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The Human Grenade

Jason Short may be your new favorite player -- if he can make the Browns.


They describe him with words that a young, violent man might secretly appreciate: He's an assassin, a grenade, they say. A reckless kamikaze.

But Jason Short makes his living playing football, a game of plotted precision, where even improvisation is diagrammed. Recklessness may be its ultimate sin.

So with training camp a month away, Browns coaches must decide what to do with the man known as "Full Throttle." In years past, placing him at linebacker was a risky proposition. When your urge to hit people is so strong that you often abandon your post, there's no room for you in a coordinator's scheme, which relies on 11 men who will solemnly swear on their playbooks.

But then there are kickoffs -- those 22 car pile-ups that often decide games. This is where a human mortar round serves a valuable purpose. In fact, they're the only reason Short's in the league.

If all goes as planned, Short will line up this fall in the middle of Browns Stadium, next to the kicker. That's where the wedge-buster goes, the man responsible for detonating the beefy phalanx of soldiers who protect the Dante Halls of the world.

The fans won't notice Short. They'll be summoning the beer man, hustling back from a final smoke break, perhaps picking up the ball as it floats across the burnt-orange horizon. They won't see Short, but he'll be there, tearing down the field with radar-lock on that wedge.

In the stands, his dad and brother and wife will hold their breath. They'll have driven from Lake County, along with a band of friends and coaches from Painesville's Riverside High. The last time they saw Short in Browns Stadium, he was in a Philadelphia Eagles uniform. There was blood all over his face. He was getting booed out of the stadium.

Not this time. This time, it will be Short versus three interlocking minivans in a high-speed game of Red Rover. He'll flatten one, maybe two. The fans will notice that. They'll watch Short's teammates traipse through the hole he's blown up and make the tackle. And they'll turn to the guy next to them and ask, Who the hell is no. 50?

Only the rabid will know about the Painesville boy who was barely recruited to play college, barely scraped his way into the league, and is barely seen on the field. But they'll soon learn that NFL players voted Short among the most feared in the league, simply from his work on plays like this one.

That's the plan, at least. But first, Short must make the team.

The last time you read about him, it was a sweet story in The Plain Dealer, a tale of two brothers with a heated sibling rivalry. Short was a junior in high school that year, 1995 -- still morphing into the specimen he is today: 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, with pillar legs and a jaw that could bust up a driveway.

"When I first met him, it was like this blond-haired, blue-eyed, Greek god-looking kid," says former Riverside assistant Steve Trivisonno. "It was like, holy cow. He had it all."

Short's older brother, Pat, was a senior, and even bigger. The two fought like brothers do, but their size and strength made for Animal Planet bloodbaths. Pat broke Jason's arm and jaw, which had to be wired shut. Jason knocked Pat out. There was nothing sweet about it. "We were 11 months apart," Jason says. "There was no way he was going to beat me."

Football fueled the brawls. When the Riverside coaches handed out equipment, the Short boys went straight home, strapped on their helmets, and headed to the yard. "They put on a little show for the neighborhood," recalls head coach Don Anderson. The fighting continued on the practice field, where Anderson let the well-padded boys go until they were tired or bored. "When there was an explosion, we just waited," he recalls, "and everything was fine."

The beatings brewed in Jason a hair-trigger temper and thirst for contact that followed him off the field. He once went to Anderson to complain about smoking in the bathroom. "That aggravated me," Short says, still sounding offended a decade later. It aggravated Anderson too, so he gave Short informal monitor duties. "Next thing I know, those guys come flying out of there," Anderson recalls. "He's just throwing them out, physically."

When he was old enough to drive, Short started carrying extra shorts and cleats -- in a variety of sizes -- in the back of his truck. There would be no excuses when Short came knocking on your door to round up players for a tackle pickup game. He continued even after high school, though it got harder to find willing participants.

"He would have me get out of the car first and ask if they needed more guys," says friend Joe Strailey, who trolled for games with Short. "They'd be like, 'Yeah, we could use a couple more guys.' Then, as soon as Jason would get out of the car, they would be like, 'Actually, we're wrapping up.' He probably ended more backyard football games than he actually played in."

But on real fields, Short's fondness for fast-paced collisions was encouraged. Riverside stuck him at middle linebacker and let him chase the ball. "He's an assassin," says Trivisonno, who now coaches powerhouse Mentor.

When Short broke two vertebrae in his neck, they moved him to running back. Grainy videotape shows Riverside handing the ball to him play after play, defenders bouncing off and dragging behind him. He rushed for seven yards per carry his senior year.

But Short's biggest plays came on special teams -- especially kickoffs. "There were many times when we would watch [film of] him on kickoff -- replay after replay, just watching him," says Anderson. On one such play, "He took on three guys, his helmet popped off, and he still made the tackle. That's just the way we went after it. He came over to the sideline, and I don't even think he realized he didn't have his helmet until someone handed it to him."

One day in 1998, at a meeting for the Eastern Michigan University football team, a coach made an odd announcement: "I don't know if any of you are aware of this," he told the team, "but one of your teammates has been sleeping in his truck."

It was Short's freshman year of college. He was lucky to be at Eastern at all. He may have started the Riverside chess club, but he hadn't done much homework. A miserly grade-point average made him ineligible to play.

Eastern gave him a scholarship anyway, but NCAA rules forced him to sit out his freshman year to prove he could get the grades. He was working on it -- dividing his time between studying, heated Madden duels, and lifting weights. But suddenly he found himself homeless -- kicked out of the dorms for beating up a suitemate. "A guy wanted to test him and lost," says Short's roommate, Tim Camarco.

Short moved in with some older players, who quickly discovered his short fuse -- even when playing an uncontentious game like chess. Nobody could beat Short -- he'd won plenty of tournaments in high school -- but the smallest amount of smack could get him uncontrollably riled. Says roommate Matt Driscoll: "He was like a cartoon character" -- pacing, fists clenched, veins lighting up his neck.

Short and his friends tend to talk around his off-the-field altercations. They chalk them up to his "strong sense of justice." But there were many. Head Coach Rick Rasnick recalls having a lawyer friend on speed dial and remains thankful for the generosity of a Ypsilanti judge. "We had a lot of scrapes that we had to make sure were taken care of," he says.

Short managed to get on the field his sophomore year, sometimes to the dismay of teammates. If other players tried to cruise during practice, Short punished them. "There were several practices when we were like, 'Goddamn, the same boring drills again,' and we would go through the motions," recalls Driscoll, a linebacker. "The next thing you know, you get ear-holed by Short. Goddamn!"

His obsession with contact sometimes kept him off the field. He'd been recruited to play linebacker, but the position requires control, precision, an analyst's assessment of complex offensive schemes. When Short went into the game, "His instincts would just take over," Driscoll says. "He would see a lineman going at him, and want to go heads-up and hit him."

Even if it meant abandoning his assignment.

"Shorty playing the game was like turning on a blender," says former Eastern assistant coach Chuck Martin. "Our thing was trying to find a balance between his ultra-ultra personality of being overly aggressive and the best interest on the football field. At some point, you've gotta get under control and make the play."

Such concerns weren't as prevalent on special teams, but even this proved difficult, thanks to Short's mom. "She called my college coach and told him I wasn't allowed to do kickoffs," he says. His mom hates watching him play, but she's seen enough football to know that kickoffs were where he'd most likely re-injure his neck. "It was awful," he says. "My coach is telling everyone, 'Short's mom says he can't do kickoffs.' And they wouldn't let me be on kickoffs for a while! Then I was like, 'Screw that -- she's not going to know.'"

Short started seven games his sophomore season, racking up 55 tackles and three fumble recoveries. As a junior, he started all 11 games and finished fourth in tackles. But kickoffs were where he made his greatest impression. "That was probably the scariest part of the game -- running him down on kickoffs," says Martin. "You feared for him. You feared for the other people."

"If you could have 11 Jason Shorts on your kickoff team, they'd average about minus two yards a return," adds Rasnick. "I never saw anybody who could play at that rate down after down. Basically, you have to pull him off the field and ice him down."

Short continued to work on control and technique, and in the spring of 2000, before his third season, he was named the team's most improved player and a captain. He finished that season third on the team with 78 tackles.

But Eastern struggled, and Rasnick was fired. The new head coach wasn't as forgiving. Before Short's final season, he got into yet another fight -- with three linemen from his own team. His history of skirmishes was piling up. He was promptly kicked out of college.

"I just pounded them," he says softly, sounding both embarrassed of the fight and proud of his performance. "They slammed a door on my boy's hand, and that set me off."

Growing up, when the Short brothers weren't testing the durability of each other's body, they were usually helping their dad, raking pavement for Short Concrete.

After getting booted from college, Jason joined the family trade. But pouring cement turned out to be only a three-month sabbatical, a way to afford his football habit.

Short saved up enough money to play on pro football's lowest rung: Arena Football League 2. (Yes, there are two arena leagues.) The Peoria Pirates paid but $170 a week.

He piled into an apartment with some buddies from Eastern. They played before crowds in the hundreds and traveled to some of America's most forgettable places, like the Quad Cities and Fort Wayne. But with obscurity came opportunity: Short had no trouble getting playing time at linebacker and even got a crack at running back. He scored a touchdown in the Arena 2 title game, which the Pirates won. It was Short's first championship.

His play won him an offer at the next level -- the Arena Football League, birthplace of former NFL MVP Kurt Warner and former Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox. But it was his gunning at Eastern Michigan that landed Short his real break. After the Arena 2 season, a Detroit Lions scout forwarded Short's college tape to former Browns coach Sam Rutigliano.

Rutigliano was coaching for NFL Europe's Barcelona Dragons. He needed extra bodies. While most players are allocated by NFL teams, European squads pick up a few free agents for their Florida training camp. "Very rarely do they make it," says Rutigliano, now retired. Short's shot was so long that when he first arrived, his position coach told him he might get a chance -- if someone got hurt.

"I about shit myself," Short says. "I wanted to fucking punch him. It kind of bugged me, for someone to tell you something like that. It kind of lit my fire."

From then on, Short "was like a kamikaze all of training camp," recalls Arizona Cardinals receiver Sean Morey, who tried out alongside him. The two were fast friends, bonded by nonstop competition. They were fighting for their dream jobs, but after practice they found themselves skimming the bottom of the hotel pool, battling for the title of Guy Who Can Hold His Breath Longer.

Short made the team and started at defensive end -- a position he'd never played. He still suffered from collision withdrawals, but he was getting better. "He would sometimes take himself out of a play just to kick someone's ass," Morey says. But Short was starting to learn that "it's not just about putting the guy in front of him on his back."

He racked up 27 tackles in half a season in Europe before being sent home with a shoulder injury. But it was kickoffs where he shined. He only played on two, he says -- the coaches were trying to protect his shoulder -- but he believes those two plays opened the eyes of the NFL.

He was assigned to bust the wedge. "I messed him up the first time," he says. "The second time I went down . . . I knocked him out cold . . . After that, it was just a big selling point, for someone who would run down there, completely fearless, to hit a wedge."

As the 2003 season approached, Short found himself doing the dance he'd awaited since boyhood: auditioning for NFL teams. He found a match in Philadelphia. The blue-collar town has an affection for rub-some-dirt-on-it hit men. Plus, the Eagles gave him the biggest signing bonus. In the NFL, where careers are short and contracts aren't guaranteed, the biggest signing bonus has a way of buying devotion.

Short was cut that year but made the Eagles in 2004. The next three seasons, he rarely saw the field on defense, racking up only 14 tackles in 29 games. But his name spread through the league with every kickoff.

In preparing for the Eagles, special-teams coaches altered their plans to deal with Short. Opponents fretted over collisions. Morey, who played for Pittsburgh in 2005, recalls helping his coach devise a strategy to slow Short down by hitting him before he could gather speed. It hardly calmed Morey's anxiety over the prospect of going head-to-head with a guy named Full Throttle. "I didn't sleep the night before," he says.

By last season, Short was thriving in the chaos of special teams, one of the few places where fear creeps onto an NFL field. "They're not all fearless," says Rutigliano. "Not like this guy." He was among the Eagles' leading tacklers on special teams. And when Sports Illustrated polled NFL players about football's most feared players, Short ranked in the Top 10, alongside Ravens Pro Bowler Ray Lewis and Steelers madman Joey Porter. Short, the magazine wrote, "is so recklessly aggressive on kick coverage that offensive and defensive players alike stop to behold his violent collisions." He was the only special-teams player on the list.

But with recklessness comes injury. Short suffered season-ending leg injuries in 2004 and 2005. He believes he's had seven or eight concussions since high school. "It's a car wreck, really," says Bob Brookover, who covers the Eagles for The Philadelphia Inquirer. "He was always at the center of the car wreck."

The worst came last season against the Browns. To the crowd, Short was just an anonymous Eagle flying down the field. But Jesse Mucciarone, a high-school teammate, was watching every step when Short, diving to make a tackle, took a knee to the head. "It knocked him out cold," says Mucciarone. "He was laying there motionless. The first thing I thought was that he broke his neck."

"It just snapped my neck," Short recalls. "Then my helmet came off." He describes such collisions with childlike enthusiasm, but he worries about how body and mind will age. "I don't know exactly how it all happened. I tore the corner of my mouth. My nose was about broke. It was all jacked up. I was bleeding everywhere. I didn't know what was going on. I was out cold."

Trainers rushed to slap him awake. "When they came out on the field, they said I was snoring," Short says. "I was snoring!"

They lifted him onto a cart. That's when one Browns player told him he "got what he deserved," says Short. "I lost it."

He saluted the Browns and their fans with a middle finger and a barrage of "motherfuckers."

"I went nuts," he says, smiling. "I guess it was just instinct, because I didn't really remember any of it. I guess the fans went from cheering to booing, and I was flipping them off. I got booed out of the stadium."

The injuries kept mounting after that. And special-teams players, while often invaluable, are equally expendable. Short may cover kickoffs as fiercely as anyone in football, but there are a dozen guys on every team who can serviceably handle the job. With three games to go last season, just as the Eagles started their playoff push, Short was nursing an ankle sprain. He was cut. Feared or not, his release was only big enough for a blurb inside the sports section.

On a muggy June afternoon, Short pours himself into the driver's seat of his latest toy: a jet-black Audi S8. It's parked near a squatty business hotel in Berea. This is where Short -- along with others whose futures aren't sure enough to warrant the purchase of real estate -- stays during the Browns' off-season workouts.

Short's new wife, whom he met in Philadelphia and married in February, is upstairs cooking. So he wants to spend some time touring Berea in his new car. "It's got the Lamborghini engine in it," he says, opening it up on Bagley Road. "This one's a beast."

Short signed a one-year deal with the Browns in May, thrilled to play for his hometown team. But he knows his fate is a numbers game. "It's always gonna be a fight," he says. "And they're going to always make you believe that it's a bigger fight than it is."

Coaches won't discuss Short's future. But Rutigliano, who remains close to Browns' staff, says Short has impressed. "He's gonna make the team," Rutigliano says. "He's a 1950s guy. He is dirt-tough. I mean dirt-tough. He will electrify special teams. He covers kicks like a kamikaze pilot . . . This guy is Superman."

Of course, Short hopes fans will see him more often. Like all special teamers, he longs for more playing time and the trappings that come with it: more money, more impact, more job security. He's wary of being typecast -- a common fear of career backups.

"Not only do coaches pigeonhole players, but players pigeonhole themselves," says Morey, who makes his living on special teams. Morey says he started to neglect his wide-receiver play to perfect rushing punts and covering kicks. "You buy into it," he says. "You are what you think you are."

For some players, that might be the safest way to keep a job. If Short can stay healthy, he might just guarantee himself a few more years in the league, staving off a career in concrete. But he's not ready to give up on playing linebacker.

"If that's my role, I'm going to do my role as best as I can," he says of special teams. "I'm gonna be a special teams Pro Bowler." But, he adds, "That's not what I want, to be a special teams specialist. I'm here to play linebacker."

It's a long shot. The Browns are stacked with young linebackers. And Short is still working on managing his urge to run people. As he pulls his car back into his hotel parking lot, he reveals that his quick trigger has yet to find a safety switch.

"I got kicked out of practice the other day," he says lowly, like a boy copping to a C-minus. "I got kicked out of practice for fighting."

Another damn lineman, it seems.

"I was rushing in on him, and I hit him in the face," Short says. "I wasn't meaning to. I'm not trying to fight in practice. [Eagles Head Coach] Andy Reid used to always get on me about it. But the guy pulled on my jersey and punched me in the back. I was just like, 'That's not gonna happen.' I turned around and hit him in the face."

On his way off the field, Short is happy to report, Coach Romeo Crennel put his arm around him, told him not to worry about it.

If everything goes as planned, it won't be the last time.

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