CFL players know there is one rule when they battle for a loose ball under a big pile of bodies - no biting.
Now, it should be understood that the no-biting clause is there simply because you can't actually do it, since those masks on the front make it impossible.
However, scratching, clawing, yelling, bending fingers or going for something a little lower than that are all part of the game during those long seconds it takes the officials to arrive and work out what team has the ball.
Turnovers, you see, are too important to the outcome of games for civility to predominate. Consider also that it takes up to 10 seconds for the referees to get in there, pull the top guys off the pile and peer at what's gone on underneath.
"It's very vicious under there," says Nik Lewis, the Calgary Stampeders' receiver who is one of the league's strongest men. "You have to get the ball and you have guys willing to do pretty much anything to get it.
"They will pull your fingers to get your fingers off the ball, pull on your arm, or do anything to distract you from holding on to that ball."
J.C. Sherritt, the Edmonton linebacker who leads the league in tackles despite being in only his second season, was a little embarrassed at first to say what goes on down under, but when encouraged he told much the same tale.
"You get the people with the little bend of the arms [including the good old arm bar, so helpful], and going for the private regions and things like that," he says, pointing out that the CFL isn't quite as rough as, say, in Pop Warner, where the 10-year-olds would do anything they could think of.
"When I was a little kid, that's some of the worst ones I've been in," he says, laughing. "We watched TV, we saw The Program, and the football movies, where those things happen."
Now it's a little more civilized. Sort of.
"Definitely, through the years I've played there are players who will go to a whole new level, so you have to get out of there as fast as you can."Get up
Sherritt is a firm believer that when you get your hands on a fumble, the easiest way to hang onto it is to stand up as quickly as possible. Hanging around on the ground is bad news.
Game officials have a system for sorting out those piles. While the other refs are pulling the top level off, the umpire dives right in, tries to match the arm that holds the ball with the colour of a sweater and makes a decision.
If it's just a bunch of arms, you grab the one you think has the ball, hold onto it and wait for the pile to separate to see who it's attached to.
Best way is to identify who had the ball before the pile up happened and that's who gets it afterward. A darn tough thing to do, by the way.
Lewis agrees that of all the plays in football, this is one that really pits one man's strength against another, and the stakes, he says, are huge.
"You think of it ... if it's a fumble, one guy has messed up," he says, over the phone after practice. "He's trying to correct his mistake. And the other guy is trying to capitalize and make a big play for his team, so there's great incentive for both players."Under the pile
So under the pile you go. Sorry is the man who comes back out of it sans football.
"You don't want to be the guy who fumbled the ball and let that be the turning point of a game," Lewis says. "And you don't want to be the guy who could have had that opportunity to change the outlook of the game.
"Maybe that gives [a team] the spark, or maybe it closes out a game."
Nothing worse than going back to the bench without the ball.
Receivers seem to have much stronger hands, fingers, wrists and forearms than they used to, and that's purposeful, though not just for fumbles.
"It's vital," said Lewis. "Because that's also what it takes to catch the ball - the quarterbacks they have powerful arms and you have to have strong wrists and forearms to be able to catch the ball."
Keeping that ball, however, comes down to timing, of a sort.
"You hope they just clear the pile as fast as possible because you don't know how long you're going to be at the bottom of the pile," Lewis said.
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