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Unique combo works for defense
SAN DIEGO – Takeo Spikes is screaming at the defensive huddle to define their identity, then ripping into Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson for another tackle.
Now he’s directing fellow inside linebacker Donald Butler, yelling out a call to the front seven, and nearly intercepting a pass from Miami quarterback Matt Moore.
Spikes leads San Diego with 38 tackles, including three for loss. It’s hard to remember this is a 34-year-old linebacker in his 14th season, far from the traditional athletic prime of an NFL player at a high-collision position.
“What he brings to the table is that veteran leadership,” Shaun Phillips told the NFL Network on Thursday. “I can recall one day during camp where everyone was tired and we didn’t have a good practice. He gave me a call and said, ‘We can never put that on tape. Let’s make sure we get after it tomorrow and never let anything like that happen ever again.’
“Having a guy like that giving you a call at 10 (p.m.), it’s a wakeup call.”
To Butler, a first-year linebacker entering his fifth NFL game, it’s borderline troublesome that such an “old, old, old vet” would be awake at such an hour. Butler, happy to tease the “old man,” was still learning to multiply single-digit numbers when Spikes entered the league in 1998.
“Man, I can’t even tell you (where I was then),” Butler said. “Third, fourth grade? Something like that.”
Butler relishes the contrast in their styles and considers the fellow starter in the middle of San Diego’s defense an old-school, serious linebacker, providing an unsolicited impression of Spikes with some angry grunts and bellows: ‘Uhhh! Arghh!’
“I’m the new-school, younger guy. I like to have a little bit more fun out there,” Butler said. “I think it’s a good combination. We continue to gel out there on the field.”
It’s easy to see why it’s fun for Butler, whose play has been anything but a joke. He’s third on the team with 31 tackles and leads the Chargers with four tackles for loss. His progress has accelerated since San Diego attempted to narrow his focus Week 3 by limiting his responsibilities to first and second down.
While Butler’s 6-foot-1, 248-pound athletic body is making the plays, Spikes has programmed much of the stuff between his ears.
“He understands his role right now and he’s trying to perfect that,” Spikes said of Butler. “The thing I love about him is that he’s kind of like a dry sponge. Whatever you say, he’s soaking it all up and taking it all in.”
Spikes’ obsession with body management is one reason for his youthful physique. Although acknowledging he must pick and choose spots to empty his physical reserves and make up for gaps with an acute football mind, Spikes spends most of his free time preserving and re-generating his muscles.
He wakes up Tuesdays, the player’s day off, and gets in a sweat to flush out lactic acid. He gets massages, active release therapy, help from a chiropractor, stretches often and works on mobility exercises and gadgets with the Chargers’ trainers.
“It’s non-stop,” Spikes said. “A lot of times you just want to go home and kick your feet up and look at TV. I don’t even do that anymore. I rarely do have time. There’s always something (to do for my body) 24 hours around the clock.
“If you give every (soreness) your undivided attention when it’s small, then it won’t have the chance to turn into something big.”
As charismatic as Spikes is – it’s likely he’ll get an analyst job on TV at some point in his life – he wouldn’t get the respect of Butler and other young players if he didn’t perform. Head Coach Norv Turner often says leaders are defined by how they’ve play on the field, and Spikes’ resume qualifies.
“It’s easy when you have a guy like TK beside you, a well-known guy around the league. If you are a football fan you should know the name Takeo Spikes, especially at the linebacker position. Same with Stephen Cooper and Shaun Phillips,” Butler said. “Any of those older guys who have been in the league and been successful in the league. As a player you’re really stupid not to listen to what they have to say.
“It’s easy, but then again, that’s just the player that I am, always wanting to know more and wanting to learn more because that’s how you become great. I play the game because I want to be great.”