Life of a lineman

The big men battle on the field, but strike up friendships off it

Originally Published: July 8, 2012
By Mason Kelley | ESPN RecruitingNation

BEAVERTON, Ore. -- Elijah Qualls settled into his three-point stance. He could feel the fury building along the line of scrimmage.

The 6-foot-1, 285-pound Petaluma (Calif.) Casa Grande defensive lineman prepared to pounce, digging his cleats and one hand into the turf, while the fingers on his free hand flickered.

Qualls, whose long, curly hair poked out of the back of his black helmet, stared across at Ira Denson (Madison, Fla./Madison County), a 6-4, 316-pound offensive lineman. Bass boomed in the background.

[+] EnlargeA'Shawn Robinson
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comTexas DT commit A'Shawn Robinson flies by Notre Dame OT commit Colin McGovern during drills.
The linemen waited for the whistle. And, when it sounded, the tension in the trenches erupted. Qualls knocked Denson on his heels, prompting praise from coaches.

Qualls and Denson were matched up a second time and, when the whistle blew, they attacked each other again, tumbling to the turf.

"A lot of us switch into a different mode," said Qualls, who has committed to Washington. "A lot of anger is going on. At the end of the day, of course, we all respect each other and we're all friends. But, in the trenches, we all hate each other. You can feel it. There's a lot of anger."

The linemen competing at The Opening said it takes a split personality to be successful on an elite level. When they are on the field, friendships are left on the sideline. But any altercation that takes place inside the lines is forgotten as soon as the competition ends.

"He's talking smack," said Denson, who wore an eye black sticker under his left eye. "We're talking smack. We hate the D-line. They hate the O-line. From my perspective, I'm trying to kill them. Bury them. Give them no chance. Crush their dreams.

"Sometimes it leads to altercations. Sometimes you've got to be the bigger man, say, 'Well, he got me on that play.' I can accept that he beat me. But I'm going to try to do what I can to get back at him."

Denson, who has committed to Florida State, said he has been learning how to handle situations like this since he was a freshman.

"My coach always told me, since I was in ninth grade, 'When you're in the field house, you be the best man you can be. When you're on the football field, be a [jerk],'" Denson said. "That's the way I am."

It is an attitude shared by many of the linemen who made the trip to the Nike world headquarters.

"It's all in the game," said defensive lineman A'Shawn Robinson (Fort Worth, Texas/Arlington Heights). "When you're out on the field, it's mean, mad dogs. You can't be friends. You don't have any friends on the field. When you get off the field, we're good. We're fine."

While the seven-on-seven tournament was being played, the linemen gathered in the middle of the field. Pads popped. Whistles blared. Tempers flared.

When Demarcus Walker (Jacksonville, Fla./Sandalwood) plowed through an offensive lineman on Saturday, Detroit Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh was quick to slap him on the helmet to congratulate him. On Sunday, it was Eddie Vanderdoes (Auburn, Calif./Placer) who earned a head slap from Suh.

Defensive lineman Devin Washington (Orlando, Fla./Jones) was the first player in pads to take the field Sunday morning. He knelt near four tackling dummies, waiting to get started.

The offensive linemen opened the day on one side of the field, while the defensive line worked on the other. At one point Suh stood on the back of a blocking sled, teaching technique. While each player took a turn slamming into the sled, the other linemen ringed the competition.

While all of the players competing earned the opportunity to be named among the nation's best, it didn't stop them from feeling they still had plenty to prove.

"It's definitely something where you have a chip on your shoulder," said Tashawn Bower (Somerville, N.J./Immaculata). "You definitely want to show off and be aggressive. If you get called weak, small or something, you definitely want to show you're not." People began to migrate over to the linemen drills during the seven-on-seven competition, including quarterback Max Browne (Sammamish, Wash./Skyline) and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III (Tampa, Fla./Wharton).

"Those are some big dudes," one bystander said. "They weren't that big when I was in high school."

Once the competition ended, the athletes went back to being teenagers. The tension lifted. They sipped smoothies. They relaxed. Some even signed a few autographs.

"I thought that was the best feeling I the world," Qualls said after being asked to sign something for a young fan.

"Thank you," the boy said.

"No, thank you," Qualls replied.

Mason Kelley | email

Reporter, Recruiting Nation