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One by one, the guys with the oysters began to arrive.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had invited the entire Green Bay Packers offensive line to the Kentucky Derby, which had included a dinner out in Louisville. As each oyster bucket slammed on the table, young Green Bay center JC Tretter grew even more saddened by his misunderstood appetizer.
“Aaron was like, ‘Have you ordered 12 dozen oyster Rockefellers !?'” Reminded Tretter, now NFLPA president and Cleveland Brown’s starting center. “And I was like, ‘No, I just ordered 12 of them!'”
When the Packers tackled David Bakhtiari returning from the bathroom, he heard someone in the kitchen yelling, “Who the hell thought they ordered 144 oysters Rockefellers !?”
To Tretter’s relief, the restaurant followed the order. And the Packers line devoured all the oysters they could muster.
Around the NFL, offensive line dinners are legendary for their orders that are larger than life. But they are more than Herculean feats with plate cleaning. Linemen dinners have long been the unifying force that binds the big boys up front.
“A time for linemen to be linemen,” said Brown’s Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio. “We enjoy good food and have fun, and that’s the special part of it.”
Produces tighter devices off the field. And in turn often better at it.
“It’s a time of community[ting] brotherhood together, “said the New Orleans Saints All-Pro tackle Terron Armstead.” Just a great time to get away from football, talk about everything else, learn more about each other, eat good food. “
That’s why they were so missed last season, as protocols from the COVID-19 pandemic virtually eliminated player collections outside the team’s facilities.
“Last year we were not near each other, not in meeting rooms and especially not at dinner,” Bitonio said. “We could not even leave our hotels on the way [trips]. And the dinner, that’s where you really commit, you learn about your teammates.
“So not having them was great. We’m really looking forward to getting them back.”
These protocols have since been relaxed for vaccinated players, and around the league, linemen dinners have begun to return, with spreads as large as ever.
In Pittsburgh, they began reemerging during OTAs this spring.
For nearly a decade, Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey hosted their weekly gatherings at his home, serving food from local steakhouses. To retired guard Ramon Foster, who said the Steelers tradition dates back two decades, the dinners were a valued part of the week, the kickoff for the game weekend festivities.
“I actually drove through a snow and ice storm where trees fell down,” said Foster, who retired in 2020. “It was not one of those things to be there, but to be there.”
– Zach Banner (@ZBNFL) June 16, 2021
As Pouncey also retires, tackle Zach Banner has taken the mantle to host a renewed Steelers offensive line. His first dinner prepared by a local chef included breast, potato salad, cornbread and a toasted pork head, which in this case was for garnish only.
“We have a lot more beginner-level conversations, but it’s really just getting to know each other,” Banner said. “We need that community.”
Pittsburgh’s offensive line is hardly alone.
“It really is what you feel like and what you enjoy most about this business – your teammates and that environment. And it was kind of taken away last year, so it was really hard,” said Tretter, who as an NFLPA – President was part of negotiations that reduce restrictions on vaccinated players this year, opening the door for linemen dinners to resume. “Guys will not ever experience losing it.”
Each offensive dinner has its own individual rules and traditions, including who picks up the tab, which can cost anywhere from $ 1,500 to $ 2,000, excluding alcohol.
In Baltimore, the guys with the biggest contracts usually pay. Currently, it’s tackle Ronnie Stanley; before that, former raven guards Marshal Yanda would do the same.
The Bengals, on the other hand, rotate with veteran tackle Riley Reiff, who signed with the team in free agency, and took the bill at a Brazilian steakhouse in August, Cincinnati’s first offensive linemen’s dinner since the 2019 season. The Saints have a similar system.
“Everyone has to take their turn, so the rich guys usually do two,” said Saints backup center Will Clapp, who joked that the All-Pro tackled Ryan Ramczyk – with his new $ 96 million deal – now may have to pick up three .
The New England Patriots, meanwhile, are among the teams that enjoy playing credit card roulette.
“Everyone puts their cards in a hat,” tackle Isaiah Wynn said. “The first card chosen is the one that has to pay for it. … you can only imagine with the whole O-line there, it’s going to be pretty expensive.”
Some teams have introduced even more creative means of payment.
“We had a kangaroo fine system during the season where pretty much everything you did got you a fine,” former Brown All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas said. “So you raised that money at the end of the year and went to a nice dinner. Whatever was left over, you donated to a local charity.”
Praising your own block during a movie session was a fine. Rookies who were “super annoying” also resulted in a fine.
“We came up with fines wildly,” said Thomas, noting that the pots sometimes reached $ 20,000. “We would write them up on the whiteboard all year so you could see what all the ends were and the penalty for each violation.”
However, credit card roulette itself can be punishable. Former Browns guard Eric Kush taught it the hard way before a preseason game in Indianapolis two years ago.
“Nobody drank because we were playing the next day, so it was an easy bill to accept – like, ‘Don’t worry guys, I got it,'” Bitonio said. us play credit card roulette! ‘ And I was like, ‘Okay, I do not want to fight you on that one.’
“Eric ended up getting stuck with the bill, and I think that was the most angry thing I’ve ever seen him do – he was like, ‘Just let him pay for it next time!'”
When the drink starts, the damage can be far greater.
“Once me and [former Cleveland guard] John Greco pressed peers on each other to keep ordering nicer and nicer bourbons, “Thomas remembered. [former Browns tackle] Mitchell Schwartz was really careful not to order anything too expensive because he was so afraid he would lose the credit card roulette. I think I ordered chicken breast myself.
“But he still ended up losing and had to pay our $ 500 bourbon banner – and he doesn’t even drink. He’s still mad about it to this day.”
‘Bring us everything!’
While every linemen dinner is different, a strategy is always the same.
“The real art is planning it properly,” Bitonio said. “If you have weigh-ins on Friday, you can’t make a line dinner on Thursday because you get a couple of guys overturning the weight.”
That’s why the Steelers, who have weights Thursday morning, are holding their dinners that night.
“No matter how devastating you are later that night,” Banner said, “you have seven days to get it right.”
And when it comes to eating out, linemen can be pretty destructive.
“My favorite part is that when you eat with a bunch of big guys, you have the option to order any appetizer on the menu,” said Bitonio, who loves when local restaurants bring items off the menu. “You get to try different things. ‘Bring us everything!’ And usually the food is completely eaten, that’s the crazy part. “
For the Patriots, nothing seemed crazier than watching former teammate Marcus Cannon, now a tackle with the Houston Texans, eat a whole pig’s head by himself.
At Pittsburgh’s dinners, Alejandro Villanueva, now with Baltimore, tackled lots of laughter as he raised his plate high with overlapping foods: breast on top of chicken on top of mac and cheese on top of green beans with barbecue sauce dripped over the mound.
In New Orleans, Armstead said their eating was previously out of control before they jointly became more health-conscious in recent years.
“Mayhem,” he said of the past, “cheese sticks everywhere.
“Now it’s a little more thoughtful.”
Among the most legendary “gluttonous feasts,” as the Saints put it, came at the expense of Roger Allen, a 2010 training team guard.
“Roger had this habit of ordering two meals, which we all found offensive because we ordered so many appetizers that most guys would not eat a meal,” said former New Orleans lineman Zach Strief, now line coach for the Saints. “It’s every appetizer on the menu six times, it’s ridiculous. So Roger would always order two meals and he would never finish two meals. We say, ‘What are you doing?’ So Roger tells us, ‘What are you talking about? I eat everything anyone ever puts in front of me, there are no limits to what I can eat.’ “
The Saints’ offensive line would later test it, with Strief pre-ordering Allen a 100 ounce ribeye.
“Now he’s on the corner because of what he said,” Strief continued. “So Roger goes to town and finishes that steak. He looks miserable.
“Then he leans back in his chair and a button on his shirt pops up across the table. That’s a true story.”
Feeding team chemistry
Although dinner is for linebackers, quarterbacks are usually welcome. Especially when they offer to pay.
Drew Brees wanted to court the holy linemen and regal them with stories. Foster recalls that Ben Roethlisberger showed up for linemen’s dinners when they were kept on guard Chris Kemoeatu’s residence in rental housing in Pittsburgh’s Southside. He regularly played cards with the lines and other players looking past.
Another Pittsburgh quarterback, though one on the other side of the indoor training facility the Steelers share with the University of Pittsburgh, is also linked with his linemen – and he’s even picked up the flag.
Panthers QB Kenny Pickett took advantage of college football’s new NIL rules so his offensive line could enjoy a weekly pig dinner with him – at home.
“Having the opportunity to take care of them and get to spend more time with them,” Pickett told ESPN last month, “means a lot.”
While other college quarterbacks certainly follow Pickett’s lead, Thomas noted that linemen’s dinners are more important to the pros.
“In college, you go out with your friends after games to the bars and stuff like that,” Thomas said. “In the NFL you really do not do that. You are more tired, your body is far more beaten. The last thing you want to do is stand around at a bar. In the NFL, linemen’s dinners replace it. It really is the only time outside the facility. , that you get to see guys and get to know them on a personal level.
“It means we care a little more about their well-being on the pitch and want to see them succeed, and typically as an offensive lineman as you go, we all go. It makes the group tighter. Tighter teams, tighter offensive lines, they usually work better. “
Foster swears by it, suggesting that team chemistry in Pittsburgh over the years always comes from the forefront.
“The O-line is going to stick together,” he said, “and that group will get everyone else tight.”
To develop this density. While loosening the straps.
“Being closer to each other is an intangible thing,” Tretter said. “You can not measure it.”
Ben Baby, Jamison Hensley and Mike Reiss and Mike Triplett contributed to this story