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Original Issue

King of crash, haul and hit

Gargantuan Tom Sestak is the key to the Buffalo Bills' title prospects despite his own damaged knee and his opponents' baleful attentions

"The instant the center's hands twitched on the ball, Tom Sestak charged. His first move was to whack the center with a shoulder and forearm and knock the man sideways in an ungainly sprawl. Ernie Ladd, San Diego's 300-pound defensive tackle, was playing right guard on the field-goal team and was fighting to keep Sestak's accomplice, Jim Dunaway, out of the backfield. As the center fell off, Sestak slid past Ladd through the gap and threw his hands into the air. The two blows—one by Sestak to the center and one by Dunaway to Ladd—sounded like the firing of a pom-pom and gave Sestak the extra yard he needed. The ball bounded back from Sestak's upflung arms, and the 270-pound defensive captain and tackle for the Buffalo Bills had blocked his second field goal in two games. Watching from the stands at Buffalo's War Memorial Stadium on a gray and drizzly afternoon, one could not help but recall what Denver Coach Mac Speedie had said: "God gave everybody a certain amount of athletic ability. To Tom Sestak, He gave too much."

There are some outstanding defensive tackles in the American Football League. Ladd, a 6-foot-9 professional wrestler who recently ate 124 pancakes in a contest and later went out and gave a running back a broken nose and a concussion with a single sweep of his arm, is one. Jerry Mays, a quiet, intelligent, 260-pound businessman who plays for the Kansas City Chiefs, is another. But none is better than Sestak. "He's one of the best I've ever seen on any field in any league," says his coach, Lou Saban. Sestak is a primary reason the AFL Champion Bills lead the league in rushing defense. His three tremendous performances against San Diego last season were instrumental in the Bills' drive for the championship. "Against me, Sestak was all-universe," said San Diego Guard Walt Sweeney. And yet Sestak has been playing for nearly a year on a left knee that swells up to the size of a volleyball and frequently needs to be drained of fluid. The knee has affected his mobility, as Sestak admits, but it has kept him out of only one game. "He's an easy fellow to take care of," says Buffalo Trainer Eddie Abramoski. "Once he came to me and said he had a little pain in his side that had been bothering him for a couple of weeks and he wanted an aspirin. We checked, and he had two broken ribs. But he played, anyhow. Tom thinks a couple of aspirin will cure anything,"

If the knee were cured, as Sestak hoped it would be after an operation in March to remove a cartilage, it is frightening to imagine how good he might be. The knee troubled him most of last season, but it was not until the All-Star Game in Houston in January that Sestak submitted to an examination. The cartilage is out now, but there is a growth above his kneecap that holds fluid on the knee. Other teams know Sestak's knee pains him, and a common tactic is to cut at his legs and force him to leap over the blocker, thus delaying him a couple of seconds. "I can't put pressure on it and I can't run fast," says Sestak. "The knee feels weak. I never get it shot because I could really damage it then and not realize it. So I just tape it up and go."

Whether Sestak can run fast is a point to be argued. Compared to most defensive tackles, he can run very fast, even at a limp. "Sestak is great at going after the ball to either side of the field," says Saban. Maybe what Sestak means is that he can't run as fast as when he was an end in college and had two healthy knees and was 50 pounds lighter.

Sestak grew up in Gonzalez, Texas in a tottery little house that had a broken screen door. The house was propped up on blocks, and underneath was a good place for a boy to play if he watched out for the snakes. Although it is called "the chicken capital of the world," Gonzalez is not exactly a metropolis. But Bear Bryant's recruiters found Sestak there 10 years ago and took him to Texas A&M along with so many other prominent high school athletes that the Aggies were investigated and put on probation. Sestak moved to Baylor for a while and then dropped out of school entirely. "I was very low and discouraged," Sestak says. "I didn't know what to do with myself, so I volunteered and served two years in the Army. That convinced me I should finish my education." Out of the Army, Sestak went to McNeese State College in Lake Charles, La., because his brother had gone there. At McNeese, Sestak was discovered by another recruiter—Buffalo Scout Harvey Johnson.

"He stuck out because he was a big kid and could move," says Johnson. "But there was no way to evaluate him because he wasn't playing against top competition." The Bills drafted Sestak 17th (Detroit had picked him 16th but had not made contact with him), and Johnson phoned to arrange a meeting. Over dinner, his second of the night, Sestak signed with Buffalo for a combined salary and bonus of about $8,500, a figure which has gone up considerably. "The bonus he got wouldn't make a down payment on the car he drives now," says Johnson.

When Sestak arrived at the Buffalo camp he weighed 260 but it was not all muscle. He reduced to 245 and then by working with weights went up to 270—with a 38-inch waist. Sestak began a series of personal wars with the Buffalo offensive captain and left guard, Billy Shaw. Their one-on-one duels were the focus of attention in the camp. "If you work against Tom every day you either become a good blocker or you retire," Shaw says. Tempers got edgy, but Sestak considered the experience an education.

"I asked Shaw what were the hardest moves to block, and he taught me," Sestak says. "In my rookie year I tried to get away with banging straight ahead, but I found out you can't simply overpower people. The guards are too good. You have to have a combination of power and agility. What I do depends on the guy I'm playing against. I tend to go inside quite a bit."

San Diego's Pat Shea has switched from right to left guard this season and so now faces Sestak. "What he likes to do is grab you by the shoulders and throw you someplace. He's extremely strong," says Shea. "A good defensive tackle," Sestak says, "has to have strength in his arms and shoulders. You try to shove your man one way and go the other, and you never play against anybody who's little. One of my favorite defenses is what we call our 44. It's for a running situation and our front four doesn't have to worry about anything but crash, haul and hit. We try to knock the offensive linemen off balance and just bang in there. In a passing situation we can go either inside or outside, whichever we think is best. Either Dunaway or I am always the draw man, to watch for that until the quarterback is past the man he could hand the ball to." The Bills blitz only about 10% of the time, but they do go into a three-man front on passing downs, with Sestak, Dunaway and Ron McDole on the line, and Tom Day dropping off as a corner back.

The Bills are going to need superior play from their defensive front four if they are to win the championship again. Corner Back Gene Sykes is out with an injury. The two wide receivers on offense—Glenn Bass and Elbert Dubenion—are finished for the season with knee ailments, and the defense must take over more than a fair share of the action. Sestak will not have much of a chance to rest his knee, but he is counting on his championship game money for a trip to Europe in the off season with his friends Ray Abruzzese and Joe Namath, both employed by the New York Jets. Sestak, a 29-year-old bachelor, met Namath in Miami during the last Orange Bowl. Sestak and Abruzzese, who had known Namath at Alabama, went to Miami to help persuade Namath to accept Sonny Werblin's $400,000, continued to Mexico City and Acapulco, and returned to stay a month at Namath's house in Tuscaloosa, Ala.

While recovering from his knee operation, Sestak and six other bachelors rented a summer house at Bay Beach, Ont., which they called the Bunny Club North. Joe Herbrecht, a cottage mate, remembers his first encounter with Sestak: "I didn't know he had moved in. I was cooking breakfast at 10 a.m., and this monster appeared in the doorway in a bathing suit. He scared me so much I dropped a frying pan full of eggs."

The sight of Sestak in a business suit is not that impressive. He looks big, all right, with wide shoulders, a slab chest and narrow hips, but he is so trim that he does not look 270. In a football uniform, though, covered by 15 pounds of pads and bandages and glaring over a face bar, Sestak looks like the man you would want with you if you decided to get rowdy at a cowboy dance. When the Bills hired a new Midwest scout last year, Harvey Johnson introduced him to Sestak. "This," said Johnson, "is what you're trying to find."