By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The first place it gets to you is in your head, really, and Joey Madsen knows it.
Maybe that’s why this spring he possesses the West Virginia University football team’s only bona fide Mohawk haircut.
See, when you spend half your time looking at life looking back between your own legs and being knocked around by 310-pound nose guards, you do tend to have a different outlook.
“Today I was little lightheaded,” the Mountaineer center, who may just be the best at what he does in the country, admitted. “We were still in one-on-ones, and I snapped it and came up fast and was a little … whew.”
Not that things like that are strange.
“It’s just second nature after a while,” he said.
The question may come up wondering just who would be a center in a game where the cameras are focused on the glory boys … the quarterback, the runners and the receivers.
Madsen doesn’t see it that way. In fact, that to him is looking at life upside down between your legs.
“I think it’s the best job on the field,” he opined. “I get to sit there and scream at guys, get on guys and get after people.”
There are those who would call that mania.
A coach calls it leadership.
Then there is the matter of needing to use your head for something more than just to keep your helmet on.
“You wouldn’t think it would be a fun thing, but I get to look at defenses and call them out. I study defenses and actually am able to look at something and recognize it. That’s pretty cool,” he said.
The problem with that is that center is a position where you can do everything right for 70 of 71 snaps in a game and no one ever says, “Hey, that center — what’s his name? — has been doing a pretty good job.”
No, but snap the ball over the quarterback’s head or at his feet just once and everyone knows your name, your number and Twitter handle.
Not that such a thing happens to Madsen, who has found a way to turn a liability into an asset.
He came to West Virginia out of Chardon, Ohio, High, a decorated out-of-position offensive tackle.
“Short arms and all, I was a tackle,” Madsen said.
While at 6-4 and 320 pounds he seems physically imposing, tackles normally have long arms to stop pass rushers. Madsen’s are just 29.5 inches in length, so he wasn’t going to play tackle.
After his redshirt freshman season he was moved to center by Bill Stewart and his staff. It was without objections.
“You go with it, anything to get on the field. You just try the hardest wherever they put you,” he said.
It was starting all over again, right from the three-point stance he had come to be comfortable with.
“Actually, it’s pretty comfortable,” he said of the center’s stance. “Your hands aren’t really on the ground. They are a little bit up holding the ball.”
What happened after he got in his stance proved to be a whole lot less comfortable that first year.
“Snapping the ball was the worst thing my redshirt freshman year. All through camp I just rolled it back to the quarterback,” he said.
Coaches prefer their quarterback’s get injured doing something other than bending over on every play to pick the ball up off the ground, so Madsen knew he had to find a way to make it work. Little did he know that his short arms would provide him with the solution.
“I worked on it every day,” he said. “Finding out that with my shorter arms snapping as hard as I can makes them stop wherever they need to, so I’ve never had a bad snap after that,” he said.
Thinking about that, he laughed and said, “I’m going to change the centers’ image. They’re all going to have short arms now.”
Life in the pits is not for the weak of heart. There is scratching, clubbing, holding … and that’s just getting up from the pile.
“It’s about self-determination, I think,” Madsen said. “It’s being in there and knowing that they aren’t going to let you do what you want. But if you take that guy down, it’s a win for you no matter what anybody else thinks.”
Some players get to the play the game without anyone on his head. In most cases, against 3-4 defenses, they have to face a nose guard and sometimes you get hit pretty hard, which is fine in the game, but when asked the toughest nose guard Madsen had to play against it was his own teammate, Chris Neild.
“Neild, Neild … the good old days,” he answered, referring to Neild, now with the Washington Redskins. “I was actually Tweeting back and forth with him today because I told our defensive linemen to watch out, and Neild reminded me of our inside drills. I told him that when I had my headaches.”
It isn’t fair to get pounded on your head by someone of Neild’s size and strength on a Tuesday morning in the blazing August sun during two-a-days.
But Madsen understood.
“He made me better,” he said. “He made me the best I ever could have been. To this day I haven’t gone up against a lineman like that.”
The result is that coach Dana Holgorsen is calling him the best center he’s ever had, and that has led to some All-America talk for Madsen.
“I take it in stride, go out and do my job. All that talk is fine and dandy and I like it. It’s nice to have people talk about you like that, but when it gets down to the nitty-gritty you have to prove it,” he said. “I’m ready to go.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.