Bird DogsEric P. Mueller
Crack open the femur of an offensive lineman and you’ll see concentric circles, like tree rings. They aren’t earned annually, like trees. Instead, hours, months, and years spent in a 75% squat, pushing people across the sand at fast speeds for long intervals of time. Our legs look great. Underrated, at the very least. Usually though, no one knows who we are unless if we mess up. Even then, most people are wrong about us.
This is gonna hurt is something I’ve been told more than once while bent over outside with a bunch of other large men, but especially footballl. The pain doesn’t feel like a hurt, it’s more of a burn. Yet every time I stepped on the football I assumed the same position—the one designed to put you in so much pain that you can’t help but quickly explode after the ball is snapped—every single play for ten years.
The lineman’s stance is one of the most defining parts of American football. Lineman are put in their stances for hours and hours, so they get it right. In college, we called this stance and starts. In high school, we called them bird dogs. No one knew why they were called bird dogs, we just never stopped. Bending and creaking, each elongated coil came with the hope that doing so will fulfill football’s promise, not far off from the country that gave birth to the game: if you work harder, you’ll win.
People love comparing football to dance, yet in my decade laying and coaching I never encountered a football ballerina. Yet, most people who’ve played the sport would understand levels. By that, I mean the height of bodies in relation to the ground. In football, some of the tallest players on the field are responsible for making the levels happen, painfully altering their bodies—sometimes for life—for the sake of successfully performing a routine.
To get in a stance, you’re gonna want to start with your feet just wider than shoulder with. “shoulder with the part” becomes one of those phrases people say all the time but no one will really know what it means. So it’s a lot like lyrics to the national anthem. There’s probably going to be a stagger on your feet depending on where you’re lined up. The stagger should rarely ever be greater than your big toe at the midpoint of your anchor foot.
Stances will vary from team to team and they certainly vary from offense to defense. Offensive and defensive lineman are different people. Even at smaller schools like my high school where everyone had to play an offensive and defensive position, you’d literally become a different person. Offensive linemen are the teddy bears, the goofballs, the fats. Defensive lineman are big, too, and objectively more athletic. They have more of an attitude, a bully mentality. An offensive lineman goes into every play with a gameplan and an assignment, the defensive lineman is a reactor, adjusting to life’s literal punches.
Most linemen use a three-point stance. Almost every offensive lineman will do this unless they go out of a two-point, from elbows. Some defensive linemen will get into a four-point stance. The extra weight on the ground can lead to a faster takeoff but you risk losing control of your body.
To get in a three-point stance, set your feet to shoulder width. Then, put your elbows on your thighs. Use this chance to look at where the defensive linemen are lined up in front of you and to linebackers behind them. Now, pick up your eye. That’s what they tell you at every age from middle school to college. The hand that goes down depends on you. Sometimes lefties and righties prefer different hands on the ground. Some players will alter their stance depending upon a direction. There are teams that dictate which hand goes down for a lineman, it could be depending on which side of the center you lined up at, for example.
Your hand goes on the ground in the spot your eye would fall onto the grass. Directly under it, unless if you’re playing defense. Then, the phrasing is, now imagine that your eye fell a little bit in front of you. More weight forward for those faster, chaotic takeoffs.
In practice, they’ll keep you in this position for literal hours, until you hear “up.” I understand why, but I also don’t understand why. Something about iron sharpening iron, and flames forging metals. Everything feels heavy when you’re down there. Your feet, neck, and quads burn the most—they burn baby, burn. The rest in between reps only gets briefer. Feet. Elbows. Hands. Down. Stay down. Minutes later…up.
What makes this burning around my legs worth it are the young men growing, grunting, sometimes screaming as we remain in our stance. No space: in sport, in art, in queer spaces, has replicated the camaraderie and acceptance I felt for being the size I was better than the linemen I played with in college. High school was great, too, but in college, our line averaged 275lbs, we were huge. No other sport is more welcoming to fat people, especially kids. This is the only place we’re welcome, and they don’t know what to do with us when they’re done with us, like horses.
A lineman’s first step will vary between offense and defense. A defensive lineman will often shoot their hands right away. Cause chaos, get their first, foil the plans of the offensive lineman in front of you, and of course, react. The offensive lineman reaches their hands back. In in my hometown, the phrase was always reach for your guns. In college, my o-line coach said holster your hands, because that’s where gun holsters go. I appreciate the phrasing from the college coach, but the fact that the language of gun violence enters this already violent and painful game doesn’t sit well in my stomach. Is this the best we can do?
This is what sports folk mean when they talk about “the trenches” in football. It’s because we’re all so low to the ground and almost every play involves a pile up in some way. It’d feel nice, but facemasks and shoulder pads and spikey shoes don’t feel good on whatever body parts have nerves in a pile situation. Birddogs don’t truly end, they fades into new drills. Some teams will go right to their sled. Others might focus on first steps practicing against live bodies.
I can’t describe the unimaginable soreness one feels when getting into a stance for the first time and holding it for so long after not doing it for a while, or ever. The kind of soreness where you need to grab onto the sink to help you squat down onto the toilet, the next morning. That feeling would repeat every year no matter how many times you squatted and practiced your stance in your bedroom. It wasn’t until I started working from home that I realized the impact that my stance and years of staying down there had on me. It wasn’t the cracking bones or the soreness that got to me. Sitting in an office chair, I felt my bottom half turn into more of a two-seater. Standing for long periods of time became tough and I started to rely on my back more for everyday activities, throwing it out in due time.
In my stance, especially during bird dogs, I felt so connected with the Earth, more powerful than what I actually was. That’s why I always wore fingerless gloves. Feeling the grass made playing so much more bearable. Plus, fingerless gloves make it so much easier to hold.
I’ve gotten down into my stance a few times and it feels natural as ever, but not quite right. I’m sure an assessment would find some technical flaws in it, but I more so think I need someone else in control to keep me down there, to molten the fire that grows in your legs when you’re down that long. I should probably try doing this outside. It doesn’t have to be a game to feel the intensity of your stance, it’s just my way of engaging in levels.