Ticats' Hage plays with rage

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:24 PM ET

HAMILTON — Marwan Hage would like nothing better than to kick Adriano Belli’s butt Sunday, grind him into the Ivor Wynne pitch and leave him bruised, battered and beaten.

It’s what interior lineman do. Nothing personal.

Whatever happens in the Eastern semi-final between Hage’s Tiger-Cats and Belli’s Toronto Argonauts, they’ll be slapping each other on the back instead of upside the head in a few weeks.

It’s a love-hate thing.

“Belli’s coming to my wedding next January and says he’s going to wear a white tux and sing to us,” Hage said yesterday after being named to the CFL East Division all-star team. Then laughing; “I think we might be in trouble.”

Evidently Hage considers Belli’s musical talents as big a threat as his football skills. “I’ve known Adriano a long time. Great guy. We go hard at each other ... pound on each other. Adriano talks a bit more than most guys but he’s one of the best D-lineman in the league.”

But starting out married life by having Adriano serenade his bride? Hage’s not sure he wants to go there. Evidently Hage is not only strong like bull, but he can also recognize it when it’s coming from the locker-room shower.

The two once were teammates. And if anyone would recognize trouble it is Hage. The Ticats’ centre has become one of the best in the league at keeping his quarterback safe. Hamilton allowed fewer sacks — just 26 — than any other team. “This is a pass-happy league so obviously the thing we take a lot of pride in is not allowing sacks. When you give up the fewest in the league it comes down to winning a lot of one-on-one battles. It’s about grinding it out and not letting the guy in front of you win.”

Hage has rarely let the guy in front of him win; not since the first day he walked into Hamilton’s training camp and ran into Belli, who by then had his own way of testing new arrivals. “I swatted him in the head on one play and he came up to me and said, ‘OK, you want to dance pal?’ ” Belli told a reporter earlier this year. “He’s gone on to be one of the best players in the league. He’s smart and he’s tough.”

Hage names Belli along with Winnipeg’s Doug Brown, Eric Wilson in Montreal and Edmonton’s Dario Romero among the toughest opponents. “They’re guys who keep pounding, keep coming at you every snap. They play within the game — fair, hard.”

The Hage & Co. demoliton crew has blown apart more than its share of defensive schemes. When not putting a picket fence up around quarterback Kevin Glenn, they opened lanes for running back DeAndra Cobb to rush for 1,173 yards. Head coach Marcel Bellefeuille relies on Hage to call the blocking and protection schemes.

“He’s matured ... he’s a more experienced player and a more dominant player. He has the ability to play at a high level but also to direct and be a leader,” Bellefeuille said.

An offensive lineman’s worth is often amorphous. It is a profession cloaked in haze. “Centre is a unique position. I have about three seconds from the time we break the huddle to when I get down into position to make a call. Most of the time they’re right,” said Hage. “(Defensive) co-ordinators will try to trick you so it helps if you’re a veteran and I’ve seen the show a few times; there are so many fronts in the CFL and they switch so many looks on you.”

The offensive line is not a place for the faint of heart but it is as much brain-power as muscle that wins out. “It’s a mental game,” said Hage, who clocks in about 290 pounds. “Lots of those nose tackles I’ve been going up against for years and it’s like a chess game. I’m going to set them up one way; he knows what I’m doing, we know each other’s weaknesses and it all becomes a mind game.”

Hage has been honoured by his peers — named to the players’ association all-star team the past three seasons — but this is just the second time (he also made it in 2007) he has been named to the CFL team.

But then, Hage and most offensive linemen not only are familiar with anonymity, they actually crave it: “The only time we hear our names is if there’s a bad snap or we give up a sack,” said Hage. “I tell everyone; if you don’t hear my name that means I’m doing all right. If you hear my name it’s not so good.”


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