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Starkey: Bad things happen in NFL pileups

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Friday, Nov. 6, 2009

You've probably seen the video. Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes didn't try to strip the football when he went after Georgia running back Washaun Ealey last Saturday; he tried to strip an eyeball .

It sure looked that way, anyhow, as Spikes plunged his hand into Ealey's facemask. And it led to my somewhat surreal conversation with Steelers linebacker James Harrison Wednesday.

My initial reaction to the Spikes incident was that Florida coach Urban Meyer should suspend him for the rest of the season (Spikes will sit out only this weekend's game against Vanderbilt). Before forming a final opinion, I decided to check with the pros, to see what's kosher and what's not at the bottom of a pile.

Harrison's stall seemed like a logical first stop, because, well, he's just plain mean. I was surprised he didn't know of the incident.

I asked, "What is the worst thing you've experienced under a pile?"

"Nothing too bad," he said. "Somebody trying to break your finger. That's about it."

Oh, is that all• Somebody trying to break your finger?

"Yeah, why not?" Harrison said. "You got the ball, I want to get it from you. I think I can make (the officials) believe it was a fumble, I'm going to grab your finger and try to break it and get the ball. That's every time you fall into a pile."

As he walked away, Harrison looked back and said, "I ain't never heard of nobody gouging nobody's eye out, though."

I then stopped for a chat with the nicest man in the building and perhaps the nicest man on earth -- safety Troy Polamalu.

Any bad pileup incidents?

"Honestly, I don't have any experience with that," Polamalu said.

Not even in college?

"Well," he said, "there have been times where people -- one person -- pulled my hair."

I didn't ask about your hair, Troy.

Next up was guard Chris Kemoeatu, who played for Meyer at Utah and was suspended twice for kicking players in the head. Meyer even ordered Kemoeatu to take anger-management classes after he kicked a helmetless UNLV player in a pileup.

Kemoeatu said the punishment made him a better man. He believes Spikes went overboard but added, "Things like that are going to happen. It's a nasty sport."

Another must-see was Hines Ward, who'd just learned that his peers -- a small percentage in an anonymous Sports Illustrated poll, anyway -- voted him the NFL's dirtiest player.

A proud Georgia alum, Ward didn't like Spikes' move.

"Now, that was dirty," he said, laughing. "That is blatantly trying to hurt somebody. There's a code, a little bit, and you don't cross that line. Hitting somebody is part of football. Gouging somebody's eyes out is uncalled for."

Max Starks, a proud Florida alum, predictably offered a different take.

"(Ealey) probably did something, and Spikes reacted," Starks said. "He reacted poorly, but you have to expect that. Georgia guys say some pretty exotic things."

A subsequent trip around the locker room produced a split opinion on the Spikes incident and at least two majority opinions:

1. Pileups are much more hazardous in college than the NFL. "Way worse," said tackle Willie Colon. "In college, you have a lot of knuckleheads who think they're ultra-tough. In the pros, guys are a lot more mature."

2. It seems private parts are targeted in NFL pileups (perhaps contradicting Colon's statement).

In a related matter, you might be surprised to learn that NFL players generally do not wear protective cups.

"Nobody does," Ward said.

Why not?

Ward said it's because players feel restricted. Nose tackle Casey Hampton offered a more interesting response: "You gotta be free, man. What man don't like to be free?"

Good point.

And it makes the following story that much more harrowing. In a game against San Diego last season, a Chargers player apparently grabbed Kemoeatu and Colon where it really hurts and squeezed really hard.

"It (ticked) us off," Colon said. "But we took care of him on the next play."

Colon offered neither the player's name nor the method of revenge. At which point I moved on from Spikes and began to wonder, could it be we're better off not knowing what goes on under the mass of humanity at the end of a play?

I think so -- and I definitely think players should abide by Hampton's golden rule:

"I try to stay away from piles."




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