For a young John Randle, trash-talking didn't start off as a way of intimidating an opponent or even hyping himself up. It was about simple survival. The former Minnesota Vikings defensive tackle was in only his third year in the league when he found himself across from an opposing lineman who would do anything to rile him. This opponent shoved Randle after one play, stepped on his shoe after another and called him enough names to leave Randle fuming.
It finally reached a point where Randle decided to do some extra studying before facing that player's team a second time. Instead of merely watching film to study his opponent, Randle combed through the press clippings that the Vikings' media relations staff routinely gave players. It was there that he found the ammunition that would turn his mouth into one of the most valuable weapons he had during a Hall of Fame career. "When that guy messed with me the next game, I asked him how he would feel if I came to Houston during the offseason and did the same thing to him," Randle said. "He was shocked by that response. He actually looked at me and said, 'How do you know I live in Houston?' And that's how I got started."
Randle learned the same lesson that day that all players who excel at trash-talking eventually discover. Sometimes size, strength and speed aren't the only true measures of how well an athlete can thrive in the NFL. Mind games can mean just as much, if not more, in that intensely competitive environment. If you can sneak into an opponent's head with a clever combination of words, then you're already one step ahead of the action.
The Super Bowl has seen its fair share of great trash-talkers -- from Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson to Terrell Owens to Joey Porter -- and now it will see how Seattle Seahawks Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman handles that stage in Super Bowl XLVIII. Sherman both captivated and appalled certain segments of the football-watching world in his team's NFC title game win over San Francisco, primarily by taunting 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree in the game's final seconds and then berating Crabtree again during postgame interviews. It wasn't enough for Sherman to win the game. Veteran trash-talkers sensed that Sherman already was laying the groundwork for future battles with Crabtree in the years to come.
The people who aren't routinely exposed to the relentless bluster that can be part of NFL games surely didn't appreciate Sherman's behavior. The ones who thrive with such tactics -- from former players like Chad Johnson and Bart Scott to current stars like Carolina wide receiver Steve Smith and Minnesota defensive end Jared Allen -- saw exactly where he was coming from. "I don't have a problem with his personality," said Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, whose team will be ready for the verbal jabs of Sherman and his teammates in this year's Super Bowl. "If you don't want somebody to talk, you have to give them a reason not to. That's it. He's probably going to talk anyway but at the same time, he is what he is."
"He's not reinventing anything with what he's doing," said former NFL defensive end Chuck Smith, who was a reputed trash-talker during his nine-year career with the Falcons and Panthers. "People have been talking trash for decades. It's about creating a competitive advantage because the myth in the NFL is that everybody is mentally strong. That really isn't accurate."
There really is only one unwritten rule of trash-talking: You had better have serious game if you're going to do it. As New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck said, "If you talk trash and you're sorry, it doesn't matter." It's also clear that trash-talking in football feels different than it does in other sports, most likely because players who talk trash often are one wrong word away from inciting an all-out brawl. Even though Sherman claims he wasn't goading Crabtree after the Seahawks sealed that contest with an interception by linebacker Malcolm Smith, Crabtree's reaction -- he shoved Sherman's face mask with an open hand -- suggested that things could've gotten physical in a hurry if tempers weren't harnessed.
Most trash-talkers say that is the only aspect of Sherman's behavior that crossed the line, that he shouldn't have patted Crabtree on the butt or gotten in his face in the midst of such an emotional moment. "That's the only thing I had a problem with," said CBS NFL analyst Shannon Sharpe, who also was a Hall of Fame tight end with Denver and Baltimore. "You can talk all you want but don't touch me. But with Sherman, it wasn't so much what he said, it was the reaction on social media. People in sports circles knew him but now he's on CNN, 'Good Morning America,' 'Headline News.' It's like that old adage: People like sausage but they don't want to see how it's made."
Added Randle: "When you talk trash, it can get comical. It can even get serious at times. But when the game ends, you shake hands and it's over."
What most players understand is that trash-talking isn't really about humiliating an opponent. It's about controlling minds, by any means necessary. It's a big mental victory when a guard becomes more concerned with beating up an opposing defensive lineman instead of executing his block. It's exhilarating for a receiver to know a defensive back is more concerned with laying him out than maintaining his coverage responsibilities. And we haven't even mentioned the thrill of coaxing opponents into penalties. The players who talk trash savor all those rewards and they don't waste time getting started.
When outside linebacker Joey Porter played in Pittsburgh from 1999 to 2006, he once walked into his opponents' stretching lines during pregame warm-ups, just so he could let them know exactly how he would dominate them that day. New York Giants running back Brandon Jacobs, a 6-foot-4, 264-pound chatterbox, tears into opponents from his first carry of the day. As soon as he barrels into a defender, he gets up, utters something like "Imagine how that will feel in the fourth quarter" and continues talking until the game finally ends.
Sharpe was so gifted at trash-talking that he aggravated a Hall of Fame linebacker, Kansas City's Derrick Thomas, into a full-scale meltdown during a Monday night game between the Chiefs and Broncos in 1998. Thomas was penalized for three personal fouls during Denver's final drive in that Broncos win and later received a one-game suspension from his own team. The main reason for that loss of control? Sharpe had memorized the phone number for Thomas' girlfriend and was reciting it one digit at a time at the end of the game. "Not many guys can trash-talk a guy into getting suspended by his own team," Sharpe said. "It was my finest moment."
The type of preparation that Sharpe put into that one game against Kansas City was nothing compared to how Randle approached his craft. At 6-foot-1 and 290 pounds, he believed in using any possible advantage to compensate for his lack of size. He quickly learned that talking could be the easiest way to even the playing field. Part of that lesson came from facing older players who knew how best to irritate an opponent.
Randle said Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jackie Slater once so unnerved him with his trash-talking that Randle felt compelled to spend even more time studying his opponents' personal lives. Randle memorized details about offseason surgeries, personal hobbies, even names of certain family members. "In my fifth year, I was playing against a guy who was pushing and shoving me and telling me about all the crap he was going to do to me," Randle said. "I remembered reading about how he was into cars and had rebuilt an Impala. So I started talking to him about that. It really affected him."
As Randle acknowledged, most trash-talkers know they've reached their goal when they can clearly see the frustration across the field. It might be a quarterback yelling at an offensive lineman to get back into the huddle instead of squabbling at the end of a play. It could a defensive back who wants to take an extra shot at a receiver when a pass is thrown in another direction. "I won't say any names but you know you can get into the heads of certain guys in this league," said Justin Tuck. "Those are the ones we target."
The best trash-talkers don't just choose their targets wisely. They also believe in a high-volume approach to the job. So while they may lock in on one or two players to harass per game, they're always keeping their eyes open for other possible candidates. Size, experience or accomplishments rarely factor into such formulations.
When Chuck Smith played for the Atlanta Falcons, he made a point of aggravating a young offensive tackle for the St. Louis Rams, seven-time Pro Bowler Orlando Pace. Smith's taunting eventually bothered Pace early in his career, so much so that Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce devoted ample time to trash-talking Smith to defend his teammate. Smith also was on the field toward the end of Atlanta's 1998 NFC Championship Game win over the highly favored Minnesota Vikings. As Vikings kicker Gary Anderson lined up for a field goal that would've sealed that win for Minnesota in regulation, Smith and his teammates reminded him of how much history would swing on that kick. It's impossible to know if Anderson's miss was directly related to that bluster, but Smith doesn't mind taking credit for that today.
Smith is just as candid when talking about other players who wilted when hearing too much smack. "We always knew we could get to [quarterback] Kerry Collins when he played in Carolina at the start of his career," Smith said. "I rolled into his knee once and I told him we'd be coming like that all day. He wouldn't even look at me after that."
There really are only two ways to silence a trash-talker. One is to win. The other is to not engage him. Smith spent years trying to aggravate Hall of Fame offensive tackle Willie Roaf -- they faced off twice a year for seven seasons when Roaf was playing in New Orleans -- and that never worked out. Smith would talk smack after plays. He'd nudge Roaf when he was walking back to the huddle. Every time the stoic Roaf would shrug it off and line up to go right back at his nemesis.
"The only time I talk is when it's in retaliation to something that's been said to me," said Tuck. "Usually it's when somebody says something to one of my teammates. But you really don't see offensive linemen talking that much. Plus, when it's done to me, it doesn't get me out of my game. I tend to play better when somebody is doing it."
One of the subplots of this year's Super Bowl will be how the Broncos' wide receivers deal with the trash-talking that has defined Sherman and his brash teammates in the Seahawks' secondary. Sherman already has dialed back his talking since Seattle's arrival in New Jersey -- "You can't say crazy stuff on a regular basis so I don't think being at the Super Bowl makes it any different," he said during his first news conference -- and the Denver receivers don't seem interested in running their mouths, either.
"We've got to play 60 minutes of football and I think we're pretty humble about it," said Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker. "Not to say or take away from anyone else, but I just think no one on our team really has … that ability. I think you're trying to catch your breath instead of talking because Peyton [Manning] goes so fast. You just get to the line and get ready for the next play."
Still, it's likely that some words -- and glares -- will be exchanged once Sunday arrives. There's simply too much at stake for any gifted trash-talker to stay silent. "Football is an intense game," Randle said. "You get so intense playing it that there really is nothing like it. When you're out there, you see guys become totally different people. It might be hard for some people to see that part of it but it's a tough game. And when you find something you can take advantage of, you do it."