Drawing a line between old friends

Jets center Nick Mangold and Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk grew up less than five miles apart. AP Photo/David Stluka

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- When New York Jets center Nick Mangold crouches into his stance Sunday and scans the Green Bay Packers' defense, he will see part of his childhood.

A few yards away from Mangold will be A.J. Hawk, the Packers' left inside linebacker. They go as far back as two football players can go, back to playgrounds and pee-wee leagues. Back to Centerville, Ohio, circa 1995, and the Centerville Elks, their sixth-grade team.

Mangold was the big kid in the neighborhood and the best lineman, and Hawk was a man-among-boys linebacker, crazy intense. Some things don't change.

They grew up less than five miles apart in a small town near Dayton, lived together for four years at Ohio State, became first-round draft picks in 2006 and served as groomsmen in each other's weddings. Their parents are friends, too, and occasionally bump into each other around Centerville.

Now they prepare for the Battle of Centerville, Part II. Mangold owns a 1-0 lead, as the Jets routed the Packers in '06. The rematch figures to have a different feel because Hawk's role has changed. Green Bay has switched to a 3-4 defense, creating the potential for more head-to-head confrontations between the lifelong friends.

"It'll be weird beforehand," Mangold said, "but it'll be nice afterward."

Who could've imagined they'd go from after-school games at the Centerville Activity Center to a $1.6 billion stadium?

There will be close to 80,000 in the seats, with millions more watching on TV, and in the middle of it all will be two long-haired, Midwestern tough guys who spent their college years trying to one-up each other in the oddest challenges.

There was the time Mangold, in lieu of a $20 buy-in for a house poker game, chugged a cup of red-hot sauce from his favorite Mexican restaurant. Another time, he challenged Hawk to drink a gallon of milk in an hour. The ultracompetitive Hawk finally did it on the third try, but he lost his lunch when he was done.

"Nick got to see that up close and personal," Hawk said Tuesday in a phone interview, laughing from Green Bay.

To the best of Hawk's recollection, they played on rival pee-wee teams as far back as the third grade, joining the same side as sixth-graders. They went their separate ways for high school -- Mangold attended a nearby Catholic school -- and reunited at Ohio State, where they lived in the same dorm room as freshmen and the same off-campus house for the next three years.

They have different personalities -- Hawk is shy, Mangold outgoing -- but they hit it off. Hawk called Mangold "the perfect roommate," adding, "to live with a guy for four years, I guess you have to like him."

Said Mangold: "In our first year together, we probably said all of five sentences to each other for the first quarter because it takes awhile for him to warm up to somebody. It's one of the neat things about his personality because he's still that way."

They lived in a 100-year-old house a block off campus, complete with a back porch (for cigar nights), a poker room and stereo speakers everywhere. Mangold, channeling his audio-visual nerd, took care of the wiring. They spent hours on the porch, listening to their favorite group, the Dave Matthews Band.

Mangold and Hawk were team captains, along with Mike Nugent, the former Jet and current Cincinnati Bengals kicker -- another former Centerville star. Turns out that "Warm and Cheerful Centerville," the town's slogan, is a football hotbed. It also produced ESPN's Kirk Herbstreit, a former Ohio State quarterback.

In college, Mangold and Hawk faced each other every day in practice, fierce showdowns that ultimately made them better players. Hawk was the first linebacker drafted in '06, Mangold the first center. But on Sunday, it goes to a new level.

That Hawk calls the Packers' defensive signals adds another layer of competitiveness to the matchup. As the center, Mangold makes the Jets' line calls, setting up one of those inside-the-game chess matches. If Hawk audibles to a blitz, Mangold will have to counter by adjusting the protection scheme. Back and forth they will go, two old friends trying to outsmart each other.

"For the last three or four years, the Jets have been one of the best running offenses in the league, and a huge reason is Nick," said Hawk, who has a team-leading 60 tackles and two interceptions. "He's running the show, making the calls and setting the protections. He anchors the whole offense."

Likewise, Mangold has a deep respect for Hawk.

"He's not a flashy player in any sense of the word," said Mangold, a two-time Pro Bowl selection. "He's a workhorse. He's one of those guys you could say brings his lunch pail every day. He's not going to be doing anything crazy, dancing around after a sack. He'll just head back to the huddle."

Will they talk during the game? Of course they will. Maybe they will talk about the Buckeyes or their wives, both of whom are pregnant. But there won't be trash talk; there's too much mutual respect for that.

"We've been friends forever, so I don't foresee that happening," Hawk said.

The Packers lost the '06 game to the Jets, 38-10, but Hawk said Mangold never mentioned it again -- and they spent a lot of time together after that season. That spring, the boyhood friends were married within a month of each other, with ceremonies in Columbus and Centerville. Nary a word was said about the game. Someday, when they're finished playing, they can reflect on the battles, maybe over a round of milk -- as long as it's less than a gallon.

Rich Cimini covers the Jets for ESPNNewYork.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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