Writing this story about Kwame Harris’ life as a closeted athlete for ESPN magazine, I learned about the intricate relationship that offensive linemen have. To succeed, they must be so attuned to each other that they can communicate without speaking, making it that much harder for a gay athlete to keep a secret from the “brothers” on the line with whom he spends most of his year. I spoke with other offensive linemen for this story to get a sense of what is at stake at that moment when the ball is snapped.
When the huddle breaks and the offensive line jogs to the scrimmage line, most are silent and few look their opponents in the eyes. Instead they scan the other team’s bodies, comparing what they see in front of them with what they learned watching hours and hours of film. They know who is the tallest, who the strongest and who the fastest. And each player knows well the idiosyncrasies of the guy whose nose is inches from his own. He knows if he is early or late on the snap, has studied the way he cranes his neck before a blitz, and he knows his injuries. He also knows the injuries of the men on his side of the line, who is feeling strong that day and whose shoulder is bothering him, so that the whole line coordinates to cover that weakness, a weakness the defense is sure to pick up on pretty fast.
“If he speed rushed you last time, he’s going to come on the inside or bull rush you the next time,” said Bob Whitfield, an offensive tackle who played most of his career for the Atlanta Falcons. “You’ve got to push him out. You’ve got to push him. If he’s got a bad shoulder and every time I pop that shoulder he’s wincing, guess what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna whop that shoulder.”
At the snap, the offensive line punches up while running backwards as the defense presses into the pocket around the quarterback. Former Buffalo Bills left tackle Steve Hoyem called it, “a Sumo wrestling match. Whoever has the most push will win that battle. You target the numbers on his jersey. You try to get your hands inside under his pads. If the ref sees your hands holding on to his shoulder pads you’ll get called on holding. But if you get up under those pads, you can get away with a lot.”
In the screaming in the stadium before an important play, the offensive linemen can’t hear the snap. Sometimes to stay in sync, as they line up they hold hands. At the drop of the hand, they surge together. The goal is to hold that line just four seconds, enough time for the quarterback to step back and the receiver to get down field. Both teams are usually so evenly matched, the advantage one has over the other is slight. With everything on the line in those four seconds, a slightly sharper focus, or a stronger bond between the players provides that tenths of a second edge.
“Where is the game played the fastest? It’s not at the wide receivers, not at the running back. It’s at the line,” said Tyrone Willingham, former Stanford head coach. “You ask a lot and expect a lot from your offensive line.”
Despite how much is asked of them, the offensive line doesn’t get much glory. Their success is measured by their failures: how many times they draw the team off sides and how often the quarterback gets sacked. This anti-hero status is part of what binds them. They’re a band of brothers who make a stand against the onrushing forces; each movement has to be carefully choreographed for the whole unit to succeed.
They train together, eat together, recreate together on the road and during the holidays and in the summers. They are the groomsmen at each others’ weddings and godfathers of each others’ children. Knowing each other in this way builds cohesion, and the warrior mentality. “We practice, bleed, sweat and hurt together,” said Kwame Harris, former offensive tackle for the 49ers. “For defensive linemen it’s a you vs. me battle. With offensive linemen it’s us vs. him.”
Kwame Harris knows about the intense bonds of brothers in arms. Among him and his two athletically gifted brothers, Duevorn and Orien, and all of whom played professional football, Kwame was the best. A unanimous All-American selection in high school, the most sought after college recruit, winner of the Morris Trophy as the top offensive lineman in the Pac-10, and selected 26th in the first round of the 2003 NFL draft. In his third year at the 49ers, Kwame’s game started to fall apart. He allowed nine sacks and committed fifteen penalties including seven false starts in 2005, and allowed eight sacks with four holding penalties and one false start the following year. While Kwame tried a number of things to improve his game, as I described in the ESPN magazine article, this once promising player’s career sputtered to a close. He had a disappointing 2008 at the Oakland Raiders after the 49ers let him go, retiring from football at the age of 29.
What few people outside Kwame’s family knew is that he blamed this downturn on staying in the closet. As I quoted him in the ESPN magazine article about his football career, “If the world had been more comfortable with gay players on the football field, it wouldn’t have been so consuming when it came up,” he said, with an edge of fury in his voice. “Everything would not have been filtered through that, being gay. Like when I had a bad game or if we lost or if I did something awful, it was because I was gay. It was the easiest way for me to beat myself up, being gay. I know it affected my play,””
NFL players will tell you that a homosexual cannot be a warrior. Although Kwame Harris is outraged by this prejudice, his personal experience supports it. In a battle where a tenth of a second is the margin between success and failure, for Kwame that tenth of a second was the fact that he was scared that someone in football would find out he was gay. Or that tenth of a second was that his fellow linesman already knew and hated him for it.
To me, this is one of the many costs of the Don’t Ask/Don’t tell attitude of the NFL. The coaches spend a lot of time building this wordless cohesion between the players, creating this brotherly bond, but if one of them is keeping a secret despite the intense forced intimacy of the offensive line, does that hamper his ability to get that 10th of a second advantage? By making the players’ homosexuality something that cannot be discussed and therefore is not tolerated, that tenth of second becomes the moment when all of it is on the line.