Because football is so much like war, it is only natural that a few covert activities would creep into the fray. Baseball romantics might think those incidents of pine tar, emery boards and corked bats are charming bits of chicanery. But football realists understand that their game's covert activities have more to do with simple survival than poetic charm.
"Of course I cheat," Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowl cornerback Everson Walls once said. "That's right, I grab, I hold, I slap, I tug. I do everything I can get away with, and a whole lot that I can't get away with."I run a 4.7 40-yard dash and all these receivers run 4.3s, 4.4s and 4.5s. Is that fair? So why should I be fair?"
Cheating, both past and present, comes in many forms. There are homemade concoctions used to hold onto the ball, and a few aids to prevent people from holding onto you. Coca Cola, oranges, stickum, glue, chewing gum, Vaseline, silicone, duct tape and shoe strings are some tools of the trade. There are also dozens of sly, illegal techniques used to gain a competitive edge.
Unlike in baseball, where the use of a banned substance can lead to a suspension, the worst that can happen to an NFL player caught with too much Vaseline on his arms or stickum on his hands is a slap on the wrist. According to Section III, article I-K of the NFL Rule Book, any player caught with an illegal substance on his person is removed for one play to remove the substance.
In dozens of interviews with players and coaches, this much is clear: There's a lot of cheating going on in the NFL.
Two New York Giants were caught cheating redhanded, so to speak, earlier this season within one week of each other. In a 24-13 loss on Monday Night Football to Philadelphia on Oct. 10, nose tackle Jim Burt was caught with too much Vaseline on his arms. Eagles' center Dave Rimington was the whistle-blower who alerted the refs to Burt's greased pig routine. "I was slipping off him," said Rimington. "The ball was all slippery. I said (to the official), `He can't have that junk all over him.' But he did. He had it all over him. You could see it. It was glazing in the light."
The officials made Burt go to the sideline for one play to wipe off the Vaseline.
"I wasn't trying to cheat," said Burt. "It was cold out there and I was just using the Vaseline to retain some body heat. It works as a good insulator, you know."
No, Burt did not say that with a straight face. He tried, though.
One week later, Giants running back Ottis Anderson had to leave the game and change jerseys against the Detroit Lions because his arms and uniform were covered with an unknown sticky substance.
"I don't know where it came from," Anderson said after the game. "Well, maybe I do," he said. "It was from their defensive guys. They had that stuff on them and it rubbed off on me."
*** A Cheater's Primer:
If you're going to use some foreign substance, it's very important that the junk you use doesn't come off on the ball. Burt's mistake was using Vaseline, not silicone. Most NFL linemen will spray silicone over their bodies since it's almost impossible to get a good grip on someone's jersey when he's been sprayed.
A Cheater's Primer II:
"Right after the NFL banned stickum, receivers had to come up with something to help them hold onto the ball," said one receiver. "I came up with a great idea. Just before the game, I'd dip a towel in Coca Cola then tuck it in my pants. By game time, the soda was nice and tacky and I'd grab it before every down. My hands would be nice and sticky."
"Coke, huh?" said one current running back. "I'd never heard of that one before. I like it. But my favorite is to use that spray that the trainers use on your wrists right before they tape it up. I'll spray that all over the place. It makes it almost impossible to fumble when that stuff is on you."
A Cheater's Primer III:
"There was one guy on Denver, I don't remember his name," said Bob Trumpy, the former Cincinnati All-Pro tight end also with NBC Sports. "But he was a notorious head-slapper. He'd get a big piece of foam padding that would go from the palm of his hand down the inside of his forearm. Just before the game, he'd dip it in cold water, then tape it to his arm. By the end of the first quarter, that pad was like a piece of leather. When he came up to hit you with that thing, it sounded like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir going off in your head."
Bubba Smith, the former great Baltimore Colts' defensive end and another vicious head-slapper, used to tape three pennies to the insides of each of his fingers.
Former Philadelphia offensive tackle Bob Brown had a special retaliation to the head slap. He'd reverse the screws on the sides of his helmet so that the pointed edges were coming out.
Then he'd file them to a sharper edge.