Ross Verba is mean. Darn mean. We're talking wild, belligerent, junkyard dog mean. The kind of mean you don't want to confront in a dark alley. Or a light one, for that matter.
At least that's what we hear. Verba hears it, too. And it tends to puzzle him.
"Well, what is mean?" the Packers' rookie tackle asks. "I guess everyone has their own definition of mean. I wouldn't describe myself as mean."
Perhaps it's the ever-present scowl. Or the tattoos on each biceps. Maybe even his preseason holdout. Regardless, when Verba blocks or talks or walks or runs, the prevailing notion is that (ahem) something wicked this way comes...
Verba shrugs his shoulders. He doesn't care, and odds are that the Green Bay coaching staff doesn't care a lick either. Their primary concern is that the left tackle position - a revolving door since former Packer Ken Ruettgers was hindered by a chronic knee injury at the start of last season - is finally solidified.
Verba is their man.
Which many would not have predicted in the preseason. Green Bay's original plan was to have Verba compete with second-year pro John Michels for the left tackle slot in training camp. But that blueprint was seemingly scrapped when Verba held out for the first 22 days of camp. When he finally signed, he was, in most everyone's mind, too far behind.
Did Ross Verba actually think he could start in the NFL in his first year, for the defending champions, after missing more than three weeks of crucial preparation?
That confidence was evident from his first day of training camp, when Verba held his own and even found himself in a few skirmishes, including one where defensive end Keith McKenzie ripped Verba's helmet off. The bottom line? The rookie wasn't going to back down to anybody.
By the time the regular season rolled around, Michels was still the starting left tackle. But Michels sprained his right knee on the fourth play from scrimmage against Minnesota in Week 4. Verba finally got his chance...and impressed. The Vikings' Derrick Alexander didn't touch Brett Favre, who threw five touchdowns in a 38-32 Packers win. The following week, Michels went down again at Detroit. With a crucial test looming against the first-place Buccaneers, the coaching staff decided to throw Verba into the fire.
He got the starting nod and allowed just one coverage sack late in the game as the Packers defeated the unbeaten Bucs, 21-16. Verba has not relinquished the job, and the Packers have won nine out of 10 games since the move was made.
"He improves every week, he works at his game," Green Bay offensive line coach Tom Lovat says. "Little by little he's picking up the things he needs to be a good one."
Perhaps the ultimate test looms when the Bills' Bruce Smith, who leads the AFC in sacks with 14, lines up across from Verba.
Verba admittedly "blocks to the whistle," but his vicious demeanor doesn't translate to cheap shots. At least not on his part. Cowboys defensive end Shante Carver did punch Verba in the head last month after Verba blocked him, eliciting a 15-yard penalty on Dallas. It may lead to some hazardous circumstances, but some think that Verba's tenacity is just the prescription the Green Bay offensive line needed.
After the Packers defeated Tampa Bay again - this time to claim their third straight NFC Central Division title - Reggie White was asked why the offensive line was improving down the stretch.
"Verba," he replied. "He's got an attitude. He's a tough guy, a smart guy. And it just rubs off."
That comment had to impress even Verba.
"I have a lot of respect for Reggie, as a person and on the field," Verba says. "I'm not one that seeks praise from people, but it's always nice to hear. That's a great compliment."
Indeed, the Green Bay offensive line is starting to shine. Favre, after hitting the deck eight times in the first five games, is getting more time to throw and putting up MVP numbers again. Dorsey Levens rushed to his first Pro Bowl and today can break the Packers' 35-year-old, single-season rushing record. Those numbers reflect a team effort, but White may not be the only one who views Verba as a catalyst.
It took precious little time, but Verba has already arrived -- arrived at the point he knew that he could reach all along. This is why he donned his pads in his backyard to work out with his father, this is why he didn't attend Iowa his final semester in preparation for the draft. Ross Verba had always planned to be in the NFL. Not only he is starting for the Super Bowl champions in his initial season, Verba seems exceedingly comfortable.
"There really isn't a big adjustment on the field," he says. "The biggest adjustment is making football a full-time job. Now I wake up every day, come in at 8 and go to work as a football player."
And it probably doesn't hurt that beneath the three tattoos (he dubs their origin "a secret"), Verba is a man deeply grounded in Christian beliefs. It isn't uncommon to see Verba cooped up in his locker, reading The Bible before and after practice.
"It gives you balance in your life," Verba says of his faith. "I am an extreme personality - I grab hold of something and I take it. My faith allows me to take a step back and really realize why I play football, to impact people."
Well, that certainly doesn't sound mean.
"I would describe myself as someone who hustles, loves to win and has a passion for the game.
"Those are the qualities that it takes to win at this level."
Ross Verba already is proving to be a winner for the Packers.
Editor's Note: A first-round draft choice last April out of Iowa, Verba has played in every game this season, and finished the regular season with his 11th consecutive start at left tackle. He has positioned himself to win all-rookie honors.