ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) – One of the quietest players in NFL history sure had a lot to say Thursday.
Former Denver Broncos center Tom Nalen made up for all those “no comments” during his 15-year career during an extraordinary half hour that at times showed precisely why he was wise to stay silent rather than speak his mind.
While meeting with the media to talk about his election into the team’s Ring of Fame, Nalen insisted he wasn’t a dirty player but acknowledged trying to injure San Diego Chargers defensive lineman Igor Olshansky in a game in Denver in 2006.
Nalen dived at Olshansky’s knees while his quarterback was spiking the ball in the waning seconds of a game the Chargers held on to win 35-27 on Nov. 19, 2006. Olshansky threw two punches at Nalen and was ejected. Both players were fined.
Nalen insisted it wasn’t a cheap shot but payback for what had happened on the previous play. At the time, his teammates said Olshansky had grabbed Nalen’s facemask.
Asked what was the difference between being dirty and being tough, Nalen said: “Probably penalties. You get called for it, right? No, I played clean football. I wasn’t a cut blocker, I wasn’t like those other four guys next to me. Those were the dirty ones. If you’re cut-blocking at center, you’re doing the wrong thing probably. So, I wouldn’t consider myself a dirty player.”
WEB EXTRA VIDEO: Watch Nalen’s Complete News Conference
“I know people will bring up the Igor Olshansky play in 2006,” Nalen added, “but if people would look at the play before that and realize why I did what I did – and even on that play I missed the cut – so you know definitely I wanted to blow his knee out on that play because of what happened the play before. But that, you know, is that dirty? I don’t know. It’s revenge, kind of, so.”
Too bad he wasn’t quoted more often during his playing days, someone suggested.
“I know,” Nalen concurred. “I needed to save it all. So, I can spew it out.”
Actually, Nalen’s been speaking his mind on his ESPN radio show he shares with Les Shapiro in Denver over the last several months, but this had to be the first time he was asked – and answered – 40 questions.
Except for rare exceptions during his playing career, Nalen stuck to the offensive linemen’s code of silence that was fostered by his position coach, Alex Gibbs, who recently returned to the Broncos as an offensive consultant.
Nalen said he hasn’t heard from Gibbs but can only guess what he’d think of his radio gig: “sellout, hypocrite, all that good stuff.”
The 42-year-old Nalen played 14 seasons with the Broncos, including their back-to-back Super Bowl years, before a balky knee sidelined him in 2008, after which he retired as a five-time Pro Bowl player. His 188 career starts are second-most in franchise history behind John Elway. During his career, Denver’s running backs topped 1,000 yards 11 times and the 395 sacks allowed by the Broncos during his tenure were the third-fewest in the league over that span.
His induction ceremony will be at halftime of the Broncos’ game against Philadelphia on Sept. 29, and Nalen said that while he’s thrilled to be the 24th member of the Ring of Fame, he’s dreading his acceptance speech already.
“At halftime, I’m hoping there won’t be 76,000 fans. Hopefully, they’ll be getting a beer when I’m speaking for 12 seconds or so,” he said. “I’m not looking forward to that at all, no. I think I’ll put my helmet on, I’d feel much more comfortable.”
Centers and safeties don’t tend to get bronze busts in Canton, Ohio, and Nalen isn’t counting on getting elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame anytime soon, but he said getting into the team’s Ring of Honor means more anyway.
“It comes from the team. I spent 15 years here and they felt like I was worthy of the 23 other guys that are in the Ring of Fame and that means a lot because they knew everything about me, warts and all,” Nalen said.
Asked for his secret to sticking around so long with one team, he cracked, “I had naked pictures of somebody.”
Actually, in the era of the 300-pound-plus linemen, at 280 pounds, Nalen said he was the prototype for Gibbs’ and Mike Shanahan’s zone-blocking schemes that highlighted agility and lateral movement more than raw power and bigger bodies.
Elway called Nalen “the epitome of grit, toughness and athleticism for centers.”
Nalen was stunned when team president Joe Ellis surprised him with the news of his election on his radio show Wednesday. He said he never expected to get elected – that’s why he promised so many different teammates toward the end of his career that they could introduce him if he ever made it.
“Two of my kids were old enough to watch me play and my youngest was not,” Nalen said. “My kids know what I did but this gives them some sort of tangible evidence that Daddy did his job well and was honored for it,” Nalen said. “I think it’s pretty cool. I got in my back pocket: `Daddy’s name’s going to be on the stadium, so, you know, do your damn homework.'”
Nalen also acknowledged he was intimidated by Elway, the team’s Hall of Fame quarterback who is now the Broncos’ executive vice president.
“Even his last year in `98 was my fifth year and I still couldn’t get the strength to go up and ask the guy for an autograph, I was so intimidated,” Nalen said.
Nalen said that while he hated the meetings, he still loves football and wants to coach offensive linemen in college or the pros someday. He helped out high school teams in the Denver area for four years after his playing career was over but found the Xs and Os too remedial.
He said he got no responses to any of the 50 resumes he sent out to small colleges, however.
Nalen even spoke with Elway a couple of years ago “and he said he was going to put me on a list, but that list must be pretty long,” Nalen said.
“I would like to coach football. It’s in my blood. It’s what I like to do. It’s where I’m most comfortable. But I don’t think it’s going to happen, so I’m cool with it now. I kind of resigned myself. I mean, I was putting out resumes to Division III schools that you never heard of in New England and got no reply,” Nalen said.
He said he’d love to tutor Broncos center J.D. Walton “and go out and drink beers after, too.”
On other topics, Nalen said:
-he loves talking sports because it’s a challenge and “for 3 1/2 years, I did nothing more than drive my kids around to crappy sporting events and coach high school football.”
-Pro Bowls “are pretty ridiculous … the people that know you aren’t the ones voting on you.”
-Gibbs keeps returning to football because “he just maybe he likes to torture people would be my guess.”
-he’s not worried about the effects of his numerous concussions he had during his playing days. “It would be fatalistic to think about now what could happen to me. I think if I get to 52, 53, I’ll be happy. All gravy after that. I was talking to Gary Zimmerman about that last night. It’s an interesting conversation, talking about dying, it’s good stuff, good stuff right there.”
Nalen also said this year’s Broncos remind him of the Super Bowl teams he played on that followed their upset loss to Jacksonville in 1996 when they were 13-3 and the AFC’s top seed – same as last year’s team that was beaten by Baltimore in the playoffs.
“Maybe I should hold judgment but I cannot. I really feel like they’re the best team in the NFL,” Nalen said. “And (San Francisco’s Michael) Crabtree getting hurt yesterday doesn’t hurt their (chances).”
Told he had made up for all his no-comments in one sit-down news conference, Nalen stood up, took off his microphone clip and cracked a smile.
“See,” he said. “Don’t hate me.”
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Sports Writer
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