Style points from NFL's running men
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Running is a style thing. Yardage is the coin of the NFL realm (especially now, with the career rushing record about to change hands), but the way a back moves -- the bob and weave, the shimmy and shake on his way from point A to point B -- is what moves us, and what stays with us long after he's done.

When you think of style, you think of ...

Jim Brown
Jim Brown averaged 5.2 yards per each flamboyant carry of his career.
Jim Brown, in the sepia tones of old film, knees-up, brushing defenders aside like a cowcatcher on the front of a train, his shoulders and helmet coming at guys like a three-headed battering ram with cruel intentions. His refusal to swerve, flinch or go down is still the essence of NFL toughness.

You think of ...

Gale Sayers in take-your-breath-away bursts, his upper-body an arrow tracing the wind, the ball cradled wide in one arm, and quick feet on hot coals, jumping into open spaces.

Of ...

the way O.J. seemed to glide.

Of ...

Earl Campbell, shirt ripped to shreds, shoulder pads busting out all over, and about 73 Dolphin defenders -- starters, reserves, guys on the taxi squad, and the linebacking corps of a Miami high school team -- on his back. Earl had style the way a hurricane has wind -- unbridled, destructive and mischievous. First he was bullish -- just a quiet nod and a snort, and then he took the ball and came at you seeing red. Then he was sweet -- after knocking your sorry ass down, he'd pick your sorry ass up, with a smile and a pat.

Of ...

Walter Payton
Walter Payton's high-stepping and goal-line dives dripped with sweet style.
Sweetness. The most stylish player in league history (only Lynn Swann comes close). Pick an image from your memory bank. I'll take the real-time slow-mo of his end-zone dives, a move I tried to imitate for hours as a kid, going up and over couch pillows piled high on the edge of the bed.

Of ...

Tony Dorsett, crouched low, of Billy Sims' quick cuts, and maybe of Marcus Allen's hand touching the ground -- for balance, for feel, for the sweet, balletic loveliness of it all -- as he reversed his field before going 74 yards up the gut for a touchdown in Super Bowl XVIII.

You may think of the goggle-eyed Eric Dickerson, too, running straight up and down, with strides that seemed hungry.

And, of course, you think of Barry. You don't describe or imagine Mr. Sanders so much as you feel him. He's an essence, a whiff, a blessing, a crashed satellite from the planet football, a super-ball of style. Words are no use. Dig up an old tape, hit play, rewind, play, rewind, and play again. Grin, shake your head, sort of short-arm punch your buddy sitting next to you on the couch. Speak to him like the joyful idiot you are: "That's just so ... I mean, we're talking ... seriously ... have you ever ... nobody, nobody ... no, watch this, watch this, right, right, right, right HERE! Did you see that? Did you? Let me play it again." Hit rewind, hit play. Grin, shake your head.

These guys are all in the style Hall of Fame. If you're an NFL fan, your head and heart are full of images of them. You thrill to these guys; they bind you to the game. These are the guys you think of.

Barry Sanders
Barry Sanders' electrifying essence is practically palpable.
You probably don't think of Emmitt Smith, at least not right off.

He's about to become the NFL's all-time leading rusher. He's undeniably one of the greats. Do you feel him? Does he move you?

It's easy to admire Emmitt, easy to respect his work ethic, his stamina, his smarts, and his nose for the end zone. It's harder to get a feel for his style.

He runs low to the ground, legs churning, eyes up, with his shoulders at a slight, knifing angle. He runs the way John Henry swings a hammer -- everything of-a-piece, efficient and wholly connected, nothing wasted. So smooth, so quiet and steady it's almost invisible.

Two pictures: 1. Emmitt, arms wrapped, one over the other, around the ball, bolting through a hole on the right side of the line. He's bundled, compact and relentless. He's a piston firing in a cylinder. You've seen it a thousand times. 2. Emmitt after a touchdown (it's happened 149 times in 13 years), cradling both arms around the ball and heading toward the sideline to add another keepsake to his trophy case.

The numbers are gaudy (13 years, three Super Bowls, four rushing titles, almost 17,000 yards), but the look and feel, the expression of them has been inconspicuous all the way with Emmitt.

When people say, despite the numbers, that he isn't one of the greatest runners of all-time, it's because he's so understated and economical as to seem styleless. He impresses, but he doesn't capture the imagination the way Brown, Sayers and Payton did.

Emmitt Smith
Emmitt Smith might not rack up the style points, but he's about to become the NFL's all-time leading rusher.
He's never been a jaw-dropper. He prides himself on being workmanlike. Most of our strongest memories of him are about what he accomplished bit-by-bit -- that heroic, one-armed game against the Giants in 1993 -- rather than of spectacular single plays he pulled off or of distinctive looks he flashed.

Maybe kids don't imitate him on playgrounds, and fans don't talk about his signature moves, but if you look closely, there's a kind of heart-of-the-matter poetry about Smith. He makes subtle moves ... adjusts his balance, re-orients himself, little things. If you watch him closely, he lets you see how the game hinges on hints and hesitations, on leanings and reaches, and on the razor-thin difference between a blow that comes straight-on and one that glances off a hip or shoulder pad.

There's a style and a wisdom in that, and something of the soul of the game, too. It makes you appreciate routine plays and simple movements, because you know what they add up to. It's worth watching and worth thinking of.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at eneel@cox.net.





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