You never know what's going to happen next with these guys. At any time, in the middle of practice, a comedy skit is liable to break out.
Normal is not a word you would use to describe the Baltimore CFLs' offensive linemen -- not unless you consider a forward roll into a karate stance at the line of scrimmage normal behavior.
No, these guys -- tackles Neal Fort and Shar Pourdanesh, guards Keith Ballard, John and Guy Earle, and center Nick Subis -- transcend the nameless, faceless mob who populate offensive lines throughout football. Just ask the back who runs to the daylight they create.
"It's like they watch cartoons and come out to practice and act out what they saw on TV," Mike Pringle said yesterday in equal parts awe and fascination.
Pringle can't always believe what he sees or hears on the field -- one game, Fort led him around end on a counter-trap play, shouting, "C'mon, Mike, let's go to the end zone!"
But he knows where his help is coming from. Pringle goes into tomorrow's Eastern Division showdown against Winnipeg with a 409-yard rushing lead over the Blue Bombers' Blaise Bryant.
With two games left and 1,692 yards, Pringle is a lock to win the Canadian Football League rushing title. He's on pace to break the CFL's single-season rushing record, and is the Eastern favorite for Most Outstanding Player.
His blocking buddies? "Any success I have," Pringle said, "I owe all to them."
To appreciate what this young -- average age 25 -- offensive line has done this year, look at the stat sheet. In addition to generating the top rushing attack (151 yards per game) in a passing league, it has given up the second fewest sacks (21). Only Calgary's line, with 18, has given up fewer.
All this for a group of guys drawn together from distant points of the country six months ago.
"It'd be a very credible thing for a group that's played together awhile [to put up those numbers]," said Steve Buratto, Baltimore's offensive coordinator and perhaps the league's best line coach.
"It's almost unheard of for a new group. Rarely has a team had the leading rusher and the fewest sacks."
How did it happen?
They didn't all arrive at the same time, but they all passed through NFL camps. Pourdanesh was cut by the Cleveland Browns a year ago, Fort by the Atlanta Falcons and Ballard by the New England Patriots. All three signed with Baltimore in March.
"All the guys are from NFL camps," said Guy Earle. "That's a lot of talent."
Said John Earle: "The coaches put the right talent on the field, and Coach Buratto presses all the right buttons."
Size played a role, too. It's a line that averages 300 pounds across, topped off by the towering Fort, who is 6 feet 7 and 340. Despite that bulk, Buratto calls Fort "one of the most athletic big men I've ever been around."
At the other end of the scale is Subis at 280 pounds. The starting guards, John Earle and Ballard, go 300 apiece.
So they have talent and size, if not a wealth of CFL experience. But Fort said the switch from American line play to Canadian line play is probably the least problematic of any position.
That leaves attitude. And these guys have an attitude you can't miss.
"They love living," said Buratto. "They really enjoy what they're doing."
None, perhaps, more than Fort.
"If I want to make it stressful, I could," he said. "We try to make it fun for everybody. It's supposed to be fun."
At least under coach Don Matthews it is. Matthews will happily abide free spirits -- as long as they're productive free spirits.
Pourdanesh said his first big test came on "Hat Day" before the season opener at Toronto. Matthews has a rule that players must wear hats -- any kind -- to practice the day before a game. In Toronto on July 6, Pourdanesh put a jock strap on his head and waited anxiously for the response.
"He looks at me and says, 'That's a hat,' " Pourdanesh said, getting the nod of approval. "Since then, it's been an evolution."
Pourdanesh, a 24-year-old Iranian native, is the ringleader of the free-spirited linemen. He has been nicknamed "Abu," after the cartoon monkey in the film "Aladdin."
He also has been known to tackle Buratto smack in the middle of practice. And most of the stunts the linemen pull are his idea.
"There's never a dull moment," Subis said.
The pay may be low in the CFL, but camaraderie like that is hard to beat, even by NFL standards.
"I don't think I could deal with going back [to the NFL]," Ballard said.
They play for love, not money, in this league. And pride in accomplishing.
"I blocked for a Heisman Trophy winner [Ty Detmer]," said Fort, from BYU. "That's my joy in life. Mike's having a great year now and that's my satisfaction. That's why we do these things -- we love the game. We do the best we can. If I have to be a clown, I'll
be a clown."
A LINE OF CREDIT
The six starting offensive linemen responsible for the success of Baltimore CFLs running back Mike Pringle:
No. Player, Pos., Age, Ht., Wt., College, Yr.
Neal Fort, T, 26, 6-7, 340, Brigham Young, R
60 Guy Earle, G, 26, 6-4, 290, Chadron State, R
63 John Earle, G, 26, 6-5, 300, Western Illinois, R
51 Nick Subis, C, 26, 6-5, 280, San Diego State, 2
68 Shar Pourdanesh, T, 24, 6-6, 290, Nevada-Reno, R
62 Keith Ballard, G, 23, 6-4, 300, Minnesota, R
BEASTS OF THE CFL EAST
Winnipeg VS. Baltimore
Site: Memorial Stadium
When: Saturday, 2p.m.
Radio: WJFK (1300 AM)