There’s no greater joy in sports than watching a fat man run back an interception. In the first week of this NFL season, mammoth Bills defensive tackle Sam Adams leaped a few inches and engulfed a short pass from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Then he took off, darting diagonally toward the near sideline. At the last instant, when it appeared the 335-pound tackle’s ample momentum would cause him to tip like an overstuffed wheelbarrow, Adams nimbly cut the corner and sashayed into the end zone, arms flapping and shoulders bobbing. Adams’ spectacular return typifies the heady mixture of stout play and high comedy that fat tackles have brandished throughout NFL history. It’s often said that pro football came of age when Johnny Unitas led the Baltimore Colts to a 23-17 overtime victory over the Giants in the 1958 NFL championship game. But Johnny U’s teammate, Hall of Fame defensive lineman Art Donovan, exerted influence on the sport just as significant as that of the Colts’ vertical passing game. The self-deprecating Donovan, who answered to the nickname Fatso, is responsible for inaugurating the most lasting of pro football stock characters: the lovable, fat defensive tackle. The ample carriage shared by Donovan and the fattest of the football fat meshes perfectly with populist folk herodom. In a game where the player’s faces are obscured by helmets, hefty defensive linemen have a physical attribute that no piece of equipment can cover up: a sloppy, floppy gut. They are the only players who might reasonably be mistaken for the guys wearing their replica jerseys. In recent years, no player filled the role of the cartoonishly larger-than-life gridder better than William “The Refrigerator” Perry. In his rookie season of 1985, the Fridge’s toughness against the run helped the Bears to the Super Bowl. And though not nearly the team’s best player, the Fridge was probably the most popular Bear, owing to his comic forays into the offensive backfield and the winning gap-toothed smile he flashed in the classically awkward “Super Bowl Shuffle” video. In the early ‘90s, 340-pound Green Bay Packers tackle Gilbert Brown stepped into the Fridge’s tradition of genial gianthood. While, like the Fridge, Brown contributed to the Pack’s Super Bowl run, he was also known for toting sacks of hamburgers around the team’s practice facility. At the peak of his popularity in 1997, “The Gravedigger” was given a fitting homage when a Green Bay Burger King franchise honored him by christening the double-stuffed Gilbertburger (hold the pickles).
Wide loads like Fatso, the Fridge, and the Gravedigger were often credited with solid play, but most fan and media attention focused on their impressive bulk. The unlikely player who brought about a sea change in fat tackle perception was the wisecracking, mulleted Tony Siragusa. While linebacker Ray Lewis scooped up the MVP award in Super Bowl XXXV, Siragusa and his comrade-in-thighs, then-Raven Sam Adams, were credited with clogging up the opposition’s interior line. Instantly, fat linemen went from garish roster-filler to coveted accessory.
More than the other major pro sports leagues, the NFL excels at plagiarism. When one team wins with the West Coast offense, ten teams install it the following fall. And when a fat linemen tandem wins the Super Bowl, fat linemen became “run stuffers.” In 2001, in the immediate afterglow of the Ravens’ title, five of the first 19 players selected in the NFL Draft were 300-pound-plus defensive tackles—this after one of the first 24, one of the first 23, and zero of the first 32 picks went for tackles the prior three drafts. That same offseason, the Bears brought in stuffers Keith Traylor (340 pounds) and Ted Washington (365 pounds), who helped take the team to the 2001 playoffs with a 13-3 record. In 2002, one year after cult hero Norman “Heavy Lunch” Hand proved instrumental in the Saints’ playoff drive, Grady Jackson, Martin Chase, and Hand came together like a fat Voltron to form New Orleans’ half-ton “Heavy Lunch Bunch.”
The problem with the fat lineman is that his productivity is often difficult to evaluate: There’s a very fine line between actively tying up blockers and slouching around doing next to nothing. Since the run stuffer’s supposed contributions don’t show up in boldface on the stat sheet—in the Packers’$2 1997 Super Bowl season, Gilbert Brown had only 16 solo tackles—it’s easy to assume that when the defense plays well, so does the stuffer. And when the stuffing’s not up to snuff? Well, it’s easy to blame the fat guy. I bet the big lug didn’t even participate in the team’s offseason conditioning program!
A recent New York Times article posited that the fat tackle’s days are next to numbered. Now, the argument goes, every team prefers a Warren Sapp type—a defensive tackle with ample gut but quicker feet. In the 2003 NFL Draft, five of the first 13 players selected were defensive tackles in excess of 300 pounds—and all can supposedly rush the passer. Dewayne Robertson, the human landform the Jets selected fourth overall this April, typifies this new breed: His combination of size, quickness, and stamina would seem to augur ill for one-dimensional fatsos in the mold of the Fridge.
But in a league where the average career lasts less than just four seasons, fatsos have enjoyed surprising longevity. The Fridge played for 10 years, Siragusa for 12. Of the present crop of fat linemen, Hand is entering his ninth year, Dan “Big Daddy” Wilkinson and Brown their 10th, * Traylor and Chester McGlockton their 12th, and Washington his 13th. Often, that hardiness stems from adaptability: McGlockton and Wilkinson collected sacks in their slimmer days, and Traylor was a linebacker. Now they’ve ballooned into beefy run-stuffers. So, while it’s possible that Robertson and his nimble cohorts will put today’s fatsos out of a job, it seems just as likely that they’ll grow into the position themselves.
Correction, Sept. 19, 2003: In an earlier version of this piece, Josh Levin incorrectly suggested that Gilbert Brown was sidelined for the year with a biceps injury. While that was the initial diagnosis, Brown has since played in Green Bay’s first two games. (Return to the corrected sentence.)