Supersized steaks, $1,500 tabs and lots of laughs: NFL linemen dinners are back and bigger than ever

One by one, the tubs of oysters began arriving.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers had invited the entire Green Bay Packers offensive line to the Kentucky Derby, which had included a dinner out in Louisville. As each oyster bucket slammed onto the table, young Green Bay center J.C. Tretter grew even more mortified about his misconstrued appetizer order.

"Aaron was like, 'Did you order 12 dozen oyster Rockefellers!?'" recalled Tretter, now the NFLPA president and Cleveland Browns starting center. "And I was like, 'No, I just ordered 12 of them!'"

As Packers tackle David Bakhtiari returned from the bathroom, he overheard someone in the kitchen screaming, "Who the f--- thought they ordered 144 oyster Rockefellers!?"

To Tretter's relief, the restaurant comped the order. And the Packers line devoured all the oysters they could muster.

Around the NFL, offensive line dinners are legendary for their larger-than-life orders. But they're more than Herculean feats of plate-clearing eating. Linemen dinners have long been the connecting force bonding the big boys up front.

"A time for linemen to be linemen," said Browns Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio. "We enjoy good food and having a good time and that's the special part about it."

Producing tighter units off the field. And in turn, often better ones on it.

"It's a time for fellowship, get[ting] the brotherhood together," said New Orleans Saints All-Pro tackle Terron Armstead. "Just a great time to get away from football, talk about everything else, learn more about each other, eat great food."

That is why they were so missed last season, as protocols from the COVID-19 pandemic all but eliminated player gatherings of any kind outside the team facilities.

"Last year we weren't around each other, not in meeting rooms and especially not at the dinners," Bitonio said. "We couldn't even leave our hotels on road [trips]. And the dinners, that's where you really bond, you learn about your teammates.

"So to not have them was big. We're really looking forward to having them back."

Those protocols have since been relaxed for vaccinated players and, around the league, linemen dinners have began to return, with spreads as big as ever.

In Pittsburgh, they began reemerging during OTAs in the spring.

For nearly a decade, Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey hosted their weekly gatherings at his home, catering food from local steakhouses. To retired guard Ramon Foster, who said the Steelers tradition dates back two decades, the dinners were a treasured part of the week, the kickoff of the game weekend festivities.

"I've actually driven through a snow and ice storm where trees were falling down," said Foster, who retired in 2020. "It wasn't one of those things you had to be there, but wanted to be there."

With Pouncey also retiring, tackle Zach Banner has taken the mantle as host for a revamped Steelers offensive line. His first dinner prepared by a local chef included brisket, potato salad, cornbread and a roasted pig's head, which, in this case, was merely for decoration.

"We're having a lot more like beginner-level conversations, but it's really just getting to know each other," Banner said. "We need that fellowship."

Pittsburgh's offensive line is hardly alone.

"That's really what you crave and what you enjoy most about this business -- your teammates and that environment. And that was kind of taken away last year, so that was really hard," said Tretter, who, as NFLPA president, was part of negotiations lessening restrictions for vaccinated players this year, opening the door for linemen dinners to resume. "Guys don't want to experience losing that ever again."

Tab traditions

Every offensive line dinner has its own individual rules and traditions, including who picks up the tab, which can average anywhere from $1,500 to $2,000, not including alcohol.

In Baltimore, the guys with the biggest contracts usually pay. At the moment, that's tackle Ronnie Stanley; before that, former Ravens guard Marshal Yanda would do the same.

The Bengals, on the other hand, rotate, with veteran tackle Riley Reiff, who signed with the team in free agency, grabbing the bill at a Brazilian steakhouse in August, Cincinnati's first offensive linemen dinner since the 2019 season. The Saints have a similar system.

"Everybody has to take their turn, then the rich guys normally do two," said Saints backup center Will Clapp, who joked that All-Pro tackle Ryan Ramczyk-- with his new $96 million deal -- now might have to pick up three.

The New England Patriots, meanwhile, are among the teams that enjoy playing credit card roulette.

"Everybody puts their card in a hat," tackle Isaiah Wynn said. "The first card chosen is the one that has to pay for it. ... you can only imagine with the whole O-line there, it gets pretty expensive."

Some teams have instituted even more creative means of payment.

"We had a kangaroo court fine system during the season where pretty much anything you did got you fined," former Browns All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas said. "Then you collected that money at the end of the year and went to a nice dinner. Whatever was left over you donated to a local charity."

Praising your own block during a film session constituted a fine. Rookies being "super annoying" resulted in a fine, as well.

"We came up with fines willy-nilly," said Thomas, who noted the pots sometimes reached $20,000. "We'd write them up on the whiteboard throughout the year, so you could see what all the fines were and the punitive damage for each violation."

Credit card roulette itself, however, can become punitive. Former Browns guard Eric Kush learned that the hard way before a preseason game in Indianapolis two years ago.

"Nobody was drinking because we played the next day, so it was an easy bill to accept -- like, 'Don't worry guys, I got this,'" Bitonio said. "Then one of the practice squad guys was like, 'No, let's play credit card roulette!' And I was like, 'All right, I'm not gonna fight you on that one.'

"Eric ended up getting stuck with the bill, and I think it was the angriest I've ever seen him -- he was like, 'Just let him pay for it next time!'"

When the drinking starts, the damages can be far greater.

"One time me and [former Cleveland guard] John Greco were peer pressuring each other to keep ordering nicer and nicer bourbons," Thomas recalled. "The whole night [former Browns tackle] Mitchell Schwartz was really careful about not ordering anything too expensive because he was so scared he was going to lose the credit card roulette. I think he even ordered the chicken breast.

"But he ended up losing anyway and had to pay our $500 bourbon tab -- and he doesn't even drink. He's still pissed about it to this day."

'Bring us everything!'

While every linemen dinner is different, one strategy is always the same.

"The real art is scheduling it correctly," Bitonio said. "If you have weigh-ins on Friday, you can't do a Thursday linemen dinner, because you're going to have a few guys tipping the scales."

That's why the Steelers, who have weigh-ins on Thursday mornings, hold their dinners that evening.

"No matter how destructive you are later that night," Banner said, "you have seven days to get right."

And when it comes to eating, linemen can be rather destructive.

"My favorite part is, when you eat with a bunch of big guys, you have the option to order every appetizer on the menu," said Bitonio, who loves when local restaurants bring off-menu items. "You get to try different things. 'Bring us everything!' And usually the food gets completely eaten, that's the crazy part."

To the Patriots, nothing seemed crazier than watching former teammate Marcus Cannon, now a tackle with the Houston Texans, eat an entire hog head by himself.

At Pittsburgh's dinners, tackle Alejandro Villanueva, now with Baltimore, drew plenty of laughter when piling his plate high with overlapping foods: brisket on top of chicken on top of mac and cheese on top of green beans with barbecue sauce drizzled over the mound.

In New Orleans, Armstead said their eating used to be out of control before they collectively became more health conscious in recent years.

"Mayhem," he said of the past, "cheese sticks everywhere.

"Now, it's a little bit more thoughtful."

Among the most legendary "glutton fests," as the Saints put it, came at the expense of Roger Allen, a practice squad guard from 2010.

"Roger had this habit of ordering two meals, which we all found offensive because we order so many appetizers that most guys don't want to eat a meal," said former New Orleans lineman Zach Strief, now the Saints line coach. "It's every appetizer on the menu times six, it's ridiculous. So Roger would always order two meals, and he would never finish two meals. We're like, 'What are you doing?' So Roger tells us, 'What are you talking about? I eat anything anyone ever puts in front of me, there are no limits to what I can eat.'"

The Saints offensive line would later put that to the test, with Strief pre-ordering Allen a 100-ounce ribeye.

"Now he's cornered because of what he said," Strief continued. "So Roger goes to town and finished that steak. He looks miserable.

"Then he sits back in his chair and a button on his shirt pops across the table. That's a true story."

Feeding team chemistry

Though the dinners are for linemen, quarterbacks are usually welcomed. Especially when they offer to pay.

Drew Brees would hold court with the Saints linemen, regaling them with stories. Foster remembers Ben Roethlisberger showing up to linemen dinners when they were held at guard Chris Kemoeatu's mortuary-turned-condo in Pittsburgh's Southside. He regularly played cards with the linemen and other players who stopped by.

Another Pittsburgh quarterback, albeit one on the other side of the indoor practice facility the Steelers share with the University of Pittsburgh, also hangs with his linemen -- and he has even picked up the tab.

Panthers QB Kenny Pickett took advantage of college football's new NIL rules so that his offensive line could enjoy a weekly hog dinner with him -- on the house.

"Having the opportunity to take care of them and getting to spend more time with them," Pickett told ESPN last month, "it means a lot."

While other college quarterbacks are sure to follow Pickett's lead, Thomas noted linemen dinners are more important for the pros.

"In college, you go out with your buddies after games to the bars and stuff like that," Thomas said. "In the NFL you really don't do that. You're more tired, your body is way more beat up. The last thing you want to do is stand around at a bar. In the NFL, the linemen dinners replace that. It's really the only time outside of the facility that you're going to see guys and get to know them on a personal level.

"That translates to caring a little more about their well-being on the field and wanting to see them succeed, and typically as an offensive lineman, as one goes, we all go. That makes the group tighter. Tighter teams, tighter offensive lines, they usually tend to perform better."

Foster swears by that, suggesting team chemistry in Pittsburgh over the years always originated up front.

"The O-line is going to stick together," he said, "and that group is going to get everybody else tight."

Developing that tightness. While loosening the belts.

"When you're closer together, it's a non-tangible thing," Tretter said. "You can't measure it."

ESPN NFL reporters Ben Baby, Jamison Hensley, Mike Reiss and Mike Triplett contributed to this story