I’ve always been fascinated by the phrase “cerebral linebacker.” The definition of cerebral is: “intellectual rather than emotional or physical.” How can you take the emotion and physicality out of being, say, a middle linebacker? You can’t. You wouldn’t. So “cerebral linebacker” sounds something like an oxymoron, like jumbo shrimp or buffalo wings or even odds or forward lateral.
And yet there’s no doubt that a great middle linebacker has to be cerebral, has to constantly do intellectual things like recognize patterns and make split-second decisions and be a mathematician calculating the geometry of football. You will sometimes hear a middle linebacker called the “quarterback of the defense,” but the comparison is imprecise. Quarterbacks know the play. Middle linebackers do not. It’s the difference between action and reaction, between repetition and reflex.
It reminds of that old line about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers … that she would do everything he did only going backward (and in heels).
In any case, it isn’t the clash of ideas that makes me fascinated by cerebral linebackers. No, it’s the question of who gets called a cerebral linebacker … and who doesn’t. Nobody called Dick Butkus a cerebral linebacker. Nobody called Jack Lambert a cerebral linebacker. Nobody called Ray Nitschke a cerebral linebacker. I don’t recall many calling Ray Lewis a cerebral linebacker.
No, the words that were thrown around about them were fearsome and menacing and terrifying and mean and unnerving. Lambert was called “Dracula.” Nitschke was called “the Wildman.” Butkus was called many things, including “the Maestro of Mayhem.” Mike Singletary was called “Samurai Mike.”
But among the great ones, Willie Lanier and Bobby Wagner are so often called “cerebral.”
I can’t tell if that’s a compliment or not. On the one hand, how could it not be a compliment — it speaks to just how intelligent that are as football players. And there’s no question that they both have brilliant football minds. It’s also true that they both have brilliant minds, period, and each has had great success and accomplishments off the field.
And yet — cerebral linebacker? It sounds like they’re out there playing football in tweed jackets with patches on their sleeves.
Lanier hit so hard that his nickname was “contact.”
Wagner has made 100 more tackles than any player in the NFL since he came into the league in 2012.
No patches on their jackets.
Maybe it comes down to them both having to constantly prove people wrong throughout their lives. Or maybe it’s simply that Lanier and Wagner were not always the most OBVIOUS players on the field, the way Butkus and Lambert and Lewis were. In the days before Bobby Wagner was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, a writer named Kip Earlywine blogged the most interesting thought about him. Wagner was a superstar at Utah State. As a prospect, Earlywine listed these as his positives:
Nose for football.
Effective in man coverage.
No major glaring flaws.
All that seems pretty good; I’m not sure what else you want from a guy.
And in the negatives, he wrote this:
“Boring tape — would struggle to fill a highlight reel.”
Of course, in his NFL career, Wagner has made many, many highlight plays. Lanier hit every bit as hard as Butkus. But they didn’t make a big deal about any of it. Maybe that’s what a “cerebral linebacker” is — someone who does the job without making a fuss.
I mentioned the doubts. The doubts surrounding Wagner shifted and varied through the years. In high school, he was too small and too slow. Wagner did not actually begin playing football seriously until his junior year at Colony High in Ontario, Calif., 37 miles west of Los Angeles on the 10.
No, Wagner had every intention of being a basketball player. He imagined himself growing to be 6-foot-7 and dominating the game in every way, not unlike a forward from nearby Martin Luther King High named Kawhi Leonard. Unfortunately, Wagner stopped growing vertically, and by his junior year — the year he matched up with Leonard in a game — he realized that football was his ticket.
And he was a productive football player right from the start — a linebacker who made all the tackles, a tight end who caught touchdown passes. And nobody cared because at the time he was barely 5-foot-10, maybe 190 pounds, didn’t display great speed. He went to a camp at USC and was hoping to be noticed by the coach there, Pete Carroll.
He wasn’t noticed by Carroll. He wasn’t noticed by anybody.
One school offered him a scholarship — Utah State — and that was only because his head coach was a one-man missionary on his behalf.
Then, at Utah State, Wagner more or less made every tackle. This is only a slight exaggeration. He was credited with 147 tackles his senior year, and he was named WAC defensive player of the year. Then he went to the Senior Bowl and made seven tackles and an interception and was named the game’s most valuable player.
And by then, he had bulked up — he was now 6-foot, 240 pounds, which might be slightly undersized but only slightly — and he was blazing fast. At Utah State’s pro day*, he ran a stunning 4.46 40-yard dash, the fastest of any linebacker in the draft.
*Wagner did not run this time at the combine; he had pneumonia and sat it out.
But just as he seemed to answer all the questions … the questions simply changed. Now, scouts wondered if he was physical enough, ferocious enough, aggressive enough to play middle linebacker in the NFL. You saw that “boring tape” scouting report; there were a lot of those. Legendary personnel guru Gil Brandt thought he might be a better fit as an outside linebacker, where teams could take advantage of his speed and not have to rely on him to shut down opposing teams’ running games.
Some people are just destined to be underestimated.
The Seahawks took him in the second round of the 2012 draft … and even on that day, he was overshadowed by the Seahawks’ third-round pick, a quarterback named Russell Wilson. But Wagner became the Seahawks’ starting middle linebacker right away and led the team with 140 tackles as a rookie.
Even that, he did so quietly that hardly anybody noticed him. He tells a story of trying to call plays in the huddle for the first time and having veteran teammates like Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas all but ignore him.
“They didn’t even know what I was saying,” Wagner would say. “They just said I had no neck.”
He would always be the quietest member of the Legion of Boom. But all the guy does is make plays. He has been the center of a defense that allowed the fewest points in the NFL every single year from 2012 through 2015.
Pro Football Focus has repeatedly ranked him as one of the best tacklers in football, one of the best coverage linebackers in football, one of the best run defenders in football, and one of the best linebackers at pressuring a quarterback in football. I’m not sure what more a middle linebacker can do. He has been first-team All-Pro six times in the last seven years; that’s as many All-Pro honors as Lambert, one more than Butkus, just one fewer than Lewis.
And yet, you get the sense, only people who watch him every single game fully appreciate just how good he is. It has always been like that for him. I imagine that you might be surprised to find him on this list. But it shouldn’t be a surprise. Just a couple of weeks ago, he had 20 tackles in a game against Tennessee. It was the most tackles by any player since Wagner had 19 tackles in a game against New Orleans in 2019.
He hated both of those games because the Seahawks lost them both; he doesn’t want to have to make every single tackle because that means that his teammates are not making plays. Wagner is really at his best — like all the great middle linebackers — when everybody is flowing to the ball, when guys are forcing fumbles, when quarterbacks have run out of ideas. He’s had plenty of those games with the great Seahawks defenses he has led.
But, yes, he will make every tackle if he has to.
You can’t really talk about Wagner without talking about what a force he has become off the field. He has been so successful in business that Forbes put him on their prestigious “30 Under 30 Sports” list. He also has been one of the most outspoken and elegant athletes on social justice, admitting that he’s “hurting and pissed off” about race relations in America and believes that the key moving forward is “teaching the truth.”
When you hear him talk so eloquently about big things, you get the cerebral linebacker tag. And it might make you miss the fact that he’s also a masher.
“Willie was the best of us,” the great Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Bobby Bell says of his teammate and friend Willie Lanier. “By that, I mean, he made ALL OF US better. He allowed us to take risks, make mistakes, to try something that wasn’t in the plans. Because we always knew that he’d be there to clean things up.”
There are so many layers to racism. This is part of the reason why it’s so hard to conquer. In baseball, we rightfully celebrate Jackie Robinson for being the first to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. His number 42 is retired across baseball. We celebrate a special day for him every year. There have been movies made.
This is exactly as it should be … except for this: There have been a lot of Jackie Robinsons in baseball.
That is to say that there were many firsts, and each one had to endure the pains of being a pioneer. Larry Doby was the first African-American player in the American League. Minnie Miñoso was the first dark-skinned player in Chicago. Elston Howard was the first Black player for the Yankees. You can do this for every team. And then, Dan Bankhead was the first Black pitcher in MLB, Roy Campanella was the first Black catcher in MLB, Don Newcombe was the first Black pitcher to win a Cy Young Award, Buck O’Neil was the first Black coach in MLB, Frank Robinson was the first Black manager in MLB, on and on and on, every step forward only grudgingly allowed.
There isn’t the same clear dividing line in pro football like there is in baseball — no “before Jackie and after Jackie” overriding theme — in part, because college football was bigger than pro football in the first half of the 20th century and there were numerous African-American college superstars dating back to Paul Robeson in the late 1910s. Heck, Jackie Robinson himself was a nationally renowned football star before he was a baseball star.
There were also some great black pro football players in the rough and tumble early days of the NFL, such as Fritz Pollard and Duke Slater, a name that might come up again. The Cleveland Browns featured two great Black players — Hall of Famers Bill Willis and Marion Motley — before Robinson ever took the field for the Dodgers. Around the same time, the Los Angeles Rams signed Kenny Washington and Woody Strode. Football integration was more active in those early years than baseball integration.
But this is not to say that Black pioneers in football had it any easier than in baseball; they did not. They had to endure the same sharp stabs of racism. And there were still a million ceilings to break through, even as the years went on. Someone had to be the first, well, everything. The first Black player. The first Black center. The first Black quarterback. First assistant coach. First head coach. First GM.
Willie Lanier broke through one of those ceilings.
He was the first prominent Black middle linebacker in the NFL.
Lanier played his college football at Morgan State, a historically Black college in Baltimore. He was a star there, a two-time small college All-American. In the 1966 Tangerine Bowl, he played offensive guard and linebacker and was apparently legendary; nobody ever counted the number of tackles he made, but one observer claimed it had to be at least 30.
Chiefs coach Hank Stram was desperate for defensive help in 1967. The Chiefs’ defense had been manhandled by the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl I and the linebacking corps, with the exception of Bobby Bell, was old and beat up.
Early in the second round, Stram took the most famous college defensive player in America, middle linebacker Jim Lynch, who had captained national champion Notre Dame and had won the Maxwell Award, which is sort of an alternative Heisman Trophy.
Three picks later, even though Stram had never talked to him or seen him play, the Chiefs took the advice of a part-time scout named Frank Barnes and drafted Willie Lanier.
“We don’t particularly care what color he is,” Stram would say. “What nationality. What anything. The only concern we have is bringing him in with the idea of competing for our squad.”
There had not been a Black middle linebacker in pro football. It was a position for Bill George and Joe Schmidt and Sam Huff and Nitschke and Butkus; pro football people simply could not imagine what a Black middle linebacker would look like. And what happened next has become Kansas City football lore — Lynch went to play in the College All-Star Game and missed a couple of weeks of training camp.
By the time he got back, Lanier was the Chiefs’ middle linebacker.* He would be for the next 11 years. He was that good.
*Lynch would go on to have a fine career with the Chiefs playing outside linebacker for a decade.
It was well understood by Lanier and everyone else that he was breaking new ground as a Black middle linebacker. He carried that banner proudly. “I wanted to PROVE I could play the position and become All-Pro,” he would say. “I wanted to PROVE I could be a leader on and off the field. … It wasn’t enough for me to be good. I had to play well enough to knock down the myths.”
He knocked down all the myths. The Chiefs’ defenses from his rookie season in 1967 through 1971 were legendary. The 1969 defense featured SIX Hall of Famers — Lanier, Bell, Buck Buchanan, Johnny Robinson, Emmitt Thomas and Curley Culp — and there was never any doubt that the leader was the 24-year-old Lanier.
“He was as smart as any player I ever played against,” Bill Curry says. “He would play mind games with you. I remember one game, it’s 97 degrees out there, and he’s just eating us alive. We can’t block him. And at one point we’re at the bottom of a pile, and he says, ‘Bill, I’m so tired, I don’t think I have anything left.’ And I was like, ‘Don’t give me that, you’ve never been tired in your whole life.’
“Then, next play, he’s coming at us as hard as ever. “
Lanier was a great coverage linebacker. He made 27 interceptions in his career, which was among the most ever for an inside linebacker when he retired in 1977. But his greatest strength was probably the way he came up the middle and crushed running backs. He had an almost mystical sense for where the ball was going.
“Going up the middle against Willie,” Hall of Famer Floyd Little told NFL Films, “it was almost impossible.”
More than once, I have been lucky enough to sit down and just talk football with Willie Lanier; he is one of the more impressive people in sports I’ve ever talked with. He just has this presence about him, a presence that undoubtedly inspired teammates to follow him. After 1971, the Chiefs declined pretty rapidly — they would make the playoffs just once over the next 18 years.
But Lanier never stopped being a force on the field. He probably had his best year in 1973, and he kept making plays even though he was the guy offenses targeted with multiple blockers after his great teammates retired. One thing he has often told me is that he really loved it.
“I wonder,” he says, “if players today have as much fun as we did. They make more money. They get more opportunities. But fun? We had fun.”