The Mouth That Soared Fast-talking defensive end Hugh Douglas has taken his game to new heights and helped put the Eagles atop the NFC East - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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The Mouth That Soared Fast-talking defensive end Hugh Douglas has taken his game to new heights and helped put the Eagles atop the NFC East

Don't do it. Don't give in to the temptation, even as Hugh
Douglas shakes the orange plastic bucket just so, the better to
highlight the cornucopia of candy within it. The offer seems
safe enough, especially coming from this smiling man whose
dulcet baritone makes him so engaging. Still, ignore his
pleasantries and refuse his advances, because if you don't--if
you dig your fingers into that pile of Twix bars and Rolos and
bite-sized Snickers--you're a goner. For the mischievous,
hyper-tongued Douglas is setting you up.

Today, Douglas has designs on his rotund Philadelphia Eagles
defensive linemate and good friend Hollis Thomas. As the two
dress at their adjoining lockers deep within Veterans Stadium,
Douglas offers Thomas some candy. "Nah, man," replies Thomas,
trying to head off the inevitable assault. "Look at you. You've
already had too much of that stuff today." Douglas offers his
bait again, but again Thomas declines. Not to be denied, Douglas
takes a different tack. "What's that thing on your shoulder,
then?" Douglas asks. Sensing a trap, Thomas eyeballs him, before
explaining that the neoprene sleeve on his left shoulder will
keep the muscles warm on this chilly afternoon. "You look like a
gladiator, man," Douglas says, as Thomas rolls his eyes, and
stands to leave. Too late.

"And you know what your gladiator name should be, don't you, dog?
Don't you?" Douglas bellows as Thomas walks away. Mind you,
Douglas has Thomas like Abbott had Costello, and this Costello
tips the scales north of 315 pounds. "You would be"--the mirthful
Thomas knows he can't escape fast enough--"Fat Bastard! Where you
goin', you big Fat Bastard? Come back here! Hey, I'm not finished

He's most certainly not, but if you don't believe the man--and
you've got, oh, a spare hour or six--just try him. Douglas, the
Eagles' splendid sixth-year defensive end, who is second in the
league in sacks with 13 after Philadelphia's 34-9 win over the
Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, possesses the most impressive mouth
north of Warren Sapp. Equal parts scathing and endearing,
Douglas's verbal eruptions provide the comic relief that, until
this season, was a much-needed balm for a team with myriad
on-field shortcomings. But after its third consecutive victory,
Philadelphia, at 8-4, sits atop the NFC East, thanks largely to a
defense, led by the Pro Bowl-caliber play of Douglas, that ranked
ninth through Sunday. "With [rookie tackle] Corey Simon and
Hollis and the rest of the guys, I know it's not just about me,"
Douglas says of his gaudy stats. "My sacks are an extension of
our unit as a whole. I just stir the pot."

The Thomas episode provides a snapshot of everyday life inside a
remarkably grounded locker room, a picture of perfect chemistry
in which Douglas revels in razzing each and every person who
happens past. Indeed, as Douglas's teammates sit laughing at the
harangue, he decides with a shrug that, in Thomas's stead,
they'll do just fine. Over the next half-hour, Douglas lets fly
as though he can't help himself. Among his victims are the
295-pound Simon--"Hey Little Dumplin', you back below 300 pounds
today? Little Dumplin' found out he was three-oh-oh yesterday,
and he ran his ass off on that treadmill! No candy for you!"--and
sheepish defensive tackle Paul Grasmanis, who failed to purchase
a new pickup truck he'd planned to buy. "Gras, talking about
buying a new pickup truck a while back," Douglas begins, as
several teammates gather round, already chortling. "So I go out
to the parking lot, and there's your same ol' beat-up truck, just
with new tires. Then the damn thing catches on fire!"

Ever the good teammate, however, Douglas finally does the right
thing, and turns his tongue on the most deserving Eagle: himself.
Eventually, his diatribe finds him reflecting on what he likes
about his agent, Drew Rosenhaus. "He's not a yes man, you know? A
couple times I've told him I want to meet this girl or that girl.
You know what he says? 'Hugh,' he says, 'I gotta be honest.
You're not that attractive.'"

Long after Douglas has gone, Grasmanis is still beaming. "Hugh's
the best, most fun locker room guy I've seen in my five years,"
he says. "You ask anyone on this team, and they'll say the same

Winning over teammates is one thing; winning over Andy Reid is
another. While the Eagles' stern, stoic second-year coach could
be forgiven a distaste for the nonstop jabbering of his star pass
rusher, the two have instead formed a bond that, at times, is a
mystery even to them. "When Big Red came here last year, I
thought maybe he didn't like me talking so much," says Douglas.
"I admit that sometimes I do things to try and throw him off, but
he lets me do my thing. I think he wants me to do my thing."

Says Reid, "Hugh's a wonderful, funny guy who'll talk to anyone
for as long as they want. He'll get on people, sure, but he's not
overbearing or mean-spirited. He doesn't call people out. He
doesn't overdo it."

That said, don't look for coach and player anywhere near each
other come Sunday: Reid has banned Douglas from his game-day bus.
"He likes to talk and sing, and I don't," says Reid. "But the one
time I told him to stop [before a Sept. 10 matchup against the
New York Giants], he played his worst game. So I turned him loose
again." (After Douglas showed up late for a pregame meeting on
Sunday, Reid, who benched him for the first two series, may want
Douglas back on his bus.)

Though Reid denies it, team sources also laughingly reveal that
Reid was forced to give Douglas and other veterans their own
hotel rooms, after three teammates on consecutive weeks begged
the coach for a new roommate after experiencing Douglas's
sleep-depriving rants. "Hugh was like a crazy man, up and down,
up and down, talking all the time," says one insider. "[Reid] had
no choice."

Not surprisingly, Douglas is a dervish on the field, using his
bull-rush to set up blockers, then whirling and clawing toward
the quarterback. His success seems more impressive when you
consider that Douglas, listed at 6'2" and 280 pounds but closer
to 6 feet and 260 pounds, routinely goes against taller tackles
who outweigh him by more than 50 pounds. "He's so low to the
ground and so strong that he gets great leverage," says
Washington Redskins rookie tackle Chris Samuels. "That's what
separates him from the rest."

In uniform, Douglas is an optical illusion, with his weight and
heft being so concentrated in his thighs and rear that, at the
snap of the ball, his upper body seems to disappear. His strange
proportions and quick initial burst leave little for opponents to
hit, and Douglas often gets a clear path to the quarterback. "For
how little he is, he's the all-around package," says Dallas
Cowboys All-Pro guard Larry Allen. "Basically, you've got to be
perfect on him."

That hasn't always been the case, though Douglas's career began
with great promise. In 1995 the New York Jets made him the 16th
pick in the draft out of Central State in Wilberforce, Ohio, and
Douglas made a huge impression. He racked up 10 sacks and was
named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, then led New York again
with eight sacks in his second year.

The honeymoon ended, however, in 1997 with the arrival of coach
Bill Parcells, who switched the defense from a 4-3 to a 3-4 set.
Douglas, deficient against the run and too small to beat frequent
double teams, struggled as a two-gap end and consequently chafed
under Parcells's leadership. "I wanted out and went to Bill early
in the season to tell him so," recalls Douglas, who would finish
the year with four sacks. "I was selfish and handled it poorly. A
lot was said about my relationship with Bill, but he taught me so
much. I owe the man a lot. He traded me when he didn't have to."

In what is now judged a bona fide steal, Philadelphia dealt a
second- and a fifth-round pick in March 1998 for Douglas, who
then signed a six-year, $25.3 million extension. Back in the 4-3,
Douglas had a team-high 12 1/2 sacks despite a nagging groin
injury sustained in early December. Meanwhile, a revitalized
Douglas found a kindred spirit in Thomas and, more important, the
stability for which he had longed. "I was worried about coming in
with that contract, what the guys would think, but it was a good
situation," Douglas says. "Yeah, we went 3-13, but I knew things
were getting better."

Instead, things got far worse. In January 1999, Douglas returned
home to Mansfield, Ohio, to see his father, who was suffering
from emphysema. Hugh and his wife, Ayanna, pregnant at the time,
stayed in nearby Dayton with Ayanna's sister. On Jan. 7, Hugh
received a call informing him that Ayanna was at the hospital and
was going into labor. An elated Hugh had scarcely hung up the
phone before it rang again. His sister Stephanie was crying on
the other end. "She didn't have to say anything," Douglas says.
"I could hear it in her sobs. I knew that my father had died."

Shock set in, and he remembers little else from the afternoon.
Douglas missed the birth of his daughter, Brianna, so he could
return home to comfort his family. "I struggled to balance my
home life with the grief I was feeling, while also trying to
focus on my workouts," says Douglas. "All that carried over into
the season."

Last year, his first under Reid, he started well, with two sacks
in two games. But he missed three games with a partial tear of
the MCL in his left knee, and his season ended when he tore his
left biceps in Week 6. Shortly thereafter, he and Ayanna endured
a painful separation and divorce, leaving Douglas to wallow in
self-pity. Only he didn't. "My father would never have wanted
that," Douglas says. "He would've wanted me to rededicate myself,
to keep going forward, so that's what I did."

He returned to his home in Atlanta, put on 10 pounds of muscle by
adding red meat to his diet and training with workout fiend
Shannon Sharpe, the Baltimore Ravens tight end. The extra bulk,
Douglas and Eagles coaches agree, has translated into an
injury-free year, his first since '96. "He really worked hard,"
says Sharpe. "I'd be disappointed if he didn't make the Pro

Douglas sidesteps the topic, choosing instead to heap praise on
his defensive mates. As teams scheme against the talented duo of
Simon and Thomas in the middle, Douglas has seen, and feasted
upon, more one-on-one blocking. He is also much improved against
the run (as his 41 tackles attest). The success, according to
several teammates, is the product of an intense work ethic. "His
effort is extraordinary," says defensive tackle Brandon Whiting.
"No one works harder than Hugh. He's so tired after games, he's
almost always the last guy to leave the stadium. You can tell he
feels fortunate to be in the league by the way he works, by how
generous and good-hearted he is. It's impossible for Hugh not to
rub off on you."

As Whiting speaks, Douglas leans far back into his stall, tending
to his precious Afro, apparently finished for the afternoon. The
locker room is emptying. Only cornerback Bobby Taylor stands
nearby, stealing a glance in Douglas's direction. Which is all
the opening Douglas needs.

So it begins. "Hey, Bobby, what's up? Come on over here! Hey,
man...wanna piece of candy?"


COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Stiff challenge The Eagles are winning largely with their defense, which held the Cardinals to 210 total yards on Sunday.


Douglas is a dervish, setting up blockers with his bull-rush,
then whirling and clawing toward the quarterback.

Douglas, who's second in the league in sacks, has the most
impressive mouth north of Warren Sapp.