In the Line of Fire

Fuzzy math, broken fingers and plate after plate of crab legs -- we join the Cleveland Browns' frequently maligned offensive line for a raucous dinner to get a read on the tight-knit crew that stands between quarterback Jeff Garcia and the rest of the NFL

We're in a private room, but it's loud in here. Possibly because I am having dinner with seven bears and eight of their closest friends.

The bears — Grizzly (Ryan Tucker), Big (Paul Zukauskas), Little (Ross Verba), Brown (Jeff Faine), Polar (Kelvin Garmon), Young (Joaquin Gonzalez) and Panda (Melvin Fowler) — comprise the bulk of the playing time on the Cleveland Browns' offensive line. Tonight, they've brought along their backups and tight ends.

We're eating a ton of food. (Well, they are.) "It's a slaughter every time we go to a restaurant," Tucker says. "For appetizers, we just take the top five or six things on the appetizer side, just to get started."

In between bites, we're shooting for meaningful conversation. Although it appears in pieces, sometimes there's not a whole lot of it to be had. "Our maturity level is very low -- 16, 17, maybe," Tucker says.

Zukauskas tries to rescue him. "You're more mature than that."

"No, I'm not. I'm not mature at all."

That said, I begin my investigation into what makes these guys who they are. By turns, they are genuine and sweet and raunchy and intellectual and immature. Their sincere affection for one another is obvious. They laugh a lot. They share an indescribable language that only they understand. Every sound (and every bizarre variation thereof) has meaning, but only to the initiated.

"We have special signals, code words. We know," Verba admits. That, and much of what is mentioned around this table, belongs to them. I am merely an observer.

Still, some interesting things emerge. Turns out there's a lot underneath those orange helmets. "Paulie reads," Verba offers about teammate Zukauskas. "He's got a degree in World War II [from Boston College]."

"Foreign policy," Zukauskas corrects him.

"Same thing," Verba says with a shrug. "Anyway, he reads a book like, what, Paulie, once a month?"

"Yeah, once a month at least. I try to."

Across from Zukauskas sits a sterling example of brilliance and brawn.

Gonzalez was a walk-on at the University of Miami, but to do that, he turned down an academic ride at, of all places, Harvard. His mind is definitely full of more than football. Right now, it's full of author Dan Brown's "Digital Fortress" and the numerical code at the end of the book.

"Joaquin, he's smart, man," Verba warns. "Don't mess with him."

These guys are not to be messed with, certainly not on the football field.

"I punched a guy square in the [crotch] one time," Tucker tells. "It was a screen pass, and I cut the defensive end and he was laying on top of me and he wouldn't get off. I was just laying there waiting for him to get up and on my way up, I just punched him right [there]. Everybody saw it except the refs. I was a wanted man after that."

By and large, these guys agree that fans don't really understand the intricacies of the game, especially not game-day pressure.

"You make one bad step, six to eight inches the wrong way, and you're talking about a guy possibly getting a broken leg or something," Verba says. "That's his career. That's a whole lot of pressure."

"Here's the thing," Tucker says. "There's a guy across from you who's the best in the world at his position. He's getting paid a lot of money to beat the guy across from him. Draw a line in the dirt. Imagine trying to keep him from getting to a certain spot 60-something times in a game and not making any mistakes."

Verba, who's getting worked up about this, jumps in.

"As an offensive line, we'll probably give up maybe 15 sacks this whole year. Which is extraordinary. That's hot reads and coverage sacks and everything — 10 or 15 all year between five of us. That's 30 plays a game, times five guys on the line, that's 150 times total that we could get beat every game, times 17 games [actually 16]. What is that? What's 150 times 17?"

Smart guy Gonzalez offers up off the top of his head: "That's around 2,400 and something."

"OK, so that's 2,400 and something times, and we're giving up 15 sacks. That's [freaking] awesome. Write that down." Just to emphasize his point, Verba picks up the tape recorder lying on the table and says this: "Seventeen times 150 is whatever that is, minus 15 sacks. That divided by that is like 99 percent. Take that to the [freaking] bank."

We will — for now — but for the record, quarterback Jeff Garcia has been deposited on his backside 10 times through the first four games, so the bank's going to need a little extra security the rest of the season to even keep that sack tally under 20.

So they can get a little passionate about defending themselves and their game. They're passionate about food, too, and when our servers appear with massive amounts of it, an almost reverent silence falls over the room. A crab leg slips off a plate onto the floor and before anyone can apologize, Verba says, "Gimme that." Toni, our server, hesitates. "Gimme that, just give it to me, I'll eat that. I'm from Iowa."

After that, it's a free-for-all. The slaughter is on.

"Hey, grab me some of that sauce. Get that sauce down here."

"Hand me that, Bad Boy. Faine, hand me that. What is that?"

"You want some of this cheese stuff?"

"Who's got the crab cakes?"

"Yo, yo, Cherry Coke over here. Cherry Cokes all around."

"That stuff is hot, Dawg. That's some kind of habañero cherry bring-tears-to-your-eyes sauce. Damn."

Zukauskas has a scary-looking side dish and I can't help myself. I have to ask.

"What's that?"

"Creamed corn. You want some?"

"No, but thanks."

"It's really good. You sure? Taste it. Have some."

This is a genuine bunch of bears. One has to admit that.

There's not one guy here we don't want here. Everybody loves each other," Verba says. Adds Tucker: "Not only do we counsel one another on daily needs, but we help each other raise our kids. A lot of us are fathers, some new fathers. We try to help each other any way we can."

"We stick together," Verba says. "That's for damn sure."

"The most satisfying part of being an offensive lineman," Tucker says, "is definitely the camaraderie. Nothing like the brotherhood. Priceless laughs."

When the talk strays away from football and toward their off-the-field lives, it's easy to see the truth of Tucker's statement. The stories fly fast and furious, each guy trying to get a bigger laugh than the last.

Gonzalez, pointing out rookie Kirk Chambers, says, "Chambers is Mormon. One of our goals is to have him subscribe to Playboy and to drink a beer by the end of the year." Chambers nods politely, smiles and blushes.

"Hey Enoch, show her your fingers, man."

Second-year player Enoch DeMar holds up a hand with extremely crooked digits.

"Hey, how did that happen, man? Tell her."

DeMar shrugs.

"Long story. You know. Black kid. Poor neighborhood."

This is obviously an old story. The table breaks up, repeating the lines, "Black kid, poor neighborhood. That kills me."

"Paulie here, I call him •Yin-Yang,' " Faine says. "He's either dressed really nice or he's a total slob. But when he dresses up, he looks very presentable."

"KG cleans up pretty good," somebody offers. Down the table, Garmon, diamond bracelet ablaze, nods and smiles. "KG's all about the bling-bling," Verba says.

And Faine, the quiet one, is apparently all about style.

"He wears the nice clothes and he decorates his own house," Gonzalez says. "He's a pedicure/manicure-type guy. I'm not gonna lie — I'm a pedicure guy, too, but not a manicure guy."

"We were over at Faine's and my wife said, •Hey, who decorated your house?' And it turns out he did it himself," says tight end Aaron Shea, who seems genuinely impressed.

Faine says nothing, raises his eyebrows just a bit.

Fowler has gotten up, come around the table to talk to Verba. Gonzalez takes note.

"See, Melvin here • besides being one of the smartest centers I've ever been around, he has a wardrobe that consists entirely of three things: walking suits, jeans with a walking-suit top or a throwback with a pair of jeans. He's always wearing one of those three things."

Fowler proudly models the walking suit he's wearing.

"Fowler's a big product guy," Verba says. "He uses all kinds of lotions and he pours honey and stuff all over himself."

Fowler explains, "I know it's difficult for my Caucasian friends here to understand, but my African-American skin gets ashy and turns white. So I use the body conditioners."

Verba laughs, then turns serious.

"We live in a fantasy world, we really do," he says. "We know it. We don't live in reality. We do pretty much whatever we want all the time."

"We know we have the best job in the world," Tucker adds. "We wouldn't give it up for anything. We thank our lucky stars we're blessed and able to do this each and every day. We wouldn't change that."

By the way, the Browns' offensive line has its own radio show, Monday evenings on WTAM-1100. Several times during dinner, I am reminded to keep this in mind.

"If this is a bad article, you know, I got that radio show," Tucker says with an evil grin. "We'll kill you on the radio."

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