It is two days before William and Mary plays Delaware on Oct. 23, and senior left tackle Keith Hill is sitting in front a plate of chicken wings. Rumors about the offensive line’s weekly dinner at a local restaurant brought me here in search of a story, but sitting there between Hill and his plate of wings, I wonder how this tradition started.
“Yeah, we’ve been meeting every Thursday,” Hill says. “[When it] started out it was only O-line, you know? Us, maybe quarterbacks. Now freshmen come too … It’s literally grown into a team bonding thing.”
Hill should know — out of all the linemen at the College, he’s been here the longest. The senior has spent the last five years of his life as blue-collar cannon fodder, crouching in front of defensive behemoths who want nothing more than to rip him in half.
It takes special kinds of men to make college careers out of that experience. And between these men, relationships develop — a down-in-the-trenches respect for those willing to line up next to you.
“I started coming here when I was a freshman,” Hill says. “From down in Jersey. Got about three guys on the line from that way. But I guess we’re Virginia boys now.”
Gradually the rest of the offensive line starts trickling in.
“We got room,” junior left guard Chris Sutton says, offering me a seat to his right. “Pull up a chair.”
As a former high school offensive lineman myself, the cadence and rhythms of their speech are familiar. I sit there remembering what it’s like to be a part of something.
“I got the usual Godfather Phillie on special,” Hill says as he puts down two plates, one of which has a stack of wings.
Senior right guard Derek Toon immediately reaches across the table and grabs one of the wings from the top.
“Oh, I’m double dipping,” he says as he takes a second dunk into the ranch dressing.
“So I’m just going to spit in your mouth next time,” Sutton replies, as he grabs one for himself.
Junior center James Pagliaro sits to my right with a plate of cheese fries. Redshirt freshman James Johnson II spies Pagliaro reaching for the ketchup.
“You’re putting ketchup on cheese fries?”
“It’s my food,” says Pagliaro. “I’ll eat it how I like it.”
The teasing is as much a part of a ritual as the actual eating.
“You’re so fat,” Toon says to sophomore Robert Gumbita as Gumbita bites into his sandwich, “Do you just hate your own fatness or what?”
Gumbita smiles. “No, I just hate my whiteness.”
The talk rarely turns to Saturday’s game. One really has to listen to catch any thoughts on Delaware, conference standings or even football at all.
“You’re just going to have to duct tape them,” Sutton says of his own experiences with wrapping his ankles. “I remember, first drive and the guy just dove on [my ankle]. I literally had just wrapped it.”
“How’s the back?” sophomore lineman Mike Salazar asks a passing player.
“Sore,” he replies.
They all were ready to play, ready for Saturday, but this dinner was about savoring the food and company. Today was about finding solace before a battle.
The conversation turns to the familiar topic of sports. In fact, with the World Series highlights playing on the television, baseball was a popular conversation starter.
“I can name the entire Braves roster,” sophomore lineman Ryan Kearns says from the far end of the table.
“You can’t even name five people on the Braves,” Toon replies.
Kearns responds with every single name, surprising everyone. A player is not restricted to liking just his specialty sport.
The next highlight on the television is a scandal in the news involving a female friend of a famous athlete.
“She’s pretty hot,” Salazar says.
“She looks like a younger version of his wife,” Kearns adds.
Hill jumps in.
“Look at her. Do you really think she’s a total innocent?”
“Hell no,” Salazar says. “It’s not like there are virgins in the NFL.”
“They don’t allow virgins in the NFL. Just look at cheerleaders and tell me they don’t.”
While everyone is busy eating, Hill, Toon and Sutton begin to bet each other points — a game that has developed among the players.
“Can I have that sandwich?” Toon asks, pointing to an abandoned section of the Philly cheesesteak.
Hill holds it away.
“I’ll give you a point if you eat it in one bite.”
He does. It’s disgusting.
I ask what the points mean. Hill explains it to me.
“The goal is to get to five,” he says. “It usually occurs during drinking, but you can play it anytime. You do something stupid when we tell you and you get a point. You lose a point for not trying, and you get off free if you try and fail.
“For example,” he leans in closer, “Sutton went to Richmond recently. He got bet a point that he couldn’t snort two sugar packs. He made it through the first and conceded.”
“It’s a tough game. Derek [Toon] once got a point for going to a girl at a wedding and girthing her.”
“Sure, you know.” He sticks his hand under the lip of my chin and pulls. “A girth. To girth — it reminds you of your fatness without having to call you fat. We do it to each other all the time.”
I scribble intently in my notebook. After a while, they each offer me their opinion of what to write down.
“Salazar says the most intelligent things of all of us,” Sutton says.
“Like trash cans in space,” says Salazar. “Why can’t they build those? And Rhino horns — you know those are made of hair?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Well, there you go.”
“I learn something every day with this guy,” Sutton says, as he downs his drink.
On a team, in a locker room, a player gets it drilled into his mind over and over that he is a part of a team. Football is a team sport — it can’t be played alone. It’s common sense. But what people sometimes forget is that, within the teams, deeper layers exist.
They occur of their own volition, built out of a connection on the smallest level. They are students at William and Mary, and they are players on the football team; but one step further and they are offensive linemen.
And they are proud of it.
That is something only they can attest to being. It is a position label, but it is also a badge of honor. They are the guys who take the beating every Saturday, every practice, and still walk to dinner every Thursday with a skip in their rather large step.
So as long as it’s not taped.
“So, yeah, that’s pretty much what happens every week,” Hill says after most of the guys have cleared out. “Think you got some good stuff?”
I hand over my notebook.
“You wrote five pages of our random crap?”
“It’s random,” I say. “But it’s not crap.”
“You wrote my hair looks like Ellen DeGeneres,” Kearns says. “Don’t put that in. I’ll sue you for slander.”
Hill laughs, and to my relief, Kearns laughs too.
“I won’t put it in,” I say, smiling.