Sports Nut

Angry Wide Men

Why some NFL players are meaner than others.

Guys who people do not like

One of the great pleasures of the NFL draft is hearing pundits reel off scouting-report clichés. A left tackle isn’t massive, but rather “looks like he was weaned on a Cybex weight machine.” A linebacker isn’t muscular, he “passes the eyeball test.” An athletic speedster “runs like a deer and jumps like a kangaroo.” And the sort of player who has no qualms about punching a supine opponent in the family jewels? He is anointed with the greatest compliment of them all: “the mean streak.”

The late, great Joel Buchsbaum, the draft guru for Pro Football Weekly, often reserved his “mean streak” kudos for less-talented players who persevered on guts alone. Buchsbaum derided current New York Giants left tackle Luke Petigout as less flexible than a statue, for example, but added that he “has a nasty streak and will try to punish the defender.” The Eagles’ Jon Runyan and the Seahawks’ Steve Hutchinson were among the certified Buchsbaum meanies coming out of college. This year, draft watchers have their eye on up-and-coming mean streakers Vernon Carey from Miami and Jake Grove out of Virginia Tech.

Conversely, there are few more damning scouting assessments, especially for linemen, than “lacks mean streak”—Scouts Inc.’s conclusion on South Carolina’s otherwise highly rated Travelle Wharton. Buchsbaum once referred to 6-foot-8, 343-pound Bryant McKinnie as a “planet player”—that is, there are few other homo sapiens in Earth’s history who can match his dimensions. But he also lamented that McKinnie, now with the Minnesota Vikings, “is not a real killer.”

To a non-draftnik, this delicate parsing between the bullies and the overly nice must seem a little nitpicky. Every player who excels in the college game has a modicum of bloodlust; as Bill Parcells once noted, football isn’t a game for well-adjusted adults. But a mean streak differs from garden-variety competitiveness: It gives scouts a clue as to who’ll keep battling when they’re overmatched. In the college ranks, top players often coast by on sheer ability; in the pros, everyone gets physically whipped sooner or later. A truly mean player won’t hesitate to play dirty when the chips are down.

Ernie Stautner, a Dallas Cowboys assistant coach, offered this definition of the mean streak in 1979 as an explanation of Randy “The Manster” White’s brilliance:

Say two boxers get together and want to spar. They both agree they won’t hit each other. But then they start sparring and one guy sees an opening. Pow, he hits you with everything he’s got. That’s a mean streak.

New Orleans Saints guard LeCharles Bentley solidified his nasty streak with a single punch. When he was at Ohio State, Bentley rearranged teammate Tyson Walter’s face after Walter used a racial slur during a practice. (Walter filed suit, and a jury awarded him $6,000 for medical expenses.) The beat-down bolstered Bentley’s reputation as the Big 10’s toughest, nastiest player, helping make him a second-round pick in the 2002 draft despite a noticeable lack of flexibility and speed. Especially compared to the tamer McKinnie, taken 37 spots ahead, Bentley could be the steal of that draft’s offensive line crop.

Many scouts won’t confess to offering bonus points to brawlers. When Ohio State’s Robert Reynolds punched Wisconsin quarterback Jim Sorgi in the Adam’s apple last fall, the cheap shot earned him a dreaded “C” on his Scouts Inc. report: “character issues.” But Nolan Nawrocki, Pro Football Weekly’s current draft expert, says Reynolds’ vicious performance probably piqued scouts’ interest more than they’ll admit. Post-whistle violence is a good indicator that a player “is mentally tough, that if he doesn’t like something about the way the game is going, he’s going to find a way to change it.” (Reynolds changed that game by rendering Sorgi temporarily unable to speak, although OSU eventually lost.)

Sure, the mean streak may exist, but does it really correlate with NFL success? Pro Football Weekly’s Nawrocki thinks so. “Football is such a violent game, a player really needs to have a chip on their shoulder to succeed,” he says. It’s no surprise that the mean streak strikes a chord with sportswriters, fans, and scouts. Nasty glares and sucker punches were the norm when revered tough guys Dick Butkus and Mean Joe Greene prowled the hashmarks, playing more for fury’s sake than for money. Linemen with a mean streak are the NFL’s equivalent of hockey goons, fan favorites who specialize in dishing out—and absorbing—extreme punishment. Virginia Tech’s Grove, a likely early round pick, recently confessed to that “I want to be a guy who people don’t like.” If Grove can make good on that promise by delivering his share of cheap shots, his new team’s fans will likely love him for it.

But a nasty disposition alone doesn’t guarantee a long career. The unathletic Reynolds may not even be drafted (though he might not even be discussed if not for throttling Sorgi). For every Kevin Gogan, who bit, clawed, and gouged his way to a 15-year, All-Pro career, there’s a John St. Clair. Reputed to be one of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s meanest players while at the University of Virginia—he was known to choke opponents who ticked him off—St. Clair has started just 16 games in his four-year career. The mean streak certainly didn’t help St. Clair when he was repeatedly embarrassed and tossed around while subbing for injured All-Pro Orlando Pace in 2002.

An offensive lineman with the world’s greatest technique and bench-press numbers won’t survive in the NFL if he’s intimidated by a little eye gouging and crotch punching. But who would you rather have manning your team’s offensive line—the ostensible badass St. Clair or Baltimore Ravens All-Pro Jonathan Ogden, who scouts knocked as too dispassionate when he came out of UCLA? I’d take Ogden—but, please, don’t tell St. Clair I said that.