- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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For chrissakes, there was that voice again. Hyper. Taunting. Borderline crazed.
"C'mon, All-American, what's your problem? You're not finding this as easy as you thought, are you?"
Didn't this guy ever shut up? The 2003 Capital One Bowl was barely under way, and already Dontarrious Thomas was going after Heisman finalist Larry Johnson with a verbal crowbar. Ever see a mug shot of rage? Say "Cheese," Dontarrious. During warmups, the Auburn linebacker was so geeked that he resembled a snarling rottweiler tethered to a stake. Then coaches removed the choke chain and sicced him on the Penn State running back.
And no, Johnson wasn't finding this easy at all. He'd heard trash-talk before, but this was scary different. This smack had anger as an attached file. It didn't matter that Johnson was the ninth college player ever to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season. Everywhere he went, that voice was waiting for him. At the bottom of a pile. Across the line of scrimmage. On the way back to the huddle.
"Hey, man, why ain't you getting the ball that much? Your team don't have confidence in you?"
Again. "Why y'all running these stupid plays?"
And again. "Hey, man, you can't outrun me. You're too slow."
On and on it went, until finally Johnson bit.
"Wait 'til next play," he snapped. "Y'all are soft."
"How we soft, man?" Thomas shot back, his smirk almost audible. "You only got, like, 25 yards."
And that was that. Stick a shrimp fork in Johnson; Thomas had officially messed with his mind. The All-America finished with 72 yards on the wrong end of a 13-9 score. It got so bad that sober Penn State tried to get cute with a trick pass play. After Thomas blew it up with ease, he turned to a Nittany Lions assistant and chirped, "You can't run that play. I got a 3.5 GPA. I'm not a dumb-ass."
Neither is his tag-team partner, fellow linebacker Karlos Dansby, a guy regarded around the program as something of a football savant. Show him a coverage or technique just once, and he gets it. "A football common-sense guy," says Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville. Like Thomas, Dansby is a former high school wideout converted to hell-raiser-in-cleats. Sunday through Friday, you can bring them home to Mom, serve up some apple pie and then retire to the den to take turns reading Scripture. But come Saturday, Thomas and Dansby flip a switch and morph into something you'd feel safer eyeballing behind a chain-link fence.
Thomas, the mild-mannered mama's boy, jabbers nonstop on the field, his language so profane even he can't believe those four-letter bombs are dropping from his mouth. Dansby is less chirpy, but that doesn't stop him from trying to put his helmet through your thorax. He wants to hit you so hard a snot bubble emerges from your nostril, like Punxsutawney Phil peeking out to see his shadow.
Just before kickoff, these two lugs meet in the tunnel or on the sideline and start an anything-you-can-do countdown to five-alarm intense. Who's gonna bring the hardest lick? Me, says Thomas, voice rising. No me, says Dansby, even louder. Who's gonna make the first interception? Who's gonna get the most sacks? Back and forth it goes, until the pair is in a full rabies lather that all but guarantees doom for the poor saps on the other sideline.
"They're about to witness something that's going to shock them," Thomas announces.
"They just don't know," Dansby answers.
The two seniors live to go from zero to Saturday. They worship at the altar of Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher (Thomas wears Urlacher's No. 54). And they make no apologies for wanting to separate a quarterback's helmet from his cranium-for needing, as Dansby puts it, "to inflict pain."
Don't bother trying to find two linebackers on the same team better than these guys. Both nearly bolted to the NFL last spring, but here they are again, ready for a farewell tour of the SEC and a run at the national championship. They're just counting the days until they can unleash their kick-butt alter egos. "You've got to really love football to play linebacker," Tuberville says. "You're just right on the borderline of rage every play."
Few tiptoe that line better than Dansby. "Karlos is special," Dontarrious says. "He does things, and I don't know how he does them." Like the play in the 2001 Peach Bowl when an airborne Dansby batted the ball to Thomas while falling out of bounds. That one was nominated for an ESPY. Against Alabama last year, he took out two guys on one option.
Thomas has his share of trophies too. "You want to hit guys so hard that they don't want to get the ball no more," he says. Auburn coaches still get chills recounting his collision with USC tailback Malaefou MacKenzie in last season's opener at the Coliseum. After the hit, a Trojan teammate looked at MacKenzie lying on the ground, then looked at Thomas and said simply, "Gawd."
The 6'4" Thomas weighed 183 pounds when he left dinky Perry, Ga.; the 6'5" Dansby was 186 when he left Birmingham. Both were promised a chance to play receiver, but Tuberville had other things in mind for them: the weight room, the dinner table and the defensive side of the ball. The coach, who'd tutored Lewis as a Miami assistant, figured Dansby for defensive end and Thomas for safety before both grew into reluctant linebackers.
Dansby handled the switch so well you'd have thought Lewis was giving him private lessons. Karlos had played both ways in high school and manned the whip (Auburn's version of the strong safety/linebacker spot) in 2001, so the move to outside 'backer wasn't such a jump. "It just comes easy to me," he says.
The transition wasn't as smooth for Thomas. "It was a nightmare," he says. "I hated it." Asked to take on fullbacks who outweighed him by 60 pounds, and linemen at least 100 pounds bigger, he wondered if his coaches were trying to run him off. So he called his mom to say he was thinking of transferring. "At least give it a year," she said.
Now look at them. The 235-pound Dansby, a first-team all-SEC pick last year, is a preseason All-America. The 238-pound Thomas, a second-team all-SEC selection in 2001, probably would have joined him had he not been slowed by a knee injury. (Will two-time academic all-SEC do?)
This season, Thomas is playing yet another new position, moving from strongside to middle, while Dansby switches from weakside to his buddy's old spot. By now they've got this linebacking thing down to a science. In fact, Tuberville actually charts the amount of time his 'backers spend working their on-off switch. Let's see: it takes 12 seconds from the time the officials spot the ball to when they blow the whistle and signal for the 25-second play clock to start. Add about five seconds for the actual play. "That's 42 seconds," Tuberville says. "Three-fourths of that time they've got to be in control. The other 25%, they've got to let it all hang out. They've got to be in some sort of rage."
RAGE ISN'T cheap. Three hours of banging helmets and dodging chop blocks leaves a mark, which is why Thomas and Dansby are too exhausted to do the postgame party scene. Instead, they do the sleep scene. After that, they spend all week building up to those few seconds of let-it-all-hang-out.
Dansby wakes up Sunday "feeling 21 going on 32." He pops at least two tylenol every four hours, ices his shoulders and starts to focus on the next opponent. Thomas isn't much for pills, but his knee has become close and personal with the ice bag. By 1:30 that afternoon, they're at the football complex for light practice in full pads. Rage: in remission.
Monday's an off day: after classes and game video, there's PlayStation and wings with the fellas at Buffalo Connection. Tuesday, they turn on the ignition key. Thomas loves the intense full-pads practice; if it moves, he hits it. Walk-ons, first-teamers ... doesn't matter. They all look like targets to him. "My mind's starting to get set," he says.
By Wednesday they can sense their mood changing ever so slightly. They're a tad edgier. So they use contact drills with defensive linemen to work themselves into a nice little midweek froth. By practice's end, the duo look like they need distemper shots. "I practice on Tuesday and Wednesday the way I play in a game," Thomas says.
Thursday is slower out on the field. Hitting is kept to a minimum while the players focus on assignments. Of course, the students back in Thomas' apartment complex know better than to bother him two days before a game. While they're ordering kegs for the weekend, he's studying video and locking into Kill, Bubba, Kill mode. "You see fans start to get ready for the game," he says. "They get crazy. And you start thinking, 'I've got a chance to do something spectacular.' "
Home game or not, the Tigers spend Friday night in a hotel. There's a walk-through in shorts, special-teams meetings, position meetings, dinner, a prayer meeting and quiet time to review the playbook. And there's Dansby beginning his climb up Mt. Adrenaline. With his fast-twitch muscles begging to go out and play, he kills time by calling his dad back in Birmingham. He talks about how many picks and tackles he's going to have, then asks his old man to pray for him. He calls his girlfriend and tells her how he's going to do her proud.
Sleep? Are you kidding? These guys can't sleep. Thomas tosses and turns for hours the night before a game, especially if it's the Iron Bowl against Bama or if the schedule says Georgia, a school that hardly recruited him. (Auburn was the only D1 program to offer him a ride.) He thinks about the big plays and bone-crushing hits he's going to make, even if the volume's still on mute: "I'm not in that mood where I want to hurt somebody ... yet."
Thomas is more emotional than Dansby, more addicted to the highlight hit. He can recite the defensive game plan as effortlessly as he recites his address. But what he lives for-why he can't sleep in the wee hours-are those snot bubbles.
First thing Saturday morning, Dansby clicks on GameDay. Something about Lee Corso gets him jacked. And no matter what, he has to have pancakes for breakfast. A home game means Tiger Walk, with the Auburn players making the short trek from football complex to stadium as fans five-and six-deep line the road. Sometimes Dansby hears his mom in the crowd, yelling, "Better hustle, boy."
These aren't the same two guys who started the week with ice bags and tylenol. Now you need a flight of stairs to reach the top of their goose bumps. "It's like the Incredible Hulk," Dansby says. "One minute I'm laid-back. But as soon as I step off that bus and start that walk, that's when I feel like I'm busting out of my clothes, that my pants are ripping apart, my buttons are popping off. I'm a whole other person. Time for lights, camera, action."
"I walk into that stadium and my mind just changes," Thomas says. "That's when I switch."
Their lockers are side-by-side, but Dontarrious and Karlos generally keep to themselves. If the Tigers have lost their previous game, Thomas wears different shoes and gloves. Dansby always drinks one lemon-lime Powerade and gets his two big toes taped. Music is a must; Pastor Troy sets the tone. All that's left: their I'm-badder-than-you psych-up.
By the time Tuberville calls his team together minutes before kickoff, Thomas and Dansby are ready to rupture someone's spleen. "Eye of the Tiger" plays on the stadium speakers. The crowd is louder than a Metallica sound check.
"Time for business!" Thomas yells.
"Let's hose 'em down!" Dansby yells back.
Kickoff comes and goes. So do those 42-second waves. Through it all, you can hear it: the Voice.
"Y'all are so overrated."
"Why y'all suck so bad?"
"C'mon, you're gonna have to come harder at me than that, darlin'."
That's football rage to the Thomas/Dansby power. If you're smart, you'll keep all limbs, sideline mikes and team chaplains away from it. Respect it. Marvel at it. For further info, contact Mr. Larry Johnson.
5mEthan Sherwood Strauss