Centers to the stars
DENVER -- Sometime before the Denver Broncos' playoff game last weekend, Peyton Manning delivered a short speech. He talked to his teammates about all the adversity they'd overcome in 2013, from coach John Fox's in-season heart surgery to injuries to suspensions to skyscraping expectations.
And then Manning singled out Manny Ramirez. Not the troubled baseball player with the dreadlocks; the bald-headed 30-year-old center who's a relative unknown outside of the Broncos' locker room. Six months ago, Ramirez hadn't snapped a ball in an NFL game, and now here he is, confident and steady, one with his quarterback. They've come a long way together, and Manning just wanted to acknowledge his center's efforts.
"He said it's been a pleasure being able to put his hands in my rear," Ramirez said. "Which didn't come off right. But everybody understood what he was saying."
There is no way to fully understand what Ramirez does. He is a protector, a translator in a world of dummy calls and verbiage; he is the calm in the chaos. He's a guy who snaps a football between his legs. One of the few people who can relate, perhaps, is New England Patriots lineman Ryan Wendell. Ramirez and Wendell are centers for two of the greatest -- and most demanding -- quarterbacks in NFL history.
Ramirez will not go as far as to say Manning is anal-retentive. He prefers to call him "passionate." It is Manning who requests that they work on the quarterback-center exchange before every practice, because that's what he's always done. It was Manning who once made former Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday run through an entire practice soaking wet in the days before the Super Bowl because he'd heard there was a chance of rain, so they had to do a wet-ball drill.
Ramirez and Wendell make the line calls in fast-moving offenses with quarterbacks who change things on the fly. Virtually no one grows up aspiring to be a center. He's usually the smallest, smartest and strangest of the offensive linemen. To work with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, you also have to be one of the toughest. Former Broncos great Tom Nalen, who served as John Elway's center in the 1990s, isn't sure he'd want either of their jobs.
"Mentally, it would be really draining on me," Nalen said. "I look at Tom Brady and it's a little different. They rely a little more on the running game now, they huddle up and do a little more traditional offense. But they can go hyper speed and all. With Peyton Manning … they don't even huddle. I like to prepare and know what the plays are. This is almost a 'check-with-me' system.
"There's a lot of communication, a lot of words, and if you miss one of them, you're screwed. There's a lot of pressure snapping the ball to who I think is one of the best quarterbacks of all time. Let's not forget making sure he stays healthy. I felt that way with John Elway. With Manning, even more. You don't want to be that guy who ends his career. There's a lot of thought process that goes into it. I don't think I'd be smart enough to do it."
But there are at least a dozen men who have done it, and most of them say they wouldn't want to snap to anyone else. Here are some of their stories and memories of playing in front of two of the most iconic athletes in professional sports:
DAN KOPPEN, New England Patriots center, 2003-11, Broncos center, 2012-present
About an hour before Sunday's kickoff between the Broncos and the San Diego Chargers, Koppen was standing outside the locker room in street clothes, talking on his cell phone. Koppen tore his ACL during training camp, and for the past six months, he's been part of something big, but also feels as if he's watching it through a plate-glass window. Manning broke the single-season passing yardage and touchdown records in the NFL; the line gave up a league-low 20 sacks. And Koppen, who's used to being in the middle of the action, was on the outside.
As the Broncos celebrated their playoff victory Sunday night, Koppen, wearing a red hoodie, quietly slipped out into the windy night. He said he's happy for the guys. But this next week no doubt is killing him. The Broncos are playing New England -- his former team -- for a trip to the Super Bowl.
It didn't seem that long ago that Koppen was young and in control. His rookie year with the Patriots, Koppen got his first start in Week 2 at Philadelphia, when Damien Woody was injured. Things seemed to flow naturally between Koppen and Brady from the start. They went to three Super Bowls together, and Koppen has two rings.
He considers himself lucky, not burdened, to have played with both Brady, 36, and Manning, 37. They've got the tough jobs, Koppen says. He considered his easy in comparison.
"We had a good time," Koppen said. "I think Tom's more of that laid-back type. And Peyton has more of that coach attitude. He's really always grinding. And both approaches work for each guy. To each his own."
One of Koppen's favorite memories involves Brady and a photo shoot the quarterback did for GQ magazine in 2005. Brady was holding a goat in one of the poses, and the linemen had a field day with it. One practice, Koppen and Matt Light made copies of the goat photo and affixed them to the backs of their jerseys.
"If they ask you [to do it]," Koppen laughed of one of Brady's only ill-fated decisions, "you don't have to say yes."
Brady is one of his closest friends. There were never any long, detailed discussions with Brady about what he expected of him. Like every other Patriot, Koppen knew what was expected of him: Do your job, and do it to the best of your ability. "That came from the head coach," Koppen said.
He broke his ankle in a Week 1 game against Miami in 2011, was put on injured reserve and was one of the final cuts the next summer. When he was picked up by Denver, it seemed like a perfect fit. The offense was similar aside from some line calls and terminology.
Koppen didn't watch a lot of film with Manning, who was coming off neck surgery and learning a new system. They'd talk quite a bit to make sure they were on the same page. But as with Brady, Koppen always knew what he was getting with Manning.
"They want guys out there who know what's going on so they don't have to worry about another thing," Koppen said. "They want to know that the line is taken care of and that the fat guys up front are all set and they don't have to worry about that."
Koppen, who's 34, said he's retiring after the season. He hates to go out this way, but his mind is set.
"Before I signed the contract this year to come back to Denver, my wife and I talked about it, that this would probably be my last run," he said. "I'm just going to go away and disappear. Well, not disappear, but just go away. I've had a wonderful 11 years with two great programs, with a lot of great football players. And just as important, we've won a lot of football games."
TREY TEAGUE, former NFL lineman, Manning's center at the University of Tennessee
Teague was driving through the Mississippi Delta on Monday, headed for a trip to hunt deer and ducks. On a few occasions, Manning would take this trip with him. They were roommates in college, which means Teague has a distinct memory of waking up in the middle of the night and finding Manning asleep, clutching the remote control, snow on the TV. Manning always used to doze off watching cutups on VHS tapes.
Teague, who played in the NFL for nine years, usually says no to interviews these days if the caller is asking about Manning. He's always believed that locker-room stories were supposed to stay in the locker room, stored away until old friends could meet again and laugh about them on trips or reunions. But so much of who he is today is because of Manning, and he wants to talk about that.
There are many stories that are funny now, and would make just about anyone else besides Manning come off as uncool. But let's just say that any roommate of Manning's was going to have to be focused. If Teague was up late on a Thursday night during football season, Manning would ask him why. If he'd try to bring his girlfriend over on a Friday night -- that didn't fly with Manning.
"It was just a different level of accountability that you wouldn't normally expect from a 19- or 20-year-old," Teague said. "I probably was more successful after college and may or may not have even made it in the NFL if I wasn't witnessing that kind of work ethic.
"Peyton wasn't demanding in terms of, 'You need to do this,' or 'You need to do that.' He just set the bar really high. You just felt like you didn't have a lot of choice but to try to get toward that level. I got a personal foul penalty on the first play of the year my senior year, I think. I don't know if I was more concerned about going to the huddle to hear what Peyton had to say or going to the sideline and hearing what coach [Phillip] Fulmer had to say."
Teague switched to center midway through his junior year at Tennessee. Everybody on that team was in the spotlight because it was Manning's team. When Teague switched positions, the local media wanted to know how they'd prepare to work together. Someone, either he or Manning -- he can't remember -- joked that they practiced their snaps at home while watching "Seinfeld." Because it was uber-prepared Manning, the media thought it was true.
Teague said that in his first game at center, Manning got hit and sprained his MCL. At halftime, he told Teague they'd have to play in the shotgun formation the rest of the way. Teague had never done a shotgun snap. Manning asked if he was good with it. "Am I good with that?" Teague asked incredulously. Manning told him not to snap it over his head.
"When I played center after that going forward," Teague said, "I figured that was a good philosophy."
DAMIEN WOODY, Brady's center in New England, 2001-03
Woody was with Brady in the beginning, when he was a fresh-faced 24-year-old stepping in for an injured Drew Bledsoe. At first, the kid leaned on Woody a bit, but Brady was a fast study and soon everyone turned to him.
Early in Brady's career, the Patriots were playing at Miami, a place that was a very tough road venue for New England. Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor was taunting Brady, roaming and lining up all over the place.
Finally, Brady got fed up with Taylor.
"He tapped me on my rear end," Woody said. "He said, 'Take care of that guy right there. Take him out of the play.' So we changed the play at the line of scrimmage. We got Jason Taylor really good on that play to kind of send him a message that this is going to be a long day for not only you but everybody out there."
It was a special locker room back then, Woody said. There were no cliques. Brady was friends with everyone. He was just one of the guys. If they botched a snap -- which didn't happen very often -- both Woody and Brady got an earful from coach Bill Belichick. The coach didn't discriminate in terms of whom he yelled at, Woody said.
Woody could never quite master the shotgun snap. Four yards seemed like 40. It was such a mental challenge that he saw a sports psychologist for help.
"It was always like, 'Man, I don't want to snap it over his head,'" said Woody, who now works as an NFL analyst at ESPN. "I'd either snap it one direction or the other or snapped it without enough velocity. It was always something.
"In the latter part of my career, I was a backup center for the Lions and Jets, and I would just go up there and flick it back, no problem. But when I was with New England, it was all in my head. I just didn't want to be the one making that mistake."
STEVE FRAZIER, Brady's center at the University of Michigan
They came in together in 1995, and what Frazier remembers about that freshman year at Michigan is how skinny Brady looked. Guys called each other by their last names back then, but Brady hated that. He went by Tom or Tommy.
Frazier, who's now a pilot for American Eagle Airlines, sweat a lot back then. Most people thought the towel hanging on his back was for Brady, but it was actually so Frazier could dry his hands before he snapped the ball. Frazier rarely made mistakes, but during their senior season in 1999, when the Wolverines were ranked No. 9 and playing Illinois, he launched a shotgun snap that sailed over Brady's head. Brady fell on it for a 25-yard loss, and the Illini wound up pulling off an upset.
For days, Frazier received hate mail from angry fans (players' emails were in the student registry). Brady, though, never lashed out at him. He was a cool customer, in command in the huddle. He made everything easy.
"He just expected us to do our jobs and we did it most of the time," Frazier said. "If guys were not getting it done, he would say something but he was never … I don't remember him ever losing his cool over anything like that."
Frazier still gets a Christmas card from Tommy and supermodel Gisele, and he sees Brady at reunions. On Saturday night, when the Patriots beat the Colts for a spot in the AFC Championship Game, Frazier's two kids wore Michigan gear. They always do that during New England games.
Sometimes, when he watches Brady on TV, it reminds him of their days and their chemistry at Michigan.
"I can't point to a certain mannerism, but you recognize him from afar," he said. "I don't spend a whole lot of time living in the glory days, but I do think back fondly to those days. We had a good time."
RICHARD O'BRIEN, Manning's center at Isidore Newman High in New Orleans
Here's the best indicator of how under-the-radar the centers for Brady and Manning fly: Tony Reginelli, who coached at Isidore Newman for more than three decades, remembers everything. He can talk for 15 minutes about a practice from 25 years ago.
But on Saturday morning, when Reginelli took a call at his house in New Orleans, he was stumped. He could not remember who served as Manning's center in high school. He suggested calling Lee Zurik, a former Newman star who is now an investigative reporter for the local Fox affiliate. Zurik quickly responded, saying Richard O'Brien was Manning's first center in high school.
O'Brien now lives in Denver, and he doesn't have much of a memory of Manning being a taskmaster. See, O'Brien is two years older, and grew up with Peyton's older brother, Cooper. So he always knew Peyton as Cooper's little brother.
But he did remember a story that was so Peyton. When they were in high school, Dan Marino was doing commercials for Isotoner gloves. In the ads, Marino would give his linemen gloves, and all of Manning's line knew Marino's catchy slogan by heart: "Take care of the hands that take care of you."
Newman's linemen, who gave young Peyton a very clean pocket during his sophomore season in 1991, began to jokingly give the quarterback grief. They told Manning that they protected him better than the Dolphins protected Marino, so where was their gift?
Before the Greenies' first playoff game, Manning outfitted each of his linemen with the gloves.
"I think I still have mine," O'Brien said.
MANNY RAMIREZ, Manning's center for the Broncos, 2013
Before training camp, there was nothing about Ramirez that made outsiders believe he could handle the demands of his new job. Ramirez struggled at his natural position, guard, in 2012. But Manning always had confidence in him. Maybe he saw something in Ramirez during all the film he watched.
"He has just gotten better each week," Manning said after a practice last month. "He's played through a lot of injuries. It speaks to his toughness. He's one of the strongest guys on the team. I think people in this building understand with the sophistication of this offense just how difficult his job is. And he's just been outstanding."
Ramirez has spent much of his career defying his critics. He'd listen to people tell him he wasn't supposed to go to college because he's of Mexican American descent; he'd hear the talk that he wasn't in the same class as Koppen and former Broncos center J.D. Walton.
Even Nalen was surprised at how Manning and Ramirez got on the same page so quickly. He figures they've watched a lot of film together.
Shortly after the Broncos' victory Sunday, Manning passed by Ramirez's locker, shared a handshake and congratulated him, always taking care of the hands that protect him.
JEFF SATURDAY, Manning's center in Indianapolis, 1999-2011
It always seemed easy for Manning and Saturday. It wasn't. Like many centers, Saturday didn't choose his path. He was a young defensive lineman at the University of North Carolina when he sized up his competition and realized that it would be a very long time before he got on the field. Luckily, the offensive line needed help. Saturday's introduction to center started something like this: Tar Heels assistant Eddie Williamson asked if he liked making calls and studying football. Saturday said yes.
Williamson handed him a ball and told him to learn how to snap it. Saturday wound up clobbering his more talented defensive opponents in practice, but went undrafted in 1998, the same year Manning went No. 1 overall. Saturday was working at an electric supply company in North Carolina when the Colts signed him in January 1999.
He would eventually make 170 starts with Manning, a league record for a quarterback-center duo.
"Once we started doing it, we just added to it week by week and then year by year," said Saturday, an ESPN analyst. "And then ultimately it became our offense. You communicated with signals, and then it was code words and then it kind of morphed as you continued to play together. Then as you see things in games, you kind of build a rapport of, 'Hey, do you remember when this happened in Baltimore in 2003 or against New England?'
"So now you're all drawing from very similar memories and you can really recall the information of what needs to be done. That's why the offense worked as well as it did. Listen, Peyton Manning is a brilliant football mind. He understands the game; he gets it and you're completely comfortable. You practice and you play the game exactly the same. So he's got to work through every scenario that he thinks you're going to face so there's no surprises come game day."
The wet-ball drill was one of these annoying Peyton preparations. They'd dunk footballs in five-gallon buckets, and the ball would get heavy and hard to handle. Saturday was wet and annoyed; Manning was trying to figure out how to hold the wet ball and adjust to its weight.
It was just another day in the life of Peyton's center. That Sunday, the Colts beat the Chicago Bears 29-17 in Super Bowl XLI in Miami. It rained continuously that night.