By STEPHEN F. HOLDER
Published September 21, 2005
TAMPA - There is a place in football where anything goes, where players spit, punch, kick and inflict immense pain with little fear of repercussions.
Those who wind up in this place must be prepared to hear disturbing sounds and see horrific sights.
What happens at the bottom of the pile is not for the faint of heart.
"If you could put a microphone in that pile, you would be shocked," Bucs offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker said. "Especially when it's a division game. It's definitely not for your mother's ears."
Or her eyes.
What is said at the bottom of the stack of bodies isn't printable in a family publication. What is done is no better. Based on a sampling of experiences shared by Bucs offensive and defensive linemen, the actions include eye-gouging, punches to the stomach, spitting in faces, grabbing and twisting opponents' groins, and, well, you get the picture.
"That's the underworld of football down there," defensive lineman Ellis Wyms said. "There's a whole other game going on down there. It's dirty and it's nasty. I've seen guys spit in guys' mouths, put snot in other guys' mouths. You name it. It's just grimy."
Even players who aren't grimy off the field sometimes resort to grimy tactics on it. What would you do if someone pressed a fist full of muddy turf in your face, like a player once did to center John Wade?
"You're going through the game and maybe a guy has done something to you over the course of the game, or he's gotten on your nerves, or he said something to you, when you get him at the bottom of that pile and you get an opportunity to give something back, you're going to give it," Wyms said.
"That's the perfect opportunity for retaliation."
But that's where this gets tricky.
Everyone wants to stand up for himself, but no one wants to face the wrath of his coach if those retaliatory actions result in a penalty.
"It's really not the smartest thing to do because it's always the retaliating guy who gets penalized," Wade said. "That's a fact. You don't want to be the guy who sits there and acts like, "Oh, I guess I just have to take it.' But you also don't want to be the guy who's getting 15-yard penalties and killing drives, either. There's a fine line.
"You really have to pick your spots. That's doesn't mean you're dirty. It just means that when you get a chance to return the favor somebody gave you, you return it. That might take more than that game. You might have to wait until the next time you play. It might be next season."
How to avoid getting caught is practically a science among players, which might explain why most of this stuff is never witnessed by the tens of thousands of fans who watch games on TV and in stadiums across the league. Wyms is certain there are actions taking place on every play that deserve to be penalized, but officials "just can't police everything."
Some methods used to avoid getting flagged are obvious, like doing your dirt away from the ball, where the officials' attention is unlikely to be focused. But some fall under the category of veteran savvy.
"Trust me, there are ways," defensive tackle Chris Hovan said. "If the ref is standing right there, am I going to do anything? No, of course not. That's going to hinder your team. But when you get a shot, I'm not going to lie, you take it. It's about the right place at the right time."
Or the wrong place.
That would be the bottom of any pile in which there is a loose ball. That is when football becomes less about a game and more about survival.
"I can't say that I'm really the first guy to jump in there," Wyms admits. "I'll pick up a fumble. But I don't want to be the one at the bottom of the pile on top of the ball. If you're down there and you have that ball, you're about to get a whole lot coming your way. They're definitely about to do something unthinkable to you."
Said Hovan: "That's when all bets are off. It's primal."
Some players are considered more primal than others. Though film sessions usually are used to break down things like blitz packages, they also can be useful in determining where the cheap shots are going to come from.
"A lot of people get labeled," Hovan said. "Word spreads and film doesn't lie. You know who's dirty and who's not."
Hovan was a bit reluctant to name names, but there is one such player in his locker room every day.
"Greg Spires is probably one of the nastiest players in the league when you get in a pile," Wyms said, showing no regard for Spires, who was standing about three feet away.
"Greg will do anything to anybody at any time. I've seen this man do some stuff to guys that just insulted their manhood."
Such as? Try choking and punching, for starters. So, Greg, what do you have to say for yourself?
"Hey, it is what it is," he said. "You do what you gotta do."