Retired NFL defensive lineman Fred Smerlas recalls them as the most exhilarating yet frightening moments in pro football, a purgatory of cheap shots and atrocities where you did your time unwillingly, a place where dragons lurked.
The fumble scrums. The barbaric scramble to recover a bouncing oblong spheroid, maddening in its Boing! Boing! Boing! misdirection.
As an offensive player, covering the ball keeps a critical drive alive. As a defensive player like Smerlas, you can proudly present the prize to your own sideline, offering it up like some precious blood-ruby.
In tight games, the fumble stakes were so high, the adrenaline coursing so strongly to the brain, that the big defensive linemen, those lumbering apex predators, would hold up the ball and beat their chests, howling primal screams of accomplishment.
“As a defenseman, recovering a fumble was the difference between getting off the field or having to stay there for another 10 plays and getting your head caved in,” Smerlas said. “They were huge. You trained for them since when you were a little kid. And then, boom! A fumble happens and everything goes dark. Only the ball lights up. No matter what’s around you, you go for that thing. When those lights go out, it’s ‘Here we come!’”
Now in his 60s, Smerlas was a five-time NFL Pro Bowl selection during a 14-year career as a nose tackle with the Buffalo Bills, San Francisco 49ers and New England Patriots. No pushover between the lines, he was then the only Greek player in the NFL, with a 6’3, 270-pound body filled out by dolmades, bougatsa and baklava.
Yet the billy-club violence of those pileups still makes him shudder. The man-weight was so great that he could hardly breathe, and players hurt one another for the fun of it. Nothing was safe or sacred when 2,000 pounds of unscripted National Football League flesh-and-muscle pressed down on anything lying beneath it — untuned baby-grand pianos crushing hapless players fighting for both the ball and for oxygen.
Inside the pile, you kept your eyes closed, like a feeding shark, to guard against knifing hands that were trying to maim and blind, yank and punch scrotums, and dislocate fingers. The football changed hands often and ruthlessly. Late-comers dove into the jumble with their helmets first, heat-seeking missiles looking to break or dislodge anything in their way — the ball, even teeth. You couldn’t even trust your own teammates because in the heat of the scrum, it was often impossible to determine friend from foe.
Years after leaving the game in 1992, Smerlas still remembers the screams that came from a snapped femur or tibia, the animal grunts, that soulless profanity. Perhaps worst of all, he can still smell the rank breath of those miners’ sons and blue-collar pigskin heroes, many amped up on amphetamines or steroids, or both, a concoction that made them unscrupulous and even dangerous.
“You got guys grabbing your balls, punching you in the chest, gouging your eyes. In the fumble pile, everything gets whacked. You’ve got 330-pound men jumping on you. Let me tell ya, get hit by guys that size with pads and helmets, and it gets ugly fast,” Smerlas said. “In the pile, we used a different language. Part Greek. Part Italian. Part filth. ‘You fucking cocksucker, I’m gonna kill you.’ Guys would purposely go without brushing their teeth and eat garlic for five days straight. You’d be down there and pick up some rank smell and tell yourself, ‘I don’t want to know what that is.’”
So dreaded are the pileups that they come to players in their dreams long after retirement: The ball is still bouncing. Mammoth men converge. All that villainy and violence, and without a referee in sight.
The average National League Football game is comprised of 24.7 possessions, about 12 per team, and 3.2 of them (about 13 percent) end in turnovers. Out of 2.3 fumbles per game, on average at least one will be lost.
The 1938 Chicago Bears and 1978 San Francisco 49ers share the indignity of suffering the most fumbles in a season (56), and the 2011 New Orleans Saints can boast about having the fewest (6). The most fumbles to occur in a single game is 10. That slapstick ineptitude took place four times between 1943 and 1978.
Those numbers don’t tell the whole tale. While fumbles are brief events, their casualties, from lost molars to blown momentum, add up quickly. Famous college coach John Heisman, canonized with his own trophy after he died in 1936, once advised his players, “Gentlemen, it is better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football.”
Fumbles changed the rules of the game, and many earned their own monikers: The “Holy Roller” (also known as the “Immaculate Deception”), the “Miracle at the Meadowlands”, the “Butt Fumble”, and an incident between the Broncos and Browns in 1987 that was so crushing it became known simply as “The Fumble”. In the 1960s, a generation of players earned reputations as ball-strippers, boasting nicknames that evoked the wicked street-poetry of the The Longest Yard: “Refrigerator”, “Assassin”, “Night Train”, “Diesel” and “Bus.”
Today’s game is its own cacophony of violence, and fumble pileups are still no place for the meek. Players are bigger, faster and more agile than ever before. But back in the old days, before instant replay and probing multi-angle camera shots kept players in check, before the emergence of new rules that banned head slaps and ruthless high-and-low hits, the field of play was more primitive, more ungoverned, more savage, according to interviews with 18 retired players, coaches and officials.
Gary Plummer, a former linebacker for the Chargers and 49ers, believes his era of fumble piles was more ruthless than today’s. He says that modern players are as prized and protected as Triple Crown racehorses.
“They can call it a respect for your opponent, but I think that it’s because most players realize that they’re making $5 million a year, and you don’t want to mess up somebody’s career, so the intensity isn’t as heightened,” he said. “When we played, guys were fighting to put food on the table. Today, it’s all about getting an extra Ferrari. There’s a difference.”
Cliff “Crash” Harris, a cog in the Dallas Cowboys’ fabled “Doomsday Defense”, was tagged by Washington Coach George Allen as “a rolling ball of butcher knives.” Oakland quarterback Kenny Stabler, himself known as “the Snake”, described mammoth Raiders offensive lineman George Buehler as a “Coke machine with a head.”
Defensive lineman Rich Jackson, who played for the Raiders in the late 1960s, was known for a bear-paw swipe called the “halo spinner”, and once broke Green Bay Packers offensive tackle Bill Hayhoe’s helmet with a head slap. Lyle Alzado, the terrorizing Raiders defensive end, called Jackson the toughest man he’d ever met.
Jackson called himself “Tombstone”.
“When they asked me why,” he said, “I’d tell ‘em that the tombstone is the termination of life, a symbol of death, the end of the road.”
Even Tombstone considered fumble scrums to be cold-blooded places. “You’d hear guys holler and you couldn’t imagine what was going on to make a man scream like that, the dirty things taking place,” he said. “But I was down there. And I did whatever it took. We played desperate in the old days.”
This lawlessness built football legends. Some players had particular reputations for violence. They possessed the honed skills of hired hitmen, only too glad to employ them inside the scrum.
Gremlins like Dick Butkus, Ray Nitschke, Jack Lambert, Lawrence Taylor and Joe Greene, who was known for being just plain mean.
“Everybody knew that you didn’t piss off Joe Greene,” said Clinton Jones, now 74, a former running back drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in 1967. “You’d even try to compliment him. You’d say ‘Nice hit, Joe.’ Because you knew that if you didn’t treat him nice he might try to eat you, and that would make for a long afternoon. Some guys had no limits.”
Then there was Conrad Dobler, who earned lasting infamy — and a cover story in the July 25, 1977, issue of Sports Illustrated — as the dirtiest player in football.
As Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray once wrote, “Conrad didn’t play football, he waged it. You couldn’t describe what he did as play. Not unless you figure the Indians played Custer. Dobler turned a line of scrimmage into a killing ground. He went about the game with … maniacal, suicidal fervor.”
For many players, the word “Dobler” meant frothing, filthy hits.
“Guys like Conrad Dobler would bite your eyeballs out,” Smerlas said. “Conrad would eat a child, for God sakes. He had no conscience. He’d tape his hands and rub them in salt and go after your eyes. He was like a crab. Everything on him was going to hurt you. If the ball was on the ground, he would punch you in the ribs or in the throat. You could beat Conrad to death, he wouldn’t care.”
Yet even the formidable Dobler quakes at memories of the scrum. “All that stuff they said I did at the bottom of the pile was bullshit; I avoided piles,” he said. “They were dangerous places. You could get hurt. Being there on the ground with your legs spread out and guys piling on, you could break something. One of the most dangerous places was standing around a pile. You’d get hit by some guy using his helmet as a battering ram. It was a good way to get your ass knocked off. All I wanted to do was get out of that pile and check my bones to see if anything was broken.”
Dobler insists he didn’t need the cover of a fumble scrum to inflict his damage. “If I hurt players, I did it out in the open. I’d bring up my hands and hit ‘em in the face mask. I’d catch ‘em in the solar plexus with my fist. That stopped ‘em real good. It was all legal. The refs didn’t like my leg whip, but it was sufficient to knock a guy off his feet.”
Fumble piles were the perfect cover for criminality. Players who moments earlier had been felled by brutal hits sought out scrums to exact revenge, knowing they could hide from cameras and the discerning eyes of opposing sidelines and referees.
“When we played, there was no place to hide between the white lines,” Dobler said. “If I got my hands on a defense guy in the pile, I beat the shit out of him. You got no mercy. I made a guy cry once.”
An opponent once tried to bite off Dobler’s finger in the scrum. “But I always wrapped my hands before games. They were caked in dirt and mud and sweat. I might have even picked my nose with those fingers. So I laughed at those guys.
“Myself, I never bit anyone. I liked my teeth too much. And I still have beautiful teeth.”
Though steeped in venom and hostility, the fumble scrum is also a place where real technique, finesse, sophistication — perhaps even something like artistry — could shine. Think of Mikhail Baryshnikov with a helmet and shoulder pads.
Some players entered the fumble scrum more as pacifists than combatants. The game was built as much on savvy and skill as testosterone and eye-gouging, they reasoned. Sure, smash-mouth worked, but so did sleight of hand.
“Players talked trash in the pile, but I didn’t get into it. You throw down all that hate and you get consumed by it,“ said Riki Ellison, who played linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Raiders between 1983 and 1992. “Every locker room had the big bad-ass defensive linemen who were on the top of the food chain and set the mood. But some guys played a game of psychology in the pile. Matt Millen always talked about stuff that had nothing to do with football, like the weather, how his parents were doing or what was going on in his life. It was pure comedy. It would throw off a guy’s aggression.”
Few players were as crafty as Cliff Harris.
“As a free safety, I caused a lot of fumbles, many more than I recovered,” recalled Harris, who played in five Super Bowls and was elected to six consecutive Pro Bowls. “I had a technique. It wasn’t any big secret. I’d come up from behind a player and punch the ball out with my fist. We called it stripping.”
By the 1960s, teams were practicing how to snatch loose footballs. “You were trained to fall on a fumble in a certain way,” Harris added. “You weren’t supposed to dive and land on the ball, but hit the ground next to it and curl up around it. If you tried to pick it up and run with it, there was better chance you’d really get injured.”
Players worried the fumble scrum might result in season-ending injuries. Football could fulfill dreams of glory, then tear everything away when one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse rolled over your leg.
“When I got to the NFL in 1976, I had to develop a receptivity to pain and learn how to deal with brutal, nasty, mean people,” said linebacker Reggie Williams, who played 14 seasons for the Cincinnati Bengals. “In the fumble piles, you’d expect someone to go for your gonads. Before instant replay, I felt a bunch of hands going for my nuts, so I’d get in the fetal position and clamp my buttocks together. One guy put his finger inside my nose and pulled, trying to rip the skin. Players would scratch your eyes, give you infections. It was all part of the nastiness of that pile. The dirtiest players were usually the ones on steroids. A steroid-induced athlete is a different kind of animal.”
Neck-twisting was considered fair game. “It wasn’t unusual for some guys to grab a player’s face mask and just twist, you know, literally wring his neck,” said Lee Roy Jordan, who played weakside linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys in the 1960s.
Over thirty years later, necks and other vulnerable body parts are still being wrung in the pile. Today’s players don’t carry brass knuckles like Butkus or Nitschke, but they have ways of going for the jugular. “You put your hands up by somebody’s neck and, especially with an elbow, they stop moving,” said Stephen White, a former defensive end who played between 1996 and 2002 for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets (and now contributes to SB Nation). “You hit the throat, the ribs or the midsection, somewhere that makes the guy cough up that ball.”
Smerlas likens the toughest players to prison enforcers.
“We pounded the shit out of people. A lot of guys should have been put in cages after the game. We brought the adrenaline to every game,” he said. “I popped a finger out a few times and pulled it back myself. Once I hit the side of some guy’s helmet and ripped the side of my hand off, pinky to wrist. I ran off the field with all this white stuff oozing out, and they sewed it up right there without any pain killers. That kind of aggression.”
Kevin Gogan, a veteran offensive linemen who retired in 2000, earned the nickname “Big Nasty” for his legal hits as much as his reputation for dirty plays. Calling scrum violence “learned behavior,” he offered some pointers on exerting maximum nastiness.
“The best place to hit was right in the soft tissue. I’ve poked my fingers in people’s eyes,” Gogan said. “It’s not a good feeling, oh no. I remember one game where I kneed this guy in the nuts, hurt him real bad. He got up before me and stomped on what he thought was my leg, with those fierce inch-long cleats they used for grass fields. But he hit my teammate instead of me.”
Even referees have developed techniques to survive the fumble pile. After all, they venture between the lines without the same protective equipment or blind aggression as players. In a scrum, they feel more like the Christians than the lions.
Now 90, Jim Tunney was nicknamed the “Dean of NFL Referees,” and wore No. 32 on his black-and-white uniform. He was particularly wary of fumbles, which he called “the most exciting play in football.”
“As an official, you’re foolish to dive into those scrums. I told younger refs, ‘Take your time. Don’t worry about it. Let things settle down,’” Tunney said. “Sorting through those players was like trying to take a steak from a dog’s mouth. I’d see referees dig into that pile and I’d tell them, ‘What are you worried about? Trying to find the right guy with the ball? C’mon.”
Once Tunney sensed that the worst brutality was over, he pounced.
“That ball comes loose and 22 guys come looking for it all at once. Only one or two are going to get to it. The rest are piling on, trying to hurt each other,” he said. “As an official, you peel those guys off. You say ‘It’s over, it’s over. Get off of there.’ And most times they would. But until you got down to the bottom of the pile, it was Darwin’s survival of the fittest. I would tell players, ‘If you haven’t read Charles Darwin, you better go back and read him.’”
Most players simply have to come to terms with the idea that sacrificing their bodies is for the good of the team. Because inside the pile, some drooling 380-pound lummox with pads and an attitude could hurt you even when he wasn’t trying. Like a hippo rolling on the riverbed.
“The weight of the pile was overwhelming and caused physical pain. I broke my arm underneath one pile against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Just the weight of all those bodies,” Ellison said. “A guy was on top of me and my arm was in an awkward position. You can’t do anything about it. You just gotta suck it up and wait the 10 seconds for the bodies to unpile.”
Geoff Schwartz, an offensive guard who played for five teams and retired in 2016 (and now contributes to SB Nation), said that fumbles took a particularly hard toll on the largest players. He stands 6’6 and played at a whopping 340 pounds.
“Fighting for the ball in those piles was the most exhausted I’d ever been on the football field over a 30-second period,” he said. “Trying to keep control of the ball, when guys would do anything to punch it out. It just wore me out.”
Sometimes, fumbles would punish players for their instincts. When a football popped loose into the open field, big defensive linemen got hurt doing something they later reconsidered as plain foolhardy: picking up a loose fumble and trying to run for a touchdown.
“Defensive linemen never got any glory so when we could pick up a fumble, we tried to score,” recalled Bob Lilly, a Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle in the 1960s. “One time I had Larry Cole on my left, and Cliff Harris, another one of my teammates, wants the ball too. So he comes running up and hit me in the back and tore my hamstring in two. I thought two things while I was falling: I wonder who that son of a bitch was who hit me in the back, and that I should have lateraled to Larry Cole.”
“Tombstone” didn’t fare much better in a similar situation. “I was playing Cincinnati one day and there was a fumble on the 5-yard line. The rest is kind of blurry. But it was the worst experience I ever had,” he said. “I picked it up, and I was thinking TD. I took the first step and it suddenly felt like the entire stadium was on me. They had me by the arms and the legs and the neck, pulling and punching and doing everything they could to get that football. And I told myself right there, ‘Man, don’t you ever do that again.’”
If a retired NFL player’s long-past career can seem like a fading dream, then the fumbles are the nightmares, those nagging memory loops, full of anxiety and feelings of impotence, that wake you up in a sweat at 3 a.m. Suddenly, you’re drowning in the bathtub, or caught stark naked on a public bus, mired in quicksand while trying to outrun a serial killer.
Either you come to terms with the chaos and the powerlessness, maybe even embrace it, or you don’t. You shudder, block it out of your mind. Or get therapy.
Gary Plummer once picked up an opponent by the eye sockets in retaliation for being kicked in the groin. How’s that for a nightmare? His mantra: hit or be hit. “If you weren’t fearless on the football field, you wouldn’t have a very long career,” he said.
Many players avoided people like Plummer. After all, why mess with Bigfoot when you know the bloody outcome? “I wasn’t in many of those piles,” said Harris. “I chose not to be until I had to be.”
Wait, even the guy known as the “rolling ball of butcher knives” avoided the pile? “I was a tough player, but I was also a smart player,” Harris said. “What kept me healthy was my thinking, not my instincts. And my instinct was to stay away from those scrums.”
Though fumbles are still much-ballyhooed by fans, NFL officials maintain a love-hate relationship with them. In 2018, the league changed one rule, no longer calling a loose ball a fumble if the player who lost the ball regains control “immediately” [this article was written in 2019].
Some have called for a possession arrow, like the one used in basketball, to curtail the violence and the guessing game of the fumble scrum. Even coaches have begun asking their players to hold back.
Players who once sought out the fumble pile now can only shake their heads. “It’s amazing to look back on it,” said Plummer. “I was a broadcaster for the 49ers for 13 years and I’d go to practices and training camps and I’d watch the drills and hits and I started thinking, “My God, I used to do this. How crazy that was. It’s like you have this ’S’ on your chest and a cape on your back when you’re playing. Fear never once entered into the equation.”
Long-retired NFL veterans describe their fumble psychosis as if they’re lying prone on the analyst’s couch. “Our era featured the sons of coal miners and men who worked in the steel mills. For them, football was bloodsport,” Clinton Jones said. “And when players left the game, they had post-traumatic stress. They had nightmares of the piles and the intensity of the sport, one campaign after another. They remembered all the vicious hits. Deacon Jones was a good friend of mine, and he’d always say, ‘Somebody slams the door and I jump.’”
Deep down in that fumble-pile flashback, desperate men will always be fighting for the football, brutality still being waged. The ball is right there for the taking. The only question that remains: How badly do you want it?
Forever lurking in the deep are delinquents like Lambert, Nitschke, and Butkus. “They were fierce. They loved the fumble scrum,” said Tunney. “That’s all a linebacker cares about. He doesn’t care if he’s having dinner that night. He just wants that ball. If you’re a running back and you fumble, you might make one attempt at the ball, but you wouldn’t be caught dead on the bottom of that pile. You leave that to the big guys.”
By the time he retired in 1973, Butkus had hard-coded trepidation into a generation of NFL veterans, not only for his felonious tackles, but for what he did in the pile, and everywhere else. He broke bones, crushed egos and prompted stretchers to be brought onto the field. NFL Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones said Butkus, “was a well-conditioned animal,” and that “every time he hit you, he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital.”
After both retired, Tunney asked Butkus about his zest for violence. “I always called him Richard. I asked him, ‘Richard, did you ever intentionally try to hurt somebody?’
“He said, ‘Nah, not unless it was in a game or something.’”