- David Fleming, ESPN Senior Writer
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[Editor's note: The following story continues Playbook's weeklong salute to David Fleming's ... ummm ... "Undercarriage Trilogy." Enjoy!]
I’ve got a pretty good ass.
In a moment you’re gonna ask yourself -- perhaps even out loud -- what qualifies me as an expert on the glute. And when that happens you can simply turn to page 109 of the current Body Issue of ESPN The Magazine and check out my credentials for yourself. Accompanying my "Call of Booty" story, an exhaustive look at the importance of the glute in sports, is a visual pop quiz of mostly athletes' booties that includes a ‘Born in the USA’ candid of my very own badonkadonk.
(Kind of a classic story here: I was on vacation when the office called and requested a picture of my butt. So at dinner that night I had to ask my stepsister, Barb, if she would do me the honor of snapping a picture of my behind. I don’t know about your family, but if all goes well I am fairly confident I can live all of this down sometime before 2028.)
If need be, though, on top of all this visual proof, there’s also the months and months of research and reporting, by an entire and amazing team from ESPN The Magazine, that went into my story on the anthropological, physiological and sociological significance of the ass in athletics. It’s the final installment of my Body Issue, um, Undercarriage Trilogy -- on poop (2010), balls (2011) and butts (2012) -- that we’ve been celebrating all week on Playbook.
The final stop on this epic three-year quest turned out to be Dallas, where, in May, I found myself standing toe-to-toe with the awesome and inspiring 330-pound Olympic weightlifter Holley Mangold, as we debated, quite loudly at times, the best butts in the biz.
It sounds silly, I know. I guess you could say that about the entire Trilogy. But once you understand the preeminence of the glute in sports, it all makes perfect grown-up sense. Many jocks, of course, have been known to act like asses and talk out of them, too. Bears quarterback Jim McMahon famously flashed his at a TV helicopter in New Orleans before Super Bowl XX. There are butt drags in wrestling, head butts in boxing, butt screens in the NBA and both booty envy and booty lock in Olympic track and field.
“The behind is a big deal behind the scenes at the Olympics,” 400-meter gold medal favorite Sanya Richards-Ross told me. “The butt is way more important than just something to sit on, it’s vital.”
Glutes aren’t just a distinct part of the human body, they are part of what makes us distinctly human. And it has been that way for millions of years. As I explained in the Magazine, when primitive man first raised his hands off the ground to become bipedal, it was the power of the buttocks, serving as a counterbalance to the chest, that allowed our ancient ancestors to stand erect and then propulse themselves to the top of the food chain. Since then, the glute has continued to play a significant role in our evolution as a key genetic marker. Some anthropologists believe that in selecting potential mates, men instinctively focus on healthy glutes and hips because of the association to child bearing. Meanwhile, women are attracted to strong buttocks because of the subconscious correlation to virility, strength and security.
So our deep fascination with, and (come on, admit it) our attraction to the athletic ass is not something to be shamed, but celebrated. No wonder, then, that behind the scenes with athletes, the booty is such a big topic of study, pride and debate.
Sprinters? “Oh, their butts are huuuuuge,” says Richards-Ross. Speedskaters? They are the sexiest athletes on earth, according to German Olympic champion Anni Friesinger, who, loosely translated, says their “buns are so erotisch.” Hockey players? “You could line up 10 guys with their backs to you and a lot of women could pick out the hockey players,” says veteran NHL winger Mike Knuble.
Football players? Well, this is where things began to get interesting with Mangold, herself a former high school football lineman.
“They cheat,” she said, “because everybody’s butt looks good in football pants.”
So who then, I ask? Who has the best butt in the biz?
“Don’t even go there with me right now,” Mangold warns. “Weightlifters. It has to be weightlifters. They have big, bubbly, beautiful butts. I don’t even think it’s close, but if you want to debate it, go right ahead.”
Well, FlemFilers, what do you say? We’ve come this far in the Undercarriage Trilogy -- three years and 17,000 flop-sweat-enducing words, through lines such as “Jesus pooped” and tales of Seahawks center Robbie Tobeck crapping himself during a game, and rugby player Buck Shelford playing with a torn scrotum, all the way to QB Matt Hasselbeck describing his brave, bruised and battered butt cheek as resembling an “Arizona sunset” -- so, what the heck, why not?
My first nominee for the best butt in sports would be Mangold herself, but she refuses, flatly. “You don’t understand how frustrating this is for me,” she says. “Weightlifters are known for having great butts, and I don’t have one. I’m as flat as can be back there.” So I turn to Mangold’s Olympic teammate Sarah Robles, the top-ranked weightlifter in the U.S. But she declines as well. “My butt looks good and performs good,” she says. “But the best thing about my butt is that I’m regular.”
OK then, moving on. Whose idea was this?
How about this: I’ll get the ball rolling with a handful of nominations, keeping in mind that it’s about function as well as form. You, then, will be free to tweet (@FlemESPN #UndercarriageTrilogy) or post (Facebook: DavidFlemingESPN) your own candidates or reactions. Or, voice them during my SportsNation chat tomorrow. And if all goes well perhaps we’ll narrow the list and put it to a vote.
So, the nominees are:
Dontari Poe: If you read the magazine story, then you’ve learned of the pundits' and scouts' hilarious response to the 346-pound nose tackle’s 4.98 in the 40-yard dash at the combine. That day Poe’s compression shorts did the impossible: they cast a bigger shadow inside Lucas Oil Stadium than Peyton Manning himself.
Jessica Ennis: Recently described as the Golden Girl of the British Olympic team and a favorite in the heptathlon. You can’t hope to become the greatest female athlete on the planet without also having the world’s greatest glutes, what Verstegen calls “the absolute epicenter and powerhouse of all athletic movement.”
Trey Hardee: When you see this Olympic decathlete warming up in London with large rubber bands wrapped around his knees and ankles, don’t worry, he’s just activating his glutes. “These are enormous and powerful muscles so close to your center of mass, where everything originates,” Hardee told me. “The glute also controls the longest levers in the body, so biomechanically speaking, they are essential, and that’s why we tax and train them on a daily, if not hourly, basis -- because everything we do originates in the glutes.” How’s that for an acceptance speech?
Carmelita Jeter: Says fellow U.S. Olympic sprinter Wallace Spearmon Jr., “Great starters in this sport, they have what you’d call well developed glutes and what we call Track Butt.”
Greg Little: The folks at Athletes’ Performance trained the glutes of No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck and a record 124 other butt cheeks (62 players) taken in the 2012 NFL draft. But they still talk about Little’s glutes (he’s a second-year wideout for the Browns) the way Jodie Foster’s space-traveling scientist character described mankind’s first glimpse of alien lifeforms in the movie "Contact." By focusing on improving his glute function before the 2011 draft, Little was able to drop his 40 time from a 4.7 to a 4.49 and raise his payday by probably a million dollars. Still think this is all one big giggly joke? After that, the trainers at AP started calling him “Freak.”
Natalie Coughlin: Ryan Lochte says, “In swimming, everything pretty much comes from your core. And then it just kind of works its way down. So the ass doesn’t really have to do much, you just got to get in that suit.” Obviously, Lochte never saw Coughlin on "Dancing with the Stars." There’s an old saying with glute trainers that you want to look better going than coming, and thanks to her wattage cottage, Coughlin could end up leaving London as the most decorated American Olympian ever.
Charles Barkley: He did a Weight Watchers commercial in drag but would not speak to me about the glutes story -- even though as an NBA Hall of Famer, the Round Mound of Rebound, Barkley was one of the first, and best, at using his rump as a weapon on the court. “Success in pro basketball comes down to one thing: creating space,” says ESPN’s Brad Daugherty, an eight-year NBA veteran and the No. 1 overall pick in the 1986 draft. “You can do it with speed, or you can do it with strength. Karl Malone, Bill Laimbeer, Shaq, Charles Barkley, those guys became legends by eating up space with those big powerful rear ends of theirs. I don’t think anyone in the game put their big old wide ass to use like I did, except for maybe Charles Barkley.”
Kevin Love: From NBA guard Landry Fields, “Love is a great example of how you can use your body, shifting weight, to hold off people and get all those boards that he does. I don’t really look at it, but I would assume he’s got a bigger lower half.”
Tomas Holmstrom: Almost everything on the ice is dictated by the ass. Hockey Butt is what provides balance, power, speed, hip checks and screens. “[Hockey Butt] gives you a good center of gravity. You use it in corners. You stick it out and get yourself some distance between you and the defender,” Knuble says. And for more than 1,000 games with the Red Wings, who has put his rear to better use this way in front of the net than Holmer?
Serena Williams: Really? You really need me to explain this one?
U.S. women’s volleyball team: Pick one. The main function of the glute is hip extension. It provides the power needed to get out of the basement at the bottom of a squat or lunge. It also fuels the explosive, final extension of the femur that gives these athletes their exquisite ups.
Tiger Woods: Each story in the Undercarriage Trilogy started out as a gag, a funny idea that made us laugh and blush because no one had ever bothered to talk about, or write about, these topics as they relate to sports. Each time, though, with a little research and reporting what started out as a joke, ended up becoming a very unique, revealing and almost scientific window into sports. Go figure.
Anyway, one of the more fascinating discoveries while reporting this story for the Magazine was the role the glute plays in throwing, hitting and swinging. I never would have put those two together. But any act of throwing or hitting is a byproduct of the rotational torque created by the uncoiling of the hips, core and torso; a kinetic catapult that begins and ends, you guessed it, in the butt. “In our game, it’s the great decelerator of your lower body,” golfer Ben Crane says. “In order to hit the ball, you have to be able to accelerate and then decelerate your pelvis, and you do it with your butt muscles.”
So, short story long, that’s why I nominated Tiger.
CC Sabathia: We covered MLB hitters, and their backsides, extensively in the photos and the story in the Body Issue. To name a few: Jose Bautista, Curtis Granderson, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez and even Hank Aaron. But what about the flip side of the equation? Is the glute just as important in pitching? “It means a lot to me,” Sabathia says. “Being able to push off the mound and being explosive, I’ve always used this [butt]. It’s a matter of toning it up, maintaining it and making sure it’s strong. It’s always been big, but yeah, it’s something I really pay attention to, work hard at it and make sure I’m explosive off the mound.”
Matt Hasselbeck: He’s got decent enough glutes, and he had just finished working them out with his trainer when I reached him on the phone, but the main reason Hasselbeck gets a nomination is the key role he has played in the Undercarriage Trilogy.
Hasselbeck was the Seahawks QB when Tobeck suffered what he called the worst moment of his career. Laying on the field, his pants splattered in poo, Tobeck thought to himself, ‘What do I do now?’ “Then I was like, ‘Heck, it’s only Hasselbeck -- I’ll stay in the game,’” he says. For several plays, Hasselbeck was so focused under center he didn’t fully grasp what had happened until a trainer ran up to him on the Seahawks sideline and yelled: “Hey, I’d stop licking my hands if I were you.”
I ended Part I of the trilogy with that anecdote. And when it came time to write Part III, I found myself back on the phone with Hasselbeck, who in 2010 almost missed pulling off one of the greatest upsets in NFL playoff history because of a nasty glute edema. To reduce the swelling that was nearly crippling him, team doctors drew several large syringes of cloudy yellowish fluid from Hasselbeck’s hindquarters, right up until game time.
“The amount was so ridiculous, I kept looking back there going, ‘Guys, are you kidding me?’” says the QB. “I was almost tempted to tweet it. We were all kinda like proud of it in some weird way, ya know?”
Of course I do, I told him. It was gross and silly, sure, but it was also fascinating and educational and a unique window into the physiology and sociology of sports -- one most people hadn’t ever dared talk about before.
Just like the Undercarriage Trilogy. I hope.
• • •
Playbook presents the Undercarriage Trilogy
Monday: It happens: the Tao of Poo in sports (Body Issue 2010)
Tuesday: Testicles and sports: guts, glory, injury (Body Issue 2011)
Wednesday: Call of Booty -- Backsides and sports (Body Issue 2012)
Thursday: Flem File -- supplement and outtakes from Call of Booty
Friday: David Fleming chat, 3 p.m. ET
Follow David Fleming on Twitter @FlemESPN