Last January, Will Lack, a 23-year-old former offensive guard for
the Iowa Hawkeyes, traveled to Boston to interview for admission
to Harvard Medical School. Lack, whose football career had ended
only 10 days before with a 38-17 loss to USC in the Orange Bowl,
was one of about 5,000 students to apply to the prestigious
institution, and he knew he needed to make a good impression if
he hoped to be one of the 240 or so accepted.
Lack had scored well on the Medical College Admission Test (34
out of 45), and he graduated in December with a 3.76 grade point
average and a B.S. in biomedical engineering. Lack wasn't offered
a football scholarship to a Division I program coming out of high
school in Osage, Iowa, so he became a walk-on for the Hawkeyes
and spent four inglorious seasons on the scout team. Even though
he saw playing time in only three games, all of them as a senior,
Lack worked as hard as any lineman on the team. He attended all
meetings and studied film on his own time. He worked out
relentlessly in the weight room and prepared himself for the
possibility that injuries to several other players would put him
on the field.
Last year Iowa had one of the best offensive lines in the nation.
But Lack was only 6'3" and weighed just 255 pounds. He wasn't
big, strong or fast enough to compete for a starting job. He did,
however, possess the one characteristic shared by many great
offensive linemen: He was smart.
In fact Lack was smart enough to list his college football
experience on his Harvard med school application. He interviewed
with two doctors there--both women--in separate sessions. In the
first meeting his interviewer told him she knew little about
football. Lack explained that he'd played guard, and the woman
asked him how he thought the experience would help him to be a
better doctor. "It helped my attention to detail and my focus,"
She asked him to elaborate. Surprising even himself, Lack rose
and proceeded to give her a demonstration of basic offensive line
play. "Depending on where a defensive lineman lines up in front
of you, it determines the angle of your foot, how you place it,
how far you drop it back, how far you move it over," Lack
explained to the woman. "So if you're here, I told her, this is
what would happen. And if you're here, this would happen.
"I felt kind of weird doing it, but then I thought, I'm going to
be myself and show them what I learned playing football."
In late March, Lack heard he'd been accepted. Many would react to
such news by celebrating, but Lack considered the possibility
that a mistake had been made. "Maybe I'll get a letter that it
was all in error," he said. Will Lack was an offensive lineman,
after all. And, though he's smart enough for Harvard Medical
School, football had taught him a thing or two about humility.
Most spectators hardly pay them any mind, and those who do often
wonder how they ever got so big and fat. Offensive linemen, their
socks drooping down to their ankles, jerseys stretched tight over
their guts, waddle to the line of scrimmage and briefly get in
the way of the defense before falling to the ground and
struggling to get back up. They come walking off the field and
plop down on the bench, steam curling up around them like smoke
from a barbecue pit.
Too bad fans can't peer inside the players' heads, because then
they'd see complicated circuitry that operates without a kill
switch. The behemoths of the offensive line are thinking men,
forever processing defensive formations and alignments and
calculating how to attack them, while simultaneously obsessing
about things such as which foot to move first at the snap and how
to position the hips for optimum leverage.
It is widely believed by coaches and NFL executives that
offensive linemen are among the smartest players on the field.
This notion is supported by the Wonderlic test administered by
NFL teams to prospective draft picks. In his book The New
Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football Paul Zimmerman revealed that
over a five-year period offensive tackles (26) and centers (25)
scored the highest, and offensive guards (23) were fourth, behind
quarterbacks (24). The figures were similar in other instances in
which Wonderlic scores were made public. "Yeah, they're smarter,"
says Memphis defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn, who is in his
32nd season as a college football coach, "but they're smarter
because they have to be. On defense we teach recklessness,
whereas over on that side of the ball they're teaching things
like finesse and footwork. Thirty years ago most offenses ran the
I formation, and blocking was pretty straightforward. But these
days you've got spread offenses and calls being made from the
sideline. The passing game has taken over college offenses. When
that happened, it got pretty complicated for offensive linemen."
Army coach Todd Berry said he and his staff reviewed film from
last season and calculated that his offensive line had
encountered at least 400 distinct defensive fronts. "Week in and
week out you're facing a different system," he says. "It's not a
question of simply being able to react. You have to be able to
respond to any variance you see across the defensive front, and
then you have to be able to communicate that variance to
everybody across the offense."
By studying nuances that fail to register with most casual
observers, offensive linemen can see the future, and they can
hear it, as well. As he approaches the line of scrimmage, the
center usually begins by declaring the defense and the position
of the middle, or "mike", linebacker. For instance, a noseguard
playing straight over the center with two inside linebackers over
the guards indicates a basic 50 defense, but put a mike
linebacker over him and down linemen over the guards, and it's a
40 defense. Depending on the play that's been called in the
huddle, the center makes his read and shouts out blocking schemes
to both the playside and backside guards, who in turn make their
own calls to the tackles, one of whom then informs the tight end.
Calls along the offensive front can change in a heartbeat if the
defense shifts or the quarterback audibles. The defensive front
is trained to attack a spot and then the ball, while the
offensive front usually attacks the defense according to how the
O-linemen interpret what they see. Dullards need not apply.
"If you've got a big kid who can really play, but he's not a
great thinker," says South Florida coach Jim Leavitt, "you're
better off putting him on the defensive side of the ball and
telling him to just beat his guy off the line of scrimmage."
At most schools offensive linemen devote more hours to studying
film and scouting reports than anyone else on the team, including
the quarterbacks. "Quarterbacks are only concerned with their own
position," says Kyle Young, a former Clemson center and
three-time Academic All-America who is now a Tigers graduate
assistant. "They get in the film room and hit it quick and
they're done. But with the offensive line you have five different
positions, and you end up studying film over and over for each
one of them. All that time together builds a strong work ethic,
so you kind of become a team within the team. You feel connected
to each other, and you want to pull your weight."
Last year Utah linebacker Brooks Bahr was named second-team
Academic All-America after making 59 tackles and carrying a 3.95
GPA as a biology major. There were few college players as bright
as Bahr, who received an MBA in May and will attend Utah's
medical school this fall. Yet even Bahr acknowledges that when it
comes to football intelligence, his teammates on the offensive
line put him to shame. "Their playbooks had to be four or five
times larger than mine," says Bahr. "The sets they had to
memorize, all the plays, it was an astronomical amount, way more
than we had to learn on defense."
Not to say that defensive schemes are crude. The multiple
defenses teams throw at offenses today make an offensive
lineman's job that much more difficult. They not only have to
read the down linemen and linebackers but also account for
coverages in the secondary, a task that's not easy to accomplish
from a three-point stance or when the play has been called to
start on a quick count. "You have to see the whole field, and
that means everybody," says LSU senior tackle Rodney Reed, who
carries a 3.94 GPA in accounting and was an Academic All-America
in 2002. "If the safety's closed down on the line of scrimmage,
you can see where the blitz is going to come from. And so you
call out his number and say, 'Visitor number 24,' or something
like that, to alert everybody. If it's man coverage, you'll have
a greater chance of a blitz. If it's zone coverage, you know the
safeties are already going to be involved [in defending against
the pass]. And then by their positioning you can tell if the
linebackers are going to be covering the backs coming out of the
"You have to be able to read all these things and then read the
defensive lineman in front of you. In the very last second I'll
look at his stance and see if his right or left hand is down. By
where he places his hand you have a sense of where he's going to
go. Is he leaning one way? Looking one way? Those guys don't vary
their tendencies much, and you learn about their tendencies by
During the season LSU players meet as a team on Mondays at 6:45
a.m. and watch film of the previous Saturday's game. If anyone
regards college players as pampered prima donnas, he hasn't sat
in on a review of game film, an experience most players greet
with as much enthusiasm as conditioning drills after practice.
The session lasts about an hour, and "you can always count on
getting yelled at for something," Reed says. In the afternoon he
and his teammates spend as much as an hour and a half studying
video of their upcoming opponent. Because the NCAA has a rule
that limits coach-supervised instruction of players to 20 hours a
week, Reed studies film on his own until group meetings begin at
1:45, with coaches then on hand to implement that week's game
The hours of self-examination can be exhausting and demoralizing
for players at all positions, but none has it tougher than an
offensive lineman, who will be given a negative grade if he fails
at simple mechanics. At LSU and scores of other programs around
the country, practice typically begins at around 3:30 p.m., and
when it's over, two hours later, players return to the locker
room to find individual video tapes in their lockers. "There's a
video guy on staff who has several games cut up for you," Reed
says. "So when you go home you can watch more film after you
finish studying for classes. The video guy has it broken down to
where you can watch straight game film or situational things such
as down-and-distance. He also has all the blitzes broken down.
Anything you want or need to see, it's on that video."
Smart and well-prepared as they most often are, offensive linemen
still screw up as much as any other players on the field. "If I
mess up, the coaches always say, 'God, Travis, what are you doing
there?'" says Ball State senior guard Travis Barclay, an Academic
All-America who is working on a degree in physics. "They never
fail to point out that I'm a 4.0 student. Because I do well
academically, they give me a really hard time when I mess up. But
it's inevitable that I'll blow a play or make a bad read. I mean,
we're smart, but we're human too."
At around the same time Will Lack learned about his acceptance to
Harvard Medical School, his former Hawkeyes teammate Andrew
Lightfoot, a starting guard on the 2002 team, got good news of
his own: He had earned entrance to Iowa's medical school. Lack
landed at the more prestigious postgraduate institution, but
Lightfoot, a Des Plaines, Ill., native happy to stay in the
Midwest, had the more impressive football career. A four-year
letterman, Lightfoot was named co-MVP of the Hawkeyes' offense
last year. Teammates called him "Doctor."
When they were preparing to take the MCAT, Lack and Lightfoot
studied together, just as they had when they prepared for
defenses during the season. Since their careers ended last
January, both Lightfoot and Lack have lost so much weight that
neither looks like an offensive lineman anymore. Lightfoot is
down from 284 pounds to 240, Lack from 255 to 225. While the
common denominator between the two men is a fierce intelligence,
loyalty is another trait that helps define them. The social life
of an offensive lineman tends to be populated with fellow
offensive linemen. When a center goes out on the town, he usually
brings at least one guard and a tackle along. That's one more
intelligent trait that offensive linemen everywhere share:
They're smart enough to recognize that their devotion to each
other doesn't end on the field.
"Two of my roommates in college and I, we played together on the
line for three years," says Clemson's Young. "I was in both of
their weddings. And both of them were in my wedding. I've been
out of football two years now, and we still talk to each other
every day and see each other almost once a week. We always could
rely on each other, and when we went into a game, we were always
confident that the guys on the line wouldn't let the team down.
"I always knew the correct steps I'd have to take and the correct
person to block on a given play. And that's 75 percent of the
battle for an offensive linemen right there--knowing whom to
block and what technique to use. You work and study hard enough,
and you get to the point where, when you walk up to the line, you
really don't have to say anything. You know exactly what you're
looking at, and the guys next to you know it too. All that's left
is to get the job done. Still, you go ahead and make those calls.
Because that's how you were taught to do it."
FIVE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LYNN JOHNSON
T, LSU, Senior
Major: Accounting GPA: 3.94
ON THE FIELD: A starter in 34 consecutive games, the 6'4",
280-pound Reed was whistled for only four penalties last season,
despite being in for a team-high 889 plays.
OFF THE FIELD: Reed graduated in May and has already begun work
toward a master's degree in accounting, taking six credit hours
this summer. He plans to finish graduate school in the spring.
"For the last two summers I've done an internship in Baton Rouge
with Postlethwaite & Netterville. I do individual and corporate
tax returns and also a little audit work. You can understand the
whole shape of a company from its books."
C, Penn State, Senior
Major: Information Sciences and Technology GPA: 3.65
ON THE FIELD: The 6'3", 280-pound Costlow began his career in
Happy Valley as a defensive end but was moved to center as a
redshirt freshman. A reserve for the past three years, he'll
start this fall.
OFF THE FIELD: Costlow, who received his bachelor's degree on
Aug. 8, spent his summer on an internship with Minitab Inc., a
State College software company. He'll begin graduate school at
Penn State in the fall.
"I started in engineering, but I really didn't think it was for
me. Once I got in this program, though, I just found I really
had a passion for it. We try to combine or modify technology to
meet people's needs."
T, Iowa, Senior
Major: Elementary Education GPA: 3.22
ON THE FIELD: An All-Big Ten selection last fall, the 6'7",
317-pound Gallery has started 31 straight games for the Hawkeyes.
OFF THE FIELD: An Eagle Scout from Masonville, Iowa, Gallery
spent last spring as a student-teacher.
"FOR FOUR weeks I was teaching a class all by myself. The kids
were a little taken aback by my size, but they really responded
well. I did a lot of hands-on instruction. We did a unit on
microscopes, where they got to observe and explore things they
see every day."
T, Kentucky, Senior
Major: Music Education GPA: 2.75
ON THE FIELD: All-SEC in '02, the 6'5", 302-pound Hall has
started every game (34) in his collegiate career.
OFF THE FIELD: Hall is a gifted piano player as well as a
talented singer, with a repertoire that ranges from show tunes to
opera. He plans to teach music to inner-city middle schoolers
when he's finished playing football.
"I've been singing since I was three, starting with the church
choir, but I used to wear the Michael Jackson jacket and sing in
front of pretty much anyone who came over to the house. Right now
I'm being trained as a baritone-bass for the opera, but I'd love
to be on Broadway or singing at the Met."
G, Ball State, Senior
Major: Physics GPA: 3.99
ON THE FIELD: Barclay, who redshirted as a walk-on in 1999, has
started all 23 games for the Cardinals over the last two years.
OFF THE FIELD: A 6'3", 291-pound math geek, Barclay has received
all A's except for one A-, which came during the first semester
of his sophomore year in Calculus II.
"I like the mechanical aspects of physics. I recently toured the
Guide Corporation, just northeast of Indianapolis [which makes
automobile lights]. I'd like to find a career at a place like
that, but I'd be happy doing anything physics-related."