaches Mats (offensive line coach John Matsko) and Ray Brown (assistant offensive line coach).
When Brown talks its as if he stands above a canyon. Matskos voice is not as prominent. But Bell hears it.
Hes been around this league a long time and I got a lot of respect for the man, says Bell. Whatever he says is 99% of the time correct.
Do you tell him about the 1% hes wrong?
Awww, hes right all the time, says Bell. That 1% was probably my fault.
In the offseason the linemen socialize with players at other positions. Bell spent time with Cam Newton. A quarterback ought to hang with his line. And, when they go out, buy.
I like Cam a lot, says Bell. Ive been to his house. He keeps me in the right mindset. He says, B, you feel like it, you call my name, I go. Playing with a guy that can sit back there and throw the rock and run, you cant beat that.
You call his name?
Says Bell: Cam says, Give me the Cam, Cam, Cam, Ill roll out of there.
The quarterback tends to attract more attention than the lineman.
But you have the true fans who know who I am, says Bell.
If youre the biggest man in a Panther uniform, and you start at right tackle, everybody will know your name.
Sometimes its like Im speechless, says Bell. From Greenville (Texas) High School to the Carolina Panthers? It hits you.
Then he does what he and his brethren are programmed to. He puts on pads and a helmet and hits somebody back.