Thursday, September 20, 2007

Isaiah Gardner learned the hard way last season what it was like to play with a shoulder dislodged from its socket.

After every play, the searing pain consumed all of the cornerback’s concentration. He needed to do everything possible to prepare for a short burst of production dozens of times a game. And that meant the notorious chatterbox had to give up one of his favorite pastimes:

Trash talking.

Offseason surgery took care of the shoulder, and it brought back Gardner’s talkativeness, too. For Gardner the ability to gab at opponents is almost as fun as playing the game itself.

Practitioners of the art of trash talking display different facets of their personalities in the course of their exchanges. It comes natural to linebacker Erin Henderson, whose rapid-fire comments make him an even greater nightmare for stenographers than tailbacks. Safety Christian Varner admits his on-field persona is nothing like his everyday self.

As for Gardner, well, he’s a bit different altogether.

That much was clear during practice last spring. Gardner sat it out as he recovered from his surgery, but that didn’t stop him from roiling teammates with a steady stream of irritating remarks from the sideline.

“I did it anyway because I knew I was coming back,” Gardner said. “I was feeling better about myself. I knew it was better. I said, ‘OK. Zeke is back. Isaiah Gardner is gone. I killed him in his sleep. Zeke is here.’ ”

Trash talking etiquette

So much of the back-and-forth on the field is free form, completely spontaneous insults flying back and forth after a whistle. Rarely is anything planned, which only adds to the mayhem. Some teams are more experienced with the give-and-take; Varner said the opponents who respond the best are Florida State and West Virginia.

Tailback Keon Lattimore, who is about as well-versed in talking trash as any of Maryland’s offensive players, counts former Florida State linebacker Buster Davis and ex-Miami safety Brandon Meriweather among the most creative opponents he encountered.

Yet there is some order in place in the constant war of words, an understood though unspoken code that delineates when it’s appropriate to say certain things.

“There’s a time and a place for it, believe it or not,” Henderson said. “I usually only talk if someone [ticks] me off — if I get cheap-shotted or somebody does something dirty — or if I make a big play. You can’t really talk trash after you give up an 8-yard run.”

But you definitely can at practice. And it is there, rather than in games, where much of it takes place.

Gardner insists he simply wants to lighten the mood of what can quickly devolve into another stodgy practice. And sometimes he succeeds, such as during camp scrimmages when he said his constant chirping got laughs from the officials.

A particularly appealing target — at least indirectly, anyway — is coach Ralph Friedgen. Gardner and Henderson have perfected the way they irritate their teammates on the other side of the ball while getting a rise out of the man in charge of the offense.

“I’ll say, ‘Look at him. He’s turning red. He’s turning red. Let’s go,’ ” Gardner said. “Me and Erin will tell Coach Friedgen to start the period over. We’re like, ‘Your offense stinks right now. It stinks. Start the period over. I can’t practice like this.’ …

“He never says anything to me. He probably [wishes we’d stop], but he can’t say anything because most of the time we say that it’s very true. We’re probably beating the mess out of them. Then when they start the period, we’re like, ‘Yeah, another period. More of the same plays. Let’s go.’ ”

An intriguing byproduct of the perpetual yapping is, for some anyway, a better sense of what is happening. Gardner insists he’s more in tune with the game when he’s talking, and Henderson firmly believes a trash talker must ply his trade against all opponents, great and small.

“You can’t do it if you don’t know how to do it,” Varner said. “I don’t try. It’s just how I am. It just comes out naturally. It helps my game and helps me play better.”

Who’s the best?

Henderson doesn’t believe there is a competition among teammates to earn the trash talking crown. Yet there seems to be some dispute over who is the most talkative among the Terrapins.

Varner was quick to name himself the best trash-talker, shrugging off Gardner as “a quiet guy during games.”

Gardner would have none of that, claiming supremacy in the secondary even if he were willing to concede he might not be tops overall.

“If I’m not the best, then Erin is the best,” Gardner said. “Christian’s not the best. Christian just talks when he gets mad. Me and Erin just talk constantly.”

Naturally, it was only fair to provide Varner a rebuttal. As he stood in the lobby of the team house earlier this season, he gathered a handful of “witnesses,” including cornerback Anthony Wiseman, to vouch for him.

Most importantly, he dismissed Gardner’s description of the role of anger in his prattling.

“I’m always mad,” Varner said. “I’m always mad on the field. I’m night and day. I’m nice and cordial off the field, but on the field I’m a [jerk].”

Replied Gardner: “Christian, he’s a fairy-tale story teller. He likes to hype himself up. He’s the biggest hype man on the team, the biggest instigator.”

In reality, Henderson is probably the most skilled at dishing insults. He crams more words into a minute than a disclaimer announcer at the end of a car commercial, and he created more opportunities for himself when he led the Terps in tackles last year.

“On the team? No. 1. Gotta be No. 1,” Henderson said assuredly as he referenced his own jersey number. “I understand when you’re supposed to, when you’re not supposed to. It’s all about how you say it and delivery. I think I have a loud voice and a big mouth. I’m used to talking, so all that plays into my favor.”

So, too, does an ability to back it up and a willingness to let the game-within-a-game of trading barbs come to him.

“It’s not like I have to go out and talk more trash than somebody else,” Henderson said. “The emotions start flying, my adrenaline gets going and it’s whatever comes out of my mouth. I’m not really responsible for it. That’s what I tell everybody.”

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