Houston's Bo Eason was among the NFL's toughest tacklers. But he takes his hardest hits in writing about his very intimate House of Pain.

It was the first exhibition game of the 1986 NFL season, and few football games are more insignificant than the first exhibition of the year. Team starters may play for a drive or two before letting the scrubs come on to scramble for jobs, but the veterans typically take it slow as they ease into the long season.

Dieter Brock was quarterbacking the Los Angeles Rams. A former all-star in the Canadian Football League, he was trying to rebound from a schizophrenic performance the previous year with the Rams, one that saw him become the first quarterback to win his first seven NFL starts. Then he began to sputter.

It was late in the first quarter. Most NFL defenses wouldn't be blitzing at that point in such a meaningless game, but Jerry Glanville was coaching the Houston Oilers, and if a Glanville defense was on the field, it was blitzing. And if they were blitzing, they were doing so with a ferocity and aggressiveness that left many opponents crying foul.

As Jack Henry, Eason revels in the searing violence of the game.
Bruce Bennett
As Jack Henry, Eason revels in the searing violence of the game.

Legendary Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll said at the time that the Oilers' tactics -- spearing opponents with their helmets, never passing up a cheap shot -- were "worse than anything I saw in the Steelers-Raiders rivalry of the '70s….There are players on [the Oilers] who are trying to do something with hits that are meant to end players' careers."

One of the chief offenders was safety Bo Eason, who played with a feral intensity on every down. He was blitzing on a play and saw Brock get caught by several Oilers. Before the whistle blew, Eason went airborne into that pile. Defenders couldn't hit a quarterback in the head without drawing a flag, so Eason went low. Nobody ever admits going for an opponent's knees, but somehow Eason's helmet rammed into the immobilized Brock at that critical point in his legs.

"You go airborne so that if the whistle blows, you can't stop," Eason says as he recalls that long-ago day. "I remember the referee, Ben Dreith, just going nuts, yelling at me, 'That's not an illegal play, but that is just absolute bullshit!' He was screaming. But that's the only way I knew how to play. I never thought about injuries."

Brock never played another down in the NFL. Eason, if he thought about it at all at the time, just looked at it as another notch on the gun of the Oilers' intimidating "House of Pain" defense.

But now, as he turns 40, Eason is doing a lot of thinking about the way he played the game, the physical and psychic scars he left on himself and others. And he's doing his penance in the most public way possible: writing and starring in a soul-baring one-man play that exposes an empty life in which he somehow thought he could win his parents' love by being the dirtiest footballer around.

Eason is shocked at what he's discovered about himself through the past two years of putting together Runt of the Litter. His family is even more shocked: Bo's golden-child older brother, Tony, a Super Bowl quarterback who's intensely private, has seen the play twice; he can't believe his little brother is bringing such emotions into the open. Bo's father and mother have read the script, but refuse to attend a performance to see their son talk about his mom's alcoholism and his dad's abusive ways.

Bo Eason wishes his family understood him better, now that he's "becoming his own man," as he puts it. But he says he realizes that he'll have to take this trip without them.

"You have to go through it and become an independent man and risk the loss of your family, the loss of being one of the sons in this family," he says. "But I'm the one who decided to separate and do this thing. I had to decide whether I wanted to do it, and deal with it, or be stuck at being that nine-year-old who's still trying to impress my parents."

Eason was the last child born to "Chas" and Marilyn Eason in the tiny Northern California town of Walnut Grove. Four sisters came first, then Tony, and a year and a half later, Bo.

Chas was a hardworking Korean War vet who lost a brother in Vietnam that no one much talked about. No one talked much of anything in the Eason household unless it was football.

"It's not that my parents forced me to play," Eason says. "It's just that I saw how important it was to them. I never saw anything else that was that important to them."

When Bo or Tony played Little League or youth football, his parents would come to cheer -- and the harder Bo played, the harder they cheered. In the play, Bo's character (named Jack Henry; Tony's character is Charlie) talks of coming up to bat at his first Little League game and being stunned to see that his father has actually left work to watch.

"Hey, Charlie, it's Dad -- in the daytime," Jack says to his brother. "Did you see his eyes? Did you see the way he looked at us? He said we were the best in there."

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