Oct. 7, 2000
Maybe it's because they don't get a whole lot of publicity, so when their moment to shine in the spotlight comes, they seize it.
Maybe it's because they play a position where communication is really important, so they know what they want to say and how they want to say it.
Maybe it's because they represent the spectrum of this country -- from the East Coast all the way to Hawaii.
Or maybe it's just because they happen to be really funny guys with a whole lot of personality.
Offensive linemen -- if you are a quarterback or a running back, you can't live without them. In Northwestern's case that is literally true: Zak Kustok happens to live with two of the guys who protect him, Leon Brockmeier and Lance Clelland.
The job of an offensive lineman is neither glamorous nor rewarding. Put your 300-pound body in a crouched position anywhere from 70-100 times a game, then explode out of that crouch only to go toe-to-toe with another behemoth doing the exact same thing. Wrestle him to the ground for 5-10 seconds, then pick yourself up off a pile of bodies and do it all over again.
And for that effort your recognition is, on average, nil. Oh sure, every once in awhile you will come across an acclaimed group of linemen -- fans might remember the "Hogs" of the Washington Redskins in the 1980s, and during the recent back-to-back Super Bowl runs of the Denver Broncos there was a lot of press given to the group that kept John Elway in one piece. But at the college level? Forget about it.
That's why, when brought together for an interview -- after all, how can you interview this unit one at a time when they work best as a group? -- the banter was animated.
Clearly they have a special bond. And why shouldn't they? When you work in the trenches, day in and day out, you develop a closeness. Your fellow linemen are all you have.
Brockmeier and Clelland are two of the starters, covering the left side. The other parts of the starting quintet include true sophomore Austin King at center, transfer Jeff Roehl at right guard and Mike Souza at right tackle.
However, sit with them and their partners in crime are bound to come up. Stories come up constantly about Adam Fay. Derek Martinez and Carl Matejka get their props. And anytime Ben Kennedy's name comes up, it is greeted with smiles and a laugh.
Throw in Jack Harnedy, the Wildcats' fifth-year senior who specializes in long-snapping for punts and field goals, and you have quite a group. The true freshmen -- and there are many of them -- have a lot to live up to.
This is undoubtedly a group effort. As an example, take Northwestern's double-overtime win against Wisconsin two weeks ago. After the game, reporters wanted to talk to Clelland about his final block, which sprung Damien Anderson for the game-winning score.
Clelland was sheepish to receive the recognition alone, and was pretty blunt in his description at the press conference.
"I just hit the guy and knocked him down," he said. "I just did my job."
Trust us, there is a lot more to Mr. Clelland than that. There must be: when you ask his fellow starters about him, a chorus of "PAHT-NUH!" goes up. You don't ask any more, thinking that maybe something is there you just don't want to know about.
Of course, they can be serious, too, especially when they are working on their craft. You have to be, when you are taking on the top defensive linemen and linebackers in the country from one week to the next. So far this year, the returns have been excellent.
"I think we've really gelled as a unit, and that comes from working together every day and gaining more and more experience," said Brockmeier.
"And don't think we're done," said Clelland. "Our best days are still ahead of us."
On paper, that looks to be the case. Harnedy is the only member of the crew who will not be back in 2001.
These guys will also be the first to tell you how important communication is. That is especially true in this offense, where Kustok is constantly in the shotgun. Watch as the players line up for each play -- Kustok, Anderson and the wide receivers all get to look to the sidelines and the coaches for the play call.
No such luck for the linemen. The only thing they can see is their opponent.
All they have is each other.
"When Zak comes to the line, he yells out the play," said Roehl. "I hear it from him, and just pass it on down the line."
What about an environment such as Wisconsin, where you can't hear yourself think if you're on the sideline?
"No, we're fine. I can still hear Zak."
You ask them what the best part of being an offensive lineman is, and some of the results are predictable.
Souza: "Pancakes and knockdowns."
King: "Knocking a guy flat on his butt."
And some of the results aren't so predictable.
Clelland: "You get to be 300 pounds without being told it's a bad thing."
Roehl: "We can eat as much as we want."
The worst thing about being an offensive lineman?
Roehl: "Shopping for clothes."
Souza: "Probably the fact that we don't get the recognition. But you know that beforehand, so you just go out and do your job and know that you have the respect of your teammates."
They certainly have the respect of Anderson, who ran for more than 1,000 yards in 1999 and is off to another good start in 2000.
"These guys have really come together, and they do the job," he said. "They make it easier for all of us, whether it's Zak or me or anyone else in the backfield. They are a great group of guys, and they've worked hard to make themselves a great unit."
Finally, the players were asked to talk about each other, with Kustok adding his two cents. Kustok, you see, understands the mentality of an offensive lineman -- besides living with two, he grew up with a father who played offensive line at Illinois.
Ladies and gentlemen, the five starters, in summary
Leon Brockmeier: The comedian of the group, he has a good time out there. Good technique, good feet, and he's been known to come in with a late hit or two.
Lance Clelland: Quick-witted at the line, verbally. Big, strong, and mean on the field, but he's a pretty nice guy once you get him off the field.
Austin King: Sound fundamentally, probably the hardest worker in the group. Several players marveled at his ability to step right in at center as a true freshman last year.
Jeff Roehl: A solid addition to the line after transferring in from Notre Dame (and don't think those guys let him forget where he came from).
Mike Souza: The Hawaiian Warrior. Strong, physical, one of the faster guys in the group if not the fastest.
So remember the names, and try to catch the faces when they come to the sidelines. If past is prelude, this might be the last time you ever hear about them.
But after sitting with them once, we hope not.