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Five minutes with a legend: Willie Lanier

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Mike Beacom
Contributing writer

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Posted Oct. 28, 2011 @ 12:11 p.m. ET
By Mike Beacom

Hall of Famer Willie Lanier was one of the sharpest, hardest-hitting middle linebackers to roam the field in the 1960s and '70s. He hit ballcarriers so hard that some believed his odd-looking helmet, with added exterior padding, was designed to protect opposing players from his wrath — an "urban legend," Lanier says.

The centerpiece to one of the era's most dominant defenses — and one of the game's all-time great linebacking corps, with Bobby Bell and Jim Lynch — Lanier was a leader for Hank Stram's Chiefs during their 1969-70 playoff run, first knocking off the defending Super Bowl-champion Jets, then the Raiders, and finally the Vikings in Super Bowl IV.

Lanier was named to eight consecutive Pro Bowls (1968-75), in part due to his ability to make plays; in 11 NFL seasons he collected 45 turnovers (27 interceptions, 18 fumble recoveries). In 1972, Lanier became the first defender to be named NFL Man of the Year (now the Walter Payton Man of the Year award), and in 1986 he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

On the Chiefs' legendary goal-line stand against the Jets in the 1969-70 divisional playoff game …

The Jets hadn't earned the 1st-and-goal at the one because it was a defensive penalty on CB Emmitt Thomas (that got them there). I was just trying to make a point (to my teammates) that (the Jets) were going to have to earn those 36 inches that the whole season, whole year came down to, and that we weren't conceding anything — they'd have to earn it.

But the reality is that words without actions don't mean a whole lot.

It was also a seminal moment for the Jets. It was 6-3, everyone knew it would be low-scoring game, and a touchdown could be a big shift in the outcome of that game. I decided that being offside only goes from 1st-and-goal at the one to 1st-and-goal at the half-yard line, so I only have a 50 percent penalty. If the Jets are in motion or illegal movement, they go from the one to the (six) — a 500 percent penalty.

I decided that if they did not go on first sound, that I'd already be in motion toward the gap between the center-guard hole … so before the offensive linemen could get out of their stance — and they went on the second sound — I was right in position to turn sideways and step between them. Then it was 2nd-and-goal from the one-and-three-quarter line. From that point, everyone realized we really did have a chance to stop them, and the rest ensued after that.

The running back he had the most difficulty with during his career …

There were many men I respected, but I'm who I am — I could make plays on anybody. I enjoyed the great players. (O.J.) Simpson was a great player. Played against (Walter) Payton once — my last year, (one of) his first. But there was no one that was difficult.

On learning how to tackle properly …

My nickname my first year was "Contact." My nickname for my last 10 years I played when I made Pro Bowls and never missed a game or had a concussion, was "Honey Bear." My tackling style became one more of upper body, wrapping up, making sure the head did not impact anyone … I changed my entire game based on physics.

I'm 66 years of age and I do not have any issues. No deficits, no pain, nothing that's affected me physically from playing that game. And that came from having a better understanding of how you actually play it to make it work for you, and not take things from you. That's something I'm proud of — because I understood how to do it and walk away from it and have no issues from it.

On continuing to be an active voice for the NFL and its former players …

I've been on committees with (Paul) Tagliabue while he was there, and with Roger (Goodell). I'm on the (NFL Player Care) Foundation board that started four years ago, providing funding for the needs of former players. I'm on the board of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, on the safety panel for the NFL that John Madden and Ronnie Lott chair.

I think it's important to have those who've been there and done that offering their insight into the way the game is being played today to better it for tomorrow. And the efforts of the league under both Paul and Roger have been extremely beneficial and valuable for those who've played the game. Now, others have different views from where they sit, but from my vantage point I've enjoyed having a voice in the midst of the discussion that can be helpful to others.

Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mbeac

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