The balls comes lose from New York Giants quarterback Eli...

The balls comes lose from New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning after being sacked by Washington Redskins nose tackle Chris Neild. (Sept. 11, 2011) Credit: MCT

It's been a season of many firsts for Victor Cruz. First reception, first touchdown, first firestorm over interpretation of the rules regarding a runner giving himself up.

Last week Cruz experienced another first: a visit under the pile after a fumble. And he hopes it's his last, although Sunday's opponent, the 4-1 Buffalo Bills, lead the league in take-aways.

"It gets pretty real in there," Cruz said after the Seattle game, apparently more shaken by his brief visit to the nastiest, ugliest, most lawless place in football than he was by the fourth-quarter turnover that helped the Seahawks beat the Giants.

They call it "the pile,'' and in its depth, just about anything goes. When the ball is on the ground in an NFL game, all rules are thrown away and it's a winner-take-all scrape for possession -- most of it out of sight of officials who are trying to peel layers of players off the top of the scrum and determine which team has the ball.

"It's pure pandemonium," Giants defensive lineman Dave Tollefson said. "You would think that the football had the key to life in it. Seriously. It's unlike anything I've ever been involved in in sports."

"Just a lot of guys pulling and tugging at each other, and you never know what they're pulling and tugging," said running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who has fumbled 16 times in his career and been in those melees. "People are trying to get that ball out, and if you're the one with the ball, you have to secure it with your life."

Cruz learned that the hard way. After he fumbled against the Seahawks, he said, he was at the bottom of the pile with the ball.

"I had it with one arm clamped on my leg," he said. "I'm yelling at the ref at one point that I had it, but obviously he wasn't listening to me or he probably couldn't hear me. And then the second time I yelled that out, some 400-pound dude just jumped on top of me and I couldn't even speak anymore. And then people were coming from the left, the right . . . ''

The Seahawks wound up recovering it.

Rarely does the guy who first gets to the ball come out of the pile with it. And there are legendary tales of players bending opponents' fingers backward and squeezing unmentionable parts of the anatomy in an effort to get the ball loose.

"That's one thing I was thinking about," Cruz said. "People say a lot of crazy things go on under these piles, and I hope nobody tries to pull my kneecap off or something crazy like that. It was pretty cool that nobody tried to do anything nasty, but nonetheless, I don't want to be under there anymore."

There's obviously a difference in mentality between offensive and defensive players when the ball is loose. Defenses see it as a chance to turn the momentum of a game; Tollefson described it as "blood in the water." Offensively, the team that fumbled just wants to stay on the field.

"There's no difference in intensity," said offensive lineman Kevin Boothe, who recovered a fumbled snap against the Seahawks. "We're scrambling for it. We need that ball back. But it's more of a sigh of relief. OK, let's continue."

Tollefson knows how frantic it can get. He recalled the 2007 NFC Championship Game, when he dragged Packers punter Jon Ryan off the pile by an ankle while teammate Domenik Hixon recovered a key fourth-quarter fumble.

That was somewhat comical. But in the shadows of the pile, do players really resort to such gruesome tactics as attacking another man's -- gulp! -- private parts? "Maybe," Tollefson said. "I can tell you this, I have never done that. But to say that it doesn't happen is a lie.''

He was quick to justify it, though.

"It's a free football!'' he said. "You gotta get the ball back!"

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