What happens when NFL players pile up in pursuit of a fumble? Well, there's eye-poking, mouth-grabbing, hand-bending ... and worse.

Leon Washington still isn’t quite sure why the other guy let go.

Washington fumbled on a kickoff return against Kansas City more than a week ago and plunged headfirst into the pile, that writhing mass of inhumanity that develops around a free football. Washington found the ball and redemption, but he didn’t win the tug of war so much as the other guy surrendered.

“He just relaxed and let go of the ball,” Washington said. “I came out with it so I don’t know what happened beneath that pile.”

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No one really does.

In a sport officiated by instant replay and where five-digit fines are administered by suits in New York, the pile is the last frontier. There are no referees in there, no television cameras. Just a dozen or so men pursuing the same oblong object with a zeal that can veer into ruthlessness.

“It’s a loose football,” Seattle defensive tackle Craig Terrill said. “It’s the most valuable thing in the NFL. So you go after it.”

It’s not like trying to find a needle in a haystack so much as it’s trying to endure reaching into a haystack full of needles. What happens in a football pile isn’t exactly dinner-table conversation.

“You’ve got eye-poking,” defensive back Kennard Cox said. “You’ve got mouth-grabbing. You’ve got hand-bending. Anything to get the ball.”

Cox suggested a conversation with Seahawks linebacker Will Herring, who found himself in a compromised position at the bottom of a pile in Arizona last month.

“I got a fish hook,” Herring said.

A fish hook?

“Some guy stuck his finger in my mouth and was trying to pull out my lip,” Herring said.

Sounds uncomfortable. Herring didn’t have all that many options at that point. It was dark, so he couldn’t see who exactly it was taking those liberties. Herring had the ball, but there were eight men the size of refrigerators piled on top of him. That left Herring without many options to extricate himself from the predicament.

“You ever been bass fishing?” Herring asked. “The bass will jump and just kind of shake their head? I just gave it the old shake-loose.”

It worked, Herring freed himself from the finger-hook snare, and he held on to the ball on the play, credited with a fumble recovery on the play. A month later, Herring still doesn’t know exactly who grabbed him.

“That was the last I heard of him,” Herring said.

There are two types of people in the pile: Those that have the ball, and those trying to get it by offering all sorts of incentives to release it. Namely, whatever is being done will stop.

“You can only imagine what’s going on if you had the football in your hands and you say, ‘Take it,’ ” Terrill said.

If a player has the ball, preservation is the only priority.

“The key is to keep everything in real tight,” Herring said. “You don’t want an arm sticking out or hands. You want everything in tight because when things get loose is when things get twisted and turned.

“If you’ve got the ball, then you need to ball up in the fetal position, close your eyes and close your mouth.”

Then you wait for the referees to untangle what is the most lawless corner of tackle football. A place where the code of conduct is notoriously absent.

“I’d like to say there’s a code, but I haven’t heard of a code,” Herring said. “If there is one, I missed the memo on that one because I’ve had a lot of bad things done to me.”

So if it’s bad, why doesn’t every pile result in a list of complaints about the inhumane treatment administered? Well, there’s a pretty easy answer. There aren’t many victims at the bottom of a pile; almost everyone’s guilty of something.

“A lot of things can’t be seen,” Cox said. “A lot of I.O.U.s. Trash-talking. That’s why at the end of the pile, the majority of time there’s pushing and shoving. Because somebody is trying to get some get-back.”

Some players steer clear of them. Washington certainly did earlier this season.

“I stay out of those piles, boy,” Washington said on Nov. 18. “A lot of stuff goes on in the piles.”

Ten days later, he was hip deep in that mess, fighting for the ball he lost during a kickoff return against the Chiefs.

“Snorting and grunting,” Washington said. “I had to come out with that ball, whatever it took.”

That’s the way it works in the pile.

Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or doneil@seattletimes.com