The television cameras and referees can't get to the bottom of a pile, where the football is waiting for someone to claim it. The player who takes ownership doesn't have to be the first one there, but for a few moments, he's got to be the toughest, most fearless person in the stadium.
When the football hits the ground, as many as 22 players will converge on it with complete recklessness, and there's only one thing that matters.
"It's nasty down there," Patriots right guard Brian Waters said. "It can be painful, too, based on where you are — if you're on the bottom, the middle, if someone's on your legs, somebody's on different body parts. It can be pretty nasty down there, especially if it's a fumble and everybody's fighting for the ball. People will do pretty much anything to get that ball."
"It's no holds barred," safety James Ihedigbo echoed. "Anything goes. It's very violent. Everyone is trying to scratch and fight to get the ball. It's pretty uncomfortable."
Someone once tried to pull Waters' arm out of his socket. Another player tried to snap Ihedigbo's finger off his hand. Running back Kevin Faulk has had his eye poked. Someone yanked defensive end Mark Anderson's helmet off his head Sunday when he recovered a fumble in Denver.
There's scratching and clawing, pinching and biting, punching and kicking. Players have had their bodies twisted up on purpose, and their ankles and wrists are targets, too. Late arrivers will swan dive on an opposing player. And almost all of it happens completely out of view. The rules are meaningless.
"It isn't pretty," Faulk said. "It all depends about who has the majority on top and who you're at the bottom with. If the opposing team is on top with none of your guys, you're in trouble because you never know what can happen there."
No one listens to the officials, either. The players at the bottom of the pile are at the mercy of their teammates, who try to pull off their opponents layer by layer. It might only take 30 seconds, but that's the longest half-minute of their day.
"All you know is the referees and everybody is yelling to, 'Get up, get up,' and nobody is getting up," Waters said. "You're just going to keep fighting. That ball is important to us. It's your livelihood on the ground, so you're going to go after it."
As dirty as it sounds, it's the symmetry between teammates that drives each player to one-up their opponent. After all, they know the other player won't hold back, so there's no need to lay off themselves.
"There aren't any rules," Anderson said. "Anything goes."
Each player polled could remember a time when they've come away with the football, too. If it's going to take that much energy to win a battle at the bottom of a pile, you better believe they'll walk away with the ball held high and a face full of pride.
"It's like a gladiator winning a match," Ihedigbo said.
Screen shot from NFL.com