You should know this about offensive line coaches: they are large, demanding men with Falstaffian appetites, jutting jaws, and no governors on their speech engines. They eat titanic portions. They cram their lips full of dip in film study like they are loading a mortar. They drink bottled water like parched camels, and in their leisure time would consider a suitcase of beer to be a personal carry-on item for them, and them alone. They are terrifyingly disciplined in the moment, and nap like large-breed dogs when allowed.
They can be vicious and exacting to the point of near-cruelty. One currently employed and well-regarded offensive line coach was so demanding of one player that finally, at the point where rage exceeded restraint, the player picked him up and shook him like a rag doll demanding to know: can I do anything right for you? Anything? The player had him pressed overhead and could have snapped him like a twig. The coach considered it a success — the player now was properly motivated.
They are deeply profane, blunt, and intolerant of pain. More perversely, they are often beloved for exactly these things.
They are also creatures of fear. At every step, an offensive line coach has to be concerned with threats. The left tackle must hold his own against a defensive end, or the quarterback is broken in half in an instant. Read an inside shade the wrong way, and risk letting a 300-pound man bellyflop onto your 180-pound running back. During the 2013 Outback Bowl, Michigan made one crucial missed call on a run blocking assignment between the tight end and left tackle. Vincent Smith's helmet is still in orbit somewhere over Tampa.
Kurt Vonnegut said that his chief objection to life in general was that it was "too easy, when alive, to make horrible mistakes." This is what offensive line coaches live with: the notion that for every five simple circles drawn on a board, there is a nearly infinite number of threats looming out in the theoretical white space. Offensive plays give skill players arrows. Those arrows point down the field toward an end zone, a stopping point, a celebration. Those five simple circles stay on the board in the same place, and are on duty forever.
They are rough men in the business of protection.
Herb Hand is an offensive line coach at Vanderbilt University, where he might not even be were it not for a long line of random events.
Hand got a job at Glenville State under Rich Rodriguez in 1994, a team whose base offense - the spread option that redefined modern football — depended on a play that in itself was the result of an accident, the zone read. A quarterback simply pulled the handoff from the running back, looked at the defensive end, and turned a mistake into deliberate and deadly strategy. Other coaches might have dismissed it entirely. Rodriguez did not, and now it is run at every level of the game from Pop Warner to the NFL.
Hand would work under Rodriguez at Clemson, then followed him to West Virginia when Rodriguez was hired to replace Don Nehlen. Hand would recruit, coach tight ends, and recruit, and do all of that in exactly that order, because recruiting is an important activity that sometimes is interrupted by bouts of college football. One of the places Hand recruited was the talent-glutted state of Florida, including Orlando, where on April 27, 2006 something would hit him in the back of the head with an axe.
The axe blow to the back of the head was a different kind of pain than normal.
Offensive linemen have an intimate relationship with pain. Hand has the grinding knees of a former lineman, and once tore a pec in a bench press contest with former West Virginia offensive coordinator Calvin Magee. Hand hadn't touched a weight in years, but he couldn't say no to a dare. On the way up he felt something rip in his chest. The torn pectoral left black bruises all the way down his arms to the tips of his fingers. He did what he did whenever pain was involved: he took some Advil and went back to work.
On April 27th, 2006, breakfast would be the universal sad prefab buffet of the American business hotel: a spit shield covering some powdered eggs and link sausages, a few bushels full of tiny muffins, an open waffle iron hissing and surrounded by spots of splattered batter. He worked his way down the line when he felt the sudden urge to sneeze. He turned quickly to avoid sneezing on the man next to him, and when he did, something went terribly wrong in his brain.
That was the first sign something was awry: he did not want to eat. A splitting headache bloomed in his skull and crept down his neck. Hand could barely hold his head up. He tried to get in his car and get on with his day, but for some reason remembered something he'd read in the in-flight magazine about cardiac incidents. You'd sweat profusely if you were having a stroke or heart attack, it said. He checked the mirror. He was drenched.
Herb called his wife Debbie, then tried to explain to the people behind the desk that he needed an ambulance. The hotel clerks did not speak English. He handed the phone to them. 900 miles away in Morgantown, Deb Hand sat in her car with her three kids on the way to daycare, trying to tell total strangers that something was very wrong with her husband. She told him to stay on the phone. He did, thinking about how much ridicule he'd get when he got back to the football offices.
They got to the hospital. Nothing happened for a while. Then, nurses and techs began to shuffle equipment and move things in a way that suggested something was happening, and in a serious fashion.
An E.R. doctor came into the room.
"We got the results of your CAT scan. They're not good. You're having a subarachnoid hemorrhage, probably as a result of an aneurysm."
"Am I gonna die?"
"We're gonna do everything we can for you."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that we're gonna do everything we can for you."
"I thought you were gonna say no!"
"Should I call my wife and kids?"
"You should probably do that."
She was in the parking lot of the day care, in her work clothes. Herb wanted to talk to the kids. He did. He then got the doctor to explain to Debbie what was happening, that he would be shipped out of Sand Lake Hospital, and sent to a larger hospital where a neurosurgeon was prepping to open his skull and see what, if anything could be done for him. He got back on the phone with his wife. They told each other "I love you."
Herb went into surgery prep; Debbie got on the phone.
Things also started happening in a serious way in West Virginia.
Debbie got in touch with Dr. Julian Bailes, the team's neurosurgeon and a leading authority on head trauma, who forwarded her to Dr. Max Medary, a former student of Bailes. Medary was in surgery at the same hospital Hand was about to be transferred out of in Orlando. In a matter of minutes, Hand's transfer was stopped; he would stay at Sand Lake (known now as Dr. P. Phillips Hospital), and Medary would take over his care. Rich Rodriguez arranged for Debbie to take a booster's private plane to Orlando and for a member of the team staff to travel with her to the hospital. When she arrived, a sheriff's escort met them at the airport. The coaches' wives would take care of the kids for as long as they needed.
Sedated and with a catheter running into his femoral artery, Hand lay on an operating table. The catheter ran all the way up his femoral artery and up to his neck, feeding dye into his brain for imaging. He'd somehow landed in a Florida hospital where three out of the four people in the room — two nurses and an anesthesiologist — were from West Virginia. In the fog, Hand remembers one of them leaning over and telling him, "I don't know who you know, but you have the Heisman Trophy winner of neurosurgeons working on you today."
Hand got lucky.
Instead of the balloon-like bulge and rupture of an aneurysm, he'd blown a blood vessel in his head, which healed nicely on its own. There was no lasting damage to the brain, and after almost being transferred to another hospital where he would have had traumatic brain surgery, he would instead need none, thanks to an audible called on his behalf somewhere in West Virginia, where others' hands had gotten his wife to his bedside in hours and taken his kids safely into their homes without a word.
There was blood on the brain, which had to seep down the base of his skull and out his spine over the course of six weeks. The pressure lit up every nerve on the same line of longitude along the way. Terrified of the Vicodin he was prescribed, Hand took as few painkillers as he could. Sometimes the pain would become so intense he had to army crawl to the bathroom in the night. Sometimes he just sat on the internet looking at the survival rates telling him that 15% of all patients who suffered subarachnoid hemorrhages died before they ever got to the hospital, with 25% dead within 24 hours, and a total mortality of 40% for all patients after a span of one week.
Half of all patients who suffer a subarachnoid hemorrhage die within six months. When Hand asked about his long-term prognosis, Dr. Medary told him: Look, you can live the rest of your life worrying that this is going to happen, or you can live the rest of your life. And that, as the pain had finished its long march down his spine, is what he did. He made recruiting calls from his house. He watched Food Network. When the kids were home, he made time for them.
Later, he'd visit Dr. Medary, who invited him to watch a surgery he was about to perform. "You wanna sit in on a surgery? I'm gonna take a tumor out of a guy's head. It'll be cool."
Hand would leave West Virginia after the 2006 season.
He would go to Tulsa, where he ran the offensive line and served as co-offensive coordinator. Had he stayed at West Virginia, Hand would probably be in Arizona now, and not at Vandy working with James Franklin, the coach who led Vanderbilt to their first nine-win season since 1915. He would not have told me how good the tater tots at South Street Restaurant were, giant balls of fried starch that were creamy and peppery on the inside. He would not be on the sidelines tonight in the West End of Nashville, trying to get five people to anticipate angles and threat as a unit, those five little circles on the whiteboard defending their turf for a theoretical eternity.
When Hand had to have the impossible conversation — the one where you, with cellphone, stuck in a hospital far away from home, might have to say the last words you ever say to your children — he did what he was trained to do. He told them that he loved them, and that everything would be okay.
The second part of that might not have been true at the time. The emergency room doctor certainly didn't think so, and neither did Hand. But standing between harm and others is what linemen do, even if there's little hope to be had in the face of numbers, size, and speed.
There is a dot on the board, and a shield held against whatever slings and arrows lurk in the ether. It stands against harm until it cannot any longer.
That is the business of protection, and it is never, ever about you.