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IT'S A DIRTY LITTLE SECRET

On a sunny afternoon in Philadelphia last November, a dangerous
melodrama unfolded on the carpeted concrete of Veterans Stadium.
But save for the few players involved, no one noticed it, not
even the officials on the field.

The 7-3 Eagles were playing the 7-3 Redskins. Early in the
second quarter, with Washington up 3-0 and driving for another
score, a Gus Frerotte pass bounced off the hands of diving tight
end Jamie Asher at the Philadelphia five and into the arms of
cornerback Troy Vincent. As Vincent turned upfield and Asher
climbed to his feet, Eagles middle linebacker James Willis
clubbed the Redskins tight end with a shot to the back of the
head. Predictably, Asher and Willis were at each other's throats
immediately, and it took a half-dozen players to separate them.

That was just the beginning. On the sideline after the play,
Washington's offense gathered and agreed that Willis had to be
punished. He had drawn a flag for a punch to Asher's face after
the play was over, but they felt he should have been ejected for
the blind-side rabbit punch that instigated the skirmish. (It
wasn't only the officials who had missed Willis's sucker punch;
so had the Fox TV crew covering the game. After a commercial
break the network aired a replay that began with Asher's missing
with a retaliatory haymaker at Willis, while broadcasters Pat
Summerall and John Madden implied that it was Asher who had
started the fight.)

Three plays into Washington's next offensive series, on
third-and-inches, 308-pound tackle Joe Patton hit the 235-pound
Willis behind the right knee while 284-pound center Jeff
Uhlenhake bulldozed him over the top of the pile. Willis, the
Eagles' second-leading tackler last season, was out for the rest
of the game with a sprained knee. He made only eight tackles in
Philadelphia's five remaining games.

To anyone watching the game, Willis's injury looked like an
accident. To be sure, in the dog-eat-dog world of the NFL, the
line between physical play and dirty play is often tough to
draw. But cheap shots do occur, and much of the unsportsmanlike
conduct goes unnoticed.

"The average fan doesn't know what takes place out there--the
name-calling, the spitting, the pinching," says Bears linebacker
Barry Minter. "I've been on piles and heard guys hollering,
'He's biting me!'"

"It's just part of the game," says Seahawks running back Steve
Broussard. "In the trenches, cheap shots go on during every play."

Players have always considered dirty play more a necessary evil
than a deadly sin. But according to a recent SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
poll of more than 150 players, it appears to be on the rise.
"It's going up," says Raiders linebacker Anthony Davis. "You've
got rookies coming into the league, they see these guys, and
they think that's the way to play. With free agency you've got
players bouncing around the league trying to catch on. I think
it's going to get worse with more guys moving around."

Our survey also revealed the following:

--As units, the 49ers' offensive line and the Chiefs' receivers
are regarded as the dirtiest in the NFL. Players complained that
49ers linemen consistently perform illegal chop blocks and leg
whips and that Chiefs receivers go for the knees when they block
defensive backs.

--Recently one defensive coach actually wrote a supplement on
cheap-shot techniques for his team's playbook.

--The Raiders, who enjoy flaunting their roguish image, are
perceived as no more menacing than any other team. Says Vikings
safety Corey Fuller, "They weren't dirty the night we spanked
their rump [16-13] last season."

As for this season, you may want to tune in for the Asher-Willis
rematch on Oct 5. That's when the Redskins visit the Eagles, in
the City of Brotherly Love. --LARS ANDERSON

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Wisniewski (top) is the No. 1 villain; Randle, Carter and Moss are a trio of diabolical defenders. [Steve Wisniewski]

COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. [See caption above--John Randle]

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER [See caption above--Dale Carter]

COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN DUNN/ALLSPORT [See caption above--Winston Moss]

NASTY BOYS: FOOTBALL'S FELONIOUS 15

Based on a SPORTS ILLUSTRATED poll of more than 150 NFL players,
these are the league's dirtiest players:

1. STEVE WISNIEWSKI, GUARD, RAIDERS A near-unanimous choice who
racked up $65,000 in fines last year. "Wiz is a dirty bastard,"
says Minnesota long-snapper Mike Morris, an 11-year veteran. "He
chops from behind. He'll shoot knees ... I'll take sides with
any old lineman, but this m----------- had me cursing and
swearing on TV. I couldn't believe the shots he took." Says a
Raiders teammate, "Wiz is probably the dirtiest offensive player
of all time, whether he admits to it or not." Adds a Buffalo
Bill: "He'll get his."

2. ERIK WILLIAMS, TACKLE, COWBOYS According to several players,
he likes to go for the throat. "Ever since he got hurt in that
car wreck [in 1994], he's been the dirtiest son of a bitch I've
seen," says an AFC defensive lineman. "He can't move like he
used to, so he goes for the knees, gouges eyes, whatever it
takes to slow a guy down."

3. KEVIN GOGAN, GUARD, 49ERS He learned from the worst: Gogan
played alongside Wisniewski for two years. "Anytime Kevin can
hit you in the back, anytime he can punch you, he'll take a
shot," says former Cowboys and Cardinals linebacker Garth Jax.

4. JOHN RANDLE, DEFENSIVE TACKLE, VIKINGS Several players cited
his association with Broncos defensive line coach John
Teerlinck, formerly of the Vikings, who has a reputation for
teaching dirty tactics. "Randle's always talking, trying to get
you out of your game somehow," says one AFC lineman. "He's so
quick that if he can get you to hesitate just the smallest bit,
he wins. He taunts and he talks. If that doesn't work, he'll
start head-slapping to get you to pay attention to him."

5. DALE CARTER, CORNERBACK, CHIEFS Carter, who lined up at
receiver last year, is double trouble. "He's just nasty," says
one AFC wideout. "It doesn't matter which side of the ball he's
on, he'll go for the knees. Their receivers are coached to cut
[block], and when he plays receiver, he goes for the knees. He
doesn't stop when the whistle blows. But when he's at corner, he
gets mad when the receiver cuts him."

6. CHUCK SMITH, DEFENSIVE END, FALCONS His late hit to the knee
of Carolina quarterback Kerry Collins was last season's most
egregious display of dirty play. "He got Kerry last year," says
Panthers guard Matt Elliott. "He's always giving somebody a shot
in the back after the play."

7. FRANK WINTERS, CENTER, PACKERS His nice-guy image doesn't fly
on the field. "Winters is a guy who dives over piles to get
somebody," says a Minnesota defensive tackle. "He'll roll up
people's legs. He'll grab your face mask. He tries all kinds of
things."

8. ALONZO SPELLMAN, DEFENSIVE END, CHICAGO BEARS He's the most
notorious trash talker in the game. "He's a late-hit guy," says
St. Louis tight end Aaron Laing. "If a play is over, he'll come
in the pile and try to throw an elbow in your back, or he'll
throw a knee into you. I've talked to guys who play for his
team, and they don't have a hell of a lot of good things to say
about the guy either."

9. ORLANDO BROWN, TACKLE, RAVENS A young Wisniewski who plays
with reckless abandon. "He'll do incredible stuff to a person,
and I'll say, 'Hey, why did you do that?'" says guard Wally
Williams--Brown's own teammate. "He'll say, 'Hey, Wally, be
quiet, man. It's Orlando against the rest of the world.'"

10. DAVE WIDELL, CENTER, JAGUARS He and his brother Doug, a
Colts guard, were popular choices. "He's dirty," says one
Steeler. "If you get a guy like Widell on the bottom of the
pile, I guarantee you six guys out of 11 are trying to do
something to him."

11. LAKE DAWSON, WIDE RECEIVER, CHIEFS He is seen as the
dirtiest of a nasty group of K.C. receivers. "They come in and
cut you and chop you," says an AFC defensive back. "Dawson is
probably the worst in the league."

12. WINSTON MOSS, LINEBACKER, SEAHAWKS Opponents are wary of him
both before and after the whistle. "As long as I've been in the
league, he's always been one of the dirtiest players," says
Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe, entering his eighth season. "He
pushed John [Elway] under the bench one day, and he clubbed me
in the jaw to the ground one year."

13. NEIL SMITH, DEFENSIVE END, BRONCOS Practices should be
interesting: Smith was nominated for the list by one of his new
teammates. "He thinks he's above being cut," says an AFC West
offensive player. "You cut him and it's like, 'Jeez, I can't
believe you actually cut me.' Then he'll do it to you on the
next play."

14. BENNIE THOMPSON, SAFETY, RAVENS Known for punching while in
the pile. "He's a master of all the basic stuff," says a Kansas
City receiver. "Pushing you back into the pile if you're
blocking him, pushing you back into the ball, head slaps, late
hits, you name it."

15. GREG LLOYD, LINEBACKER, STEELERS Out last year due to
injury, but his rep endures. Says a Bengal, "When you watch the
film, he'll be the guy running downfield to take a cheap shot
when the play is over."