2005 UT Sports Issue
The Vols are saying, “Wait ’til this year!”
The Vols are saying, “Wait ’til this year!”
Complications in Character Building, or,
Hawaii native Jesse Mahelona stands out as defensive tackle
2005 UT Sports Issue
It's That Time, Again!
The SEC: Tennessee’s Title to Lose
Your two quarterbacks, the flashy talent and the competent field general, each benefit from the presence of the other.
Your talented tailback, scion of an NFL runner, has shed his question marks, injuries and bad grades and is mature and healthy.
Your Hawaiian defensive tackle roars through lines like waves at the Break, flying into the backfield parallel to the ground and wrapping running backs five yards deep (see story on page 25).
Your punter, who has never yet played a down of college football, earns a full-page portrait in ESPN Magazine ’s college football preview issue.
You’ve got new coaches at two key rivals (Florida and LSU).
So what could go wrong?
Mainly, the front-loaded schedule is designed to pack some surprises. After Alabama-Birmingham on Sept. 3, it’s Florida at Gainesville on CBS-TV on Sept. 17 followed by LSU in Death Valley Sept. 24.
After Ole Miss on Oct. 1, it’s Georgia, Bama, South Carolina (coached by our old friend Steve Spurrier) and Notre Dame—all in a row.
What happened to the Citadel? And Wofford? And the Woeful Friars of the Needy Athletic Budget? Oh, yes, those are the kinds of teams Spurrier used to schedule as his early-season patsies at Florida.
The Volunteers must put it all together in the early weeks, keep it together through the middle, and be ready to take it to Auburn in the title game.
Tennessee—Take ’em to the Bank
After Ainge and Schaeffer went down, Rick Clausen, preparing for a future coaching career, made like Earl Morrall—the trusty old pro who twice came on—for Johnny Unitas with the Colts in 1968 and Bob Griese with the Dolphins in 1972—to lead teams to Super Bowls.
Clausen got the job done and won the offensive MVP award in the 38-7 win over Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. “I’m not the most gifted guy in the world,” he said last week, “but I know how the offense works.” In fact, Clausen will be very helpful to Ainge, who does best when he has a chance to watch the opposing defense in action for a couple of series before stepping on the field.
Ainge and Clausen have the luxury of throwing to the most talented, speedy, attitude-free group of receivers—Jason Swain, Robert Meachem, C.J. Fayton, Bret Smith, Chris Hannon—UT has had in many years. Hannon has clocked a 4.28 40. Tip: Send him long!
In his first two seasons at UT, tailback Gerald Riggs, son of former NFL All-Pro Gerald Riggs Sr., was hampered by injuries and underachieved on and off the field. “A lot of it was my own doing,” said Riggs Jr. recently. “Sometimes it takes guys a little longer to adjust, and it had always been pretty easy for me as far as doing what I wanted, when I wanted.”
Last year Riggs got his act together under running backs coach Trooper Taylor’s relentlessly upbeat tutelage, rushing for 1,107 yards.
Says UT defensive line coach Dan Brooks of All-America Jesse Mahelona, “In 30 years of doing this, I’ve never seen a guy make plays like this kid.”
Defensive back Jason Allen is a preseason All-America and linebacker Kevin Simon has recovered from a torn ACL that kept him out last season,
Bearden High grad Britton Colquitt—brother of Dustin, son of Craig, nephew of Jimmy—will make the punts now that Dustin is booting for the Kansas City Chiefs. “I can be as good or better than Dustin,” he told ESPN magazin e . “Even he tells me that.”
Meyer’s offense dazzled Utah’s last-year opponents—like Texas A&M, North Carolina, Colorado, Arizona and Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl—en route to a 12-0 perfect season. This is partly why Sports Illustrated ranks Florida No. 3 and Tennessee No. 5, but not to worry. As we saw in the touch football scene in Wedding Crashers , the QB—Vince Vaughn in the movie, Chris Leak at Florida—is often exposed, and sometimes turned into duck paté by square-jawed rushers. And since it’s an option offense, the option is sometimes for the quarterback to run. Leak is only 6’, 195 pounds, compared to the guy at Utah, who was 6’4”. Florida’s No. 2 quarterback is Josh Portis.
Tailback DeShawn Wynn was told to lose his gut. He cut out French fries and dropped from 246 to 224 pounds.
Senior center Mike Degory (6’6”, 306 pounds) has started 38 straight games—every game of his career. He is also Academic All-SEC and the SEC Good Works Team. Look for the Vols’ defensive tackle Jesse Mahelona and linebacker Kevin Simon to do good works on Sept. 17 in Gainesville.
D.J. Shockley sat quietly behind David Greene, who left college football with the most wins ever for a college quarterback (42). Now Shockley will look for 6’7” tight end Leonard Pope, who made 25 catches last year.
Running back Thomas Brown will run through holes made by 340-pound All-SEC guard Max “the Black Hole” Jean-Gilles, who got his nickname from the way defenders disappeared when they tangled with him during a one-on-one drill when he was a freshman. “It’s pretty much sumo wrestling,” said Jean-Gilles, who could have joined six Bulldogs in the NFL draft, but decided to stay for his senior year.
South Carolina—Veni, Vidi, Visor
But emperor of what? This is USC East, not USC West.
It’s not even Florida.
Like Caesar, his strength has always been getting along with his peers. Although Steve’s fellow coaches haven’t stabbed him on the Senate steps, they did send a sternly worded letter, saying it was not cricket for him to send a letter to six of his new players informing them their scholarships had been repo-ed—like so many Clayton homes.
Somehow, we’ve grown to accept Spurrier in the East Tennessee of his youth.
But that’s mainly because we know we’ll be whipping the Gamecocks’ tails for the foreseeable future.
Let’s all tune in on Nov. 12, when the Cocks take on Florida.
Blake Mitchell, who threw just 22 passes last year, will be the starting quarterback, but look for freshman quarterback Cade Thompson, from Maryville High, to become Spurrier’s next protégé.
Kentucky—Joker Looking for Some Wild Cards
Quarterback Andre’ Woodson can throw the ball 60 to 70 yards. He’ll look to receiver Glenn Holt, who had 49 catches.
Kicker Taylor Begley, who’s beginning his master’s in electrical engineering this fall, is a three-time SEC Academic Honor Roll member and on the ballot for Academic All-America.
Coach Bobby Johnson is on a winning streak: for the second year in a row, he got a win over an SEC team—over Mississippi State in ’04. (It was Kentucky in ’03.)
Senior quarterback Jay Cutler leads a solid core of 12 returning starters, but who are we kidding? It’s all about character building.
With 34 starts and 6,665 passing yards, Cutler, from Santa Claus, Ind., is the SEC’s most experienced quarterback. You have to hand it to Cutler, who threw only five interceptions all last year while completing 61 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns. Cutler will definitely throw some Christmas cheer in the direction of senior wideout Erik “E Diddy” Davis, who averaged 13.8 yards on 37 catches last year.
Senior strong safety Kelechi Ohanaja and All-SEC senior outside linebacker Moses Osemwegie have been plenty busy these past two seasons.
Ohanaja made 99 tackles in 2003 and 64 in 2004, including 18 against South Carolina alone. Osemwegie made 126 in ’03 and 94 in ‘04, more than anyone else in the SEC.
Osemwegie, whose middle name is Igbinomwanhia, could have gone to the NFL with three of his classmates, but he declined. “I feel like I have to hold up my end of the bargain,” says Moses. Osemwegie’s mother, Mable, or “Mo,” is an attorney with the Nashville Police Department. His middle name means “look out Chris Leak” in Wolof. The Commodores play Florida on Nov. 6.
How do you go undefeated in the SEC and not even get a shot at the national title? Four players from that 13-0 team went in the first round of the NFL draft, including two of the best running backs in the nation. “We don’t have to rebuild anything,” says All-America tackle Marcus McNeill. “We’re just reloading.”
A redshirt freshman quarterback named Brandon Cox replaces SEC Player of the Year Jason (J Cam) Campbell. Cox’s true freshman year, he suffered an attack of mysasthenia gravis and had to rest at home, working part-time in his father’s carpet store in Birmingham. As a high schooler, Cox rolled out 5,417 yards from a spread offense.
Defensive end Stanley “The Predator” McClover schools All-America tackle Marcus McNeill in practice every day. McClover is 6’2, 247 pounds, yet quick as a cornerback with a 4.4-second time in the 40-yard dash. Last year he forced four fumbles, made 10 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks.
LSU—Les is Less
Running back Justin Vincent is back to form. He ran for 1,001 yards in 2003.
Speedy receiver Skyler Green was hampered by scar tissue in his ankle last year, but he’ll return to his 2003 form, when he led the nation averaging 18.5 yards per punt return.
Quarterback JaMarcus Russell was shaky last year but has the tools. He’s protected by guard Nate Livings, All-America tackle Andrew Whitworth, who forewent the NFL draft, and center Rudy Niswanger, a summa cum laude graduate who postponed med school to come back.
The Tigers have to make it or break it on Sept. 24 against the Vols in Baton Rouge.
Alabama—Will the Tide Follow the Script?
Dreamboat quarterback Brodie Croyle is the pride of Rainbow City, Ala. His Dad, John, played defensive end for Bear Bryant. His sister Reagan not only played for the Tide hoops team but was also crowned as Bama’s 2000 Homecoming Queen. Despite a hurt knee in high school, he’s rated by some as the No. 1 quarterback prospect in the nation. Croyle starts and stars as a freshman for coach Dennis Franchione.
Then Franchione flees for Texas A&M, leaving NCAA penalties for recruiting violations. Bama hires Mike Price, who celebrates at a topless bar and loses the job before he starts it.
In his pending $20 million libel suit against Sports Illustrated , the 59-year-old Price argues that he did not bring two strippers to his hotel room for “some pretty aggressive sex,” as one of the ladies was quoted as saying, and the guests did not at crucial moments scream “Roll Tide,” and he did not respond, “It’s rolling, baby, it’s rolling.”
Rather, Price says he was too drunk to realize a waitress accompanied him in his cab back to his hotel that night, when he says he slept in his clothes and no sex took place. In his deposition, Price threw in the supporting evidence that he didn’t bring his Viagra with him on that trip, and given all the drinking that night he wouldn’t have been capable of having sex. Way too much information!
Anyway, in its time of trial two years ago, Bama looks to a former Dreamboat Bama Quarterback, Mike Shula, a guy who knows what it’s like to have a hero for a Dad (Hall of Fame coach Don Shula) and a hotshot sibling (former NFL coach Dave Shula). Despite suffering a partially dislocated shoulder near the end of the season, Croyle totals 2,303 passing yards and 16 touchdowns, the first sophomore in Alabama history to throw for more than 2,000 yards, and the team goes 4-9. Not bad in difficult circumstances.
As a junior, Croyle ranks second in the nation in passing when he tears his ACL in the third game of the season. Still, the Tide improved to 6-6.
Now Croyle is starting his senior season, ranked seventh on Bama’s all-time list in career passing yards (3,833) behind legends like Joe Namath and Ken Stabler. He’ll hand off to running back Kenneth Darby, the SEC’s leading returning rusher (1,061 yards last year). “Brodie is Superman to me,” says free safety Roman Harper. “Superman can’t be taken down by anything.”
Led by a virtuous coach and a virtuous quarterback, Bama’s 16 returning starters are a virtuous lot, starting with Harper, who has 233 career tackles. In his career, senior linebacker DeMeco Ryans has 231 tackles, 17 of them behind the line of scrimmage. A management major, he’s also a two-time Academic All-SEC pick.
So where’s the tension and the big payoff in this movie script?
What if the Tide again starts with three wins, then beats Arkansas on Sept 24 (a team that whipped Bama 27-10 on national TV last year), then upsets Florida on Oct. 1, then beats Ole Miss on Oct. 15—if all those things happen, then Alabama could be 5-0 when it plays host to our Volunteers on Oct. 22.
You can’t really expect Alabama to get by LSU or Auburn at the end of its schedule, but you can be sure the Crimson Tide will give UT a game on that fourth Saturday in October.
Arkansas—Yo Reggie and Matt!
In his corner are center Kyle Roper, a fifth-year senior who racked up 46 knockdown blocks last year and is majoring in vocational ed, and 6’6” sophomore split end Marcus Monk, who grabbed 37 catches for 569 yards and six touchdowns—not a bad freshman year when he didn’t even start until the sixth game.
Strong safety Vickiel Vaughn, from Plano, led the Hogs in tackles (66). His dad, Ezekiel, played football with Nutt at Little Rock Central High. His sisters, Rochelle and Brittney, are Lady Razorbacks hoopsters. Marcus Harrison started the season opener at defensive end last year, the first Razorback to do that since 1982. He’ll be a tackle this year.
Mississippi State—On the Bus
Croom, a Bear Bryant protégé, took over the Bulldogs last year and went 3-8, including an upset of Florida. Running back Nick Turner was dismissed from the team for failing to live up to Croom’s “expectation level.”
Everybody else is on the bus, and more successes will start to come the Bulldogs’ way.
The offense runs on senior All-SEC halfback Jerious Norwood, who ran for 1,050 yards and seven touchdowns, and senior center Chris McNeil, who has very much met coach Croom’s expectation levels.
Defensive end Willie Evans led SEC linemen with 67 tackles; linebacker Quinton Culberson had 56.
Guess who’s an administrative graduate assistant? Our own Casey Clausen. You won’t see him on game days, because the Bulldogs already have two graduate assistants. “Casey wanted to come here and learn,” said Croom.
Ole Miss—The Ungrateful Rule the Roost in Faulknerville
Two years ago the Rebels had a triumphant 10-3 season, finishing 13th in the AP poll. Among several players sent to the NFL, quarterback Eli Manning went No. 1 in the draft to the New York Giants. It was the Rebels’ sixth winning season in a row and fifth trip to a bowl in coach David Cutcliffe’s six seasons after leaving Phil Fulmer’s staff at UT, where all he did was teach Peyton Manning how to be a quarterback.
In what was plainly going to be a rebuilding year, the Rebels went 4-7. The ungrateful Chancellor Robert Khayat and Athletic Director Pete Boone wanted Cutcliffe’s head, or at least the heads of his staff. Cutcliffe pointed out that it was the same staff that went 10-3 the year before, and he wouldn’t fire them.
Handed his walking papers, Cutcliffe was hired by Notre Dame but underwent heart bypass surgery in March and had to resign. Naturally, his many friends in Knoxville wish him a speedy recovery.
The real problem in snooty Oxford had more to do with Cutcliffe’s generally understated, humble demeanor. For some people’s tastes, he wasn’t a swaggering enough person to strut around the Ole Miss stage. Moreover, he’s not the type to hit the links and quaff the foaming ale with boosters. The ideal Mississippi coach, it seems, must be a hybrid between Foghorn Leghorn and Dean Martin.
In the swagger department, at least, ragin’ Cajun Ed Orgeron seems to fit the bill.
His first team meeting was reported on the Internet as being an “obscenity-filled tirade,” challenging players to “take him,” asserting that mediocrity would not be tolerated, and generally not saying “Laissez Les Bontemps Roulez.”
“Some of it’s true, some of it’s not true,” says Orgeron.
Orgeron was born in Larose, La., played defensive lineman at Northwestern (La.) State, and has coached at his alma mater, Nicholls (La.) State, Arkansas, Miami (Fla.), Syracuse and Southern Cal. At Troy, Orgeron coached the defensive line and coordinated recruiting for four years under Coach of the Year Pete Carroll, who just finished winning two straight national titles and was picked no. 1 in the AP preseason poll.
The Rebel defense returns seven starters, led by junior middle linebacker Patrick Willis, who had 70 tackles and five sacks. Willis says the offense doesn’t need to worry about scoring: “I think the defense can get the scoring done.”
Though the Rebels lost 935 pounds worth of offensive linemen, they return 627, divided between two senior tackles—317-pound Tre’ Stallings and 310-pound Bobby Harris—to protect quarterback Michael Spurlock, who was the most improved player in spring practice after a shaky two games last year.
by Brooks Clark
Do you think Congressman Tom Osborne (R-Nebraska) noticed the wire service roundup in the papers last week reporting on Lawrence Phillips, the former NFL running back? Phillips—already wanted by L.A. police for domestic violence for allegedly attacking his girlfriend twice, once choking her into unconsciousness—was arrested after allegedly running his Accord into three teenagers who argued with him during a pickup football game.
Remember the pattern—a wildly inappropriate, dangerously violent response way out of proportion to the injuries suffered.
You may recall Lawrence Phillips as the Nebraska running back who beat his girlfriend and dragged her down a flight of stairs in 1994. After he pleaded no contest to assault charges, paid $358.64 restitution, was put on a year’s probation and agreed to attend domestic-violence counseling—which apparently wears off after a decade or so—Phillips was allowed by then-coach Osborne to play in the Orange Bowl.
“The mistakes, when a coach takes a risk, are incredibly public,” says David Moon, former University of Tennessee lineman, financial advisor, and Sunday financial columnist for the News Sentinel . “But you don’t know about the multitudes of chances they take that are huge successes.”
Moon counts himself in the ranks of the multitudes of risks. He says he messed up here and there as a young UT athlete out of “redneck Hazel Green, Alabama,” and he is grateful that he got a second chance or two.
For years Moon has given UT freshman athletes his “Please Behave” speech, reminded them that they live in a fishbowl, their mistakes are headlines and they’re representing the institution and the athletic department, but that opportunities abound for those who keep their noses clean and do right.
This year, that exercise has ramped up in all corners of the Southeastern Conference. As we all read, some 13 UT players have had encounters with the law, and really that’s about average across the SEC.
A roundup article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed coaches who said they feared the months between February and July, when they didn’t see their players every day, because they knew they’d lose so many to monkey business. In his wisdom, Mike Slive, the SEC commissioner, began a “dialogue” with coaches about establishing educational programs to help athletes in transition from high school to college. Hard-nosed Bear Bryant protégé SylvesterCroom at Mississippi State was way ahead of him. Croom brings in speakers from every law enforcement agency in Starkville. He brings in speakers on domestic-violence prevention. And he plans seminars on etiquette and table manners.
So the SEC hired some squishy facilitators from the Center for the Study of Sport at Northeastern University in Boston to create the “Sport in Society’s Mentors in Violence Prevention Program,” in which basically the athletes are called into a room and politely asked to behave. As John Adams hilariously pointed out in the News Sentinel , the golfers, swimmers, tennis players and female athletes had to sit through a 90-minute session alongside the male basketball and football players. Really now: who is kidding whom? Or maybe we’re all kidding ourselves.
“Too many people want to make this out to be a simple issue,” says Moon. “People want to describe it as either symptomatic of society or athletes out of control. It’s neither and it’s both.”
It’s like Doublemint gum—it’s two issues in one, at least. But the one that the SEC and pro sports people really ought to get a handle on, as Congressman Osborne probably wishes he had in 1994, is the violent behavior that really hurts people, and the personality issues that create that behavior.
The Good Old Days
Still, it was all in fun. Hornung reminds us of his and Max McGee’s night on the town before McGee unexpectedly played and caught five passes in the first Super Bowl. There are passing unpleasantries, a bar fight here and there, like the ones Ray Nitzsche got into before he stopped drinking. But “what the heck” is the spirit of the book; nobody was ever really hurt, and it was all kept quiet. Sure, the NFL suspended Hornung and Alex Karras for a year for gambling, but Hornung blames no one but himself, and he quickly gets back to the joys of his sybaritic lifestyle, epitomized in a Miller Lite ad in which, stepping out of a limo with a gorgeous female on his arm, Hornung is asked how he got to be such a renowned ladies’ man. His response: “Practice, Practice, Practice.”
Over the years, there have always been “bad decisions” by college football players around the country—stealing TVs from trucks, discharging firearms from dorm balconies, a holdup at a Circle K, a little substance abuse here and there.
But this year the sports pages have given us a more disturbing pattern of violent acts, the kind that shatter cheekbones and eye sockets, knock police officers unconscious and put people in the hospital.
And it gets to the heart of the fact that we nice people in our society have a fairly naïve understanding of the nature of dangerous violent behavior.
You Can’t Be A Punk
After the Raiders fined Romanowski only one game’s pay, $58,000, Williams sued for damages. In court, Romo explained how he was taught as a rookie with the 49ers that you must retaliate to survive in the NFL. He told how All-Pro safety Ronnie Lott had stopped a film session to chew Romanowski out for allowing an opposing player to push him from behind without retaliating. “This is a game about respect,” said Lott. “If you let someone do that again, I’ll come after you myself.”
Romanowski heeded the warning and earned a reputation as a badass. He once kicked Larry Centers in the head, broke Kerry Collins’ jaw and spit on J.J. Stokes. “You can’t be a punk,” he said on the stand.
Once again, it wasn’t about losing control. Nor was it about ’roid rage. The judge, in her wisdom, didn’t even allow that idea to be brought up in court. Romo described his assault as something that had to be done. He knew exactly what he was doing when he exacted his reprisal, and he wasn’t particularly sorry. If it caused pain or damage to another human being, so be it. The jury awarded Williams $340,000 for lost pay and medical expenses, but nothing for pain and emotional suffering. With the threat of another trial, Romo eventually added another $75,000 to settle the business once and for all.
Fouls and Basketball
“He got fouled by another football player,” Goodrich told the News Sentinel . “They wouldn’t honor his call. He got mad and said, ‘Since you all don’t want to honor my call, the next person that fouls me, I’m going to lay them out.’”
Goodrich’s lawyer called it “a five-second lapse in judgment.” But was it?
“These are not people snapping,” says Moon. “He went through a thought process and planned a move that he carried out.”
Still, Moon is surprised that, as terrible as he and everyone else feels about Goodrich’s injuries, no one has come out and said, “That’s how you police fouls in pickup basketball.”
“I’ll catch grief for this,” says Moon. “And [ News Sentinel oracles] Mike Strange and Jimmy Hyams disagree with me. But taking a punch is the way that young men have solved their differences in pickup basketball games since the basket was sitting on top of the ladder. That’s how it’s done. It’s in the context of playing the game.”
Moon is quick to remind us that he’s not an apologist, just a realist when it comes to the particular incident we’re talking about: “It doesn’t excuse the behavior, but it is not aberrant, if you are going to define aberrant behavior as something that doesn’t occur very often. That’s how large people play that game.”
McDaniel’s charges were reduced to misdemeanors. He was ordered to pay Goodrich’s medical bills, placed on probation, retroactively suspended for the summer from UT, suspended for the first two games of the season, forced to complete community service and abide by a curfew for the fall semester and—of course—attend anger-management counseling. More or less the same punishment was meted out to defensive end Robert Ayers and linebacker Daniel Brooks for their respective punches thrown. More or less the same punishment was dealt to the two youngsters from Austin East who got into a fight with police officers and sent one officer to the hospital.
So, is anger management really what this is about?
Almost always, psychologists, journalists, and defense attorneys cast violent episodes as moments in which a person “loses it,” succumbs to ‘roid rage, was drunk, and for a brief moment does something he regrets. And yet, if you ask them, the perpetrators often say openly—as Romanowski did—that this was a premeditated act, appropriate to the situation and completely in line with his personality.
The standard psychological model is anyone committing violence to another is mentally ill, and therefore not responsible for his or her actions. How else could anyone be so mean and cruel? Like Father Flanagan, we are all dedicated to the idea that there is no such thing as a bad boy.
Frank Gifford never once complained about the hit by Chuck Bednarik that knocked him cold and kept him out of an entire season. “It was a clean hit,” Gifford always said. Joe Theismann never had a bad word about Lawrence Taylor’s unbelievable hit on Monday Night Football that cracked Theismann’s femur and exposed it to the TV audience the way a falling canoe did to Burt Reynolds in Deliverance .
“We don’t want it to be a game of controlled violence,” says Moon. “We want it to be a game of out-of-control violence, but within the confines of the cage. We teach people to break things and hurt people six days a week and keep them from going out and doing it in public.”
So you can say there is some hypocrisy when we get mad at, say, the two Austin East football players who got in a fight with police officers and put one officer in the hospital. Or maybe not.
Over the course of years, Athens interviewed hundreds of violent criminals in prisons across the country about their crimes and their life stories. He listened as violent criminals told him their stories in gruesome detail. Their feelings about their crimes were surprising—and surprisingly consistent. So were their descriptions of their development as individuals. With the data he gathered, Athens came up with a portrait of these personalities much different from the accepted model. In his 1992 book The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals , Athens postulated that a person must experience four distinct stages, in a particular order, to become a dangerous violent criminal.
In shorthand, there is Brutalization, which includes violent subjugation and horrification. This is no surprise. We are accustomed to hearing about the violent abuse seen at early ages by abusers and violent criminals. Then add in Violent Coaching—the kind given to Bill Romanowski, say, by Ronnie Lott. Or that of a violent father, like Lonnie Athens’, that says, “You don’t take anything off anybody. If anybody crosses you, you get ‘em good.”
Then there is Belligerency and Successful Violent Performances: If one is small of stature, one probably realizes the downsides of violence fairly quickly. But if you are big and strong, you can be feared and respected—in your neighborhood, in your family—and figure out that this is a dandy way to get by.
Then there is the Virulency stage, when this violent behavior is sealed as a personality trait and a way of life. These people often end up in prisons. They’re not crazy. They just felt like beating the crap out of someone, or raping someone, so they did it. And Athens found they were happy to tell him why they did what they did. As Lawrence Phillips might be saying right now, “Those guys fouled me. They made me mad.” So he drove his car into them.
If a person is wired like that, he should be getting serious help, and not the kind provided by the Center for the Study of Sport in Society or the anger-management videos.
Running Through People
“Lots of people grow up in neighborhoods where you have to use your fists to survive,” says Moon, “and a disproportionate percentage of great athletes come from those neighborhoods, and it’s not just inner-city neighborhoods.
“Most people can’t comprehend the intensity that it takes to play the game at that level. The difference in size, speed and strength is not that great between schools like UT and MTSU and smaller schools. The difference is between the ears—the killer instinct and desire to win.
“[All-America tackle] Jesse Mahelona is not great because he’s big and fast and strong. He has the desire to run through people.
“Football players and people in collision sports don’t make good politicians in touchy situations, because everything in athletics is about disproportionate response. You find a weakness and you overwhelm it. That doesn’t mean you do it in a bar.”
“Most people have never hit anyone, so they can’t comprehend that,” says Moon. “But most people can’t comprehend colliding head-on with a 320-pound defensive tackle or throwing a football 80 yards. One of the reasons we flock to watch these guys is that they can do things most people can’t. This doesn’t excuse assaulting someone. ‘Regular people’ are often offended by the suggestion that athletes are different. Well, you know what? They are.”
An Island unto Himself
by Mike Gibson
Faced with the dilemma of selecting a single image to represent the competitive ambitions of the entire 105-man University of Tennessee football squad, the UT sports information department chose the eyes of defensive tackle Jesse Mahelona.
The All-American senior’s searing orbs glare out from the front of the Vols’ 2005 football guide like a pair of inexorable heat-seeking missiles, focused beneath a heavy brow on some distant hapless target. Take one look at those eyes, and you’ll find yourself reflexively offering a prayer of thanks that their target isn’t you.
“Jesse has a fierce pride within him that I don’t think I’ve ever seen the likes of before,” says UT defensive line coach Dan Brooks of the big senior from Kailua-Kona, on the big island of Hawaii. “He has a deep passion. I think it says a lot for a guy to be chosen as one of your captains after being here only as long as he has.
“He’s an intense, persevering kind of a guy, a leader based on what he does more than on being loud and outspoken or any of that kind of stuff.”
Mahelona himself reflects his intensity of purpose in more ways than just his implacable game day scowl. It’s clear that this is a guy who sets the bar high for himself, though he couches his ambitions in the language of team rather than that of personal recognition.
“I believe we have the personnel to contend for a national championship,” he responds when asked about his personal goals. “I believe we have a special team. And right now I truly believe the only thing holding us back is us playing as one.
“Individually, my expectations are to win a national championship. I know everything else will follow.”
When he first came to UT in January 2004, Mahelona was just one more unknown quantity. He’d been first team All-State as a high school senior, true enough, but the state in question was Hawaii—never considered a bastion of blue-chip gridiron talent.
And though he had one outstanding year at Orange Coast College in California—good enough to be rated the no. 1 juco tackle prospect by two major recruiting services—his second year ended after only two games and a broken ankle, leaving many schools in doubt that the combination of Mahelona’s bum wheel and his limited resume were worth risking a scholarship.
“I think some people kind of got off his trail because he got hurt and didn’t play a lot that second year in junior college,” Brooks says. “But (UT recruiting coordinator) Greg Atkins liked what he saw when he was out there. Jesse came here, had a great visit, and fell in love with Tennessee. We’re sure glad he did.”
The 2004 season was a break-out year for Mahelona, who recorded 18.5 tackles-for-loss and five quarterback sacks as the Vols went 10-3 and won the Southeastern Conference’s eastern division. After the season, he received All-America recognition from The Sporting News , as well as All-SEC honors from both the Associated Press and the college coaches’ poll.
“I didn’t have any idea that I would play the way I did last season,” says Mahelona, a humble fellow by all accounts. “I don’t want to say I didn’t have the confidence you have to have at this level, but coming into the SEC you have to be aware that it’s such a tough conference. You have tough players all the way across the board. I feel fortunate that I’ve been as successful as I have.”
What makes Mahelona a special player is a combination of impressive physical attributes, girded by a superior football savvy and warrior-esque determination. At 6’2, 297 lbs., he’s quicker than most players his size, and stronger, too; his bench press climbed to about 500 lbs. (“give or take,” he says with a chuckle) in the off-season.
“Obviously he has some physical tools,” Brooks says. “But he also has a great feel for the game. He has great pad leverage. He’s a student of the game. He gets himself some pre-snap reads from watching what the offensive lineman give him. He works hard, and does a good job of taking advantage of everything he has.”
“My strong point is my first step,” says Mahelona. “I try to get into the offensive line. I try to attack the other guy before he attacks me. That’s always good, to hit him first, fire out of your stance quickly and give yourself the upper hand.”
That powerful initial surge enabled Mahelona to lead the SEC in tackles-for-loss in 2004—a distinction usually reserved for quicker defensive ends or linebackers, not big DTs slowed by the brutal, heavy traffic of the interior line. It also earned him Playboy Preseason All-America honors for 2005, and painted a bull’s-eye on his barrel chest, designating him the man to beat when opposing teams decide who to double-team along UT’s quick, powerful front line this year.
“I’m sure I’ll see the double teams quite a lot coming into this season,” Mahelona says. “But then they have to deal with the guys around me, Parys (Haralson, defensive end) and Justin Harrell next to me and J-Hall (Jason Hall) on the end, and the backups we have. We have so many guys who can step up. I think our defensive line can contend with anybody.”
There’s much to admire about Mahelona off the field as well. At the Preseason Playboy All-American festivities in Arizona recently, renowned National Football League scouting guru Gil Brandt called him “one of the nicest guys in the group,” and bequeathed Mahelona with his informal “guy who would accompany you down a dark alley” award.
He certainly endeared himself to UT fans everywhere when, during the off-season, he chose to return for his senior year in college rather than bolt for the riches of the NFL—his probable high draft status notwithstanding. “I have no idea how high I was supposed to go; I didn’t even file (for the draft),” says Mahelona, who’s on pace to finish his degree in sociology come December. “I didn’t think I was ready for that responsibility. I don’t think I was as mature as I am now as a player. This year has been good for me, and I’m proud I made a decision to stay.”
Brooks believes Mahelona’s family—his mother Laurie, his father Steven, and six brothers and sisters between the ages of 12 and 24—factored heavily in his decision to stay in school.
“Sometimes people let these outside forces get involved and make poor decisions (about entering the draft early),” says Brooks. “But Jesse went about it the right way. He talked with people he trusted: his dad, his family. He said his prayers, and I don’t think he ever looked back. I think he really wants his degree, and to make his family proud.”
Just as Mahelona’s family is one of the cornerstones of his stalwart character, so, too, is his island heritage. The Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times tells that he once gave teammates a pep talk in which he used Hawaiian outrigger canoeing as a metaphor for team unity. “It’s one movement, one heartbeat,” he told them. “You’re as strong as your weakest link.”
Mahelona reportedly still counts those traditional pastimes of his youth among his favorite extracurricular activities, even with his island home thousands of miles away. “When he went home from junior college and wanted to make a little extra money, he’d go diving and catch tropical fish, sell them to the pet stores,” Brooks says. “Yeah, he talks about spear fishing all the time.”
“I love anything to do with the ocean, with water,” Mahelona admits. “I’ve always done a lot of spear fishing. I’d see sharks all the time,” he says, adding with a laugh, “Big, big sharks.”
Apparently, none of them ever saw fit to take a bite out of Mahelona’s flesh. Maybe some of them saw the front cover of the ’05 Vol football guide, and thought the better of it.