By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. —
You walk into the players’ interview room in the Marriott Harbor Place Resort and Spa, which has been christened the Orange Bowl’s media hotel although with room rates of $359 a night only Al Michaels and Chris Berman could afford it.
The West Virginia players, who had to report for this 8 a.m. session, are scattered around the room sitting at tables up on a platform, telling their life stories to anyone who will listen. Naturally, Geno Smith, the quarterback, has the most tape recorders and video cameras around him, with the likes of Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Shawne Alston not far behind.
At the first table to the right sits Don Barclay, a senior, a team captain ... and there is one ink-stained wretch and one TV camera there.
You know from that, without even noticing that Barclay fills half the room with his 6-foot-4, 310-pound physique, that he is an offensive lineman.
This is not to take it as anything less than what it is, that being a reality of life, but offensive linemen are to a football team what the stagehands are to a Broadway production — unseen, yet irreplaceable.
They understand their role.
“We don’t catch the ball or throw the ball,” Barclay is saying to the group, the TV crew listening politely as they inch away, trying to get to the quarterback, receivers and running back.
Only the ink-stained wretch really cares what Barclay is saying. If not, he would not have asked the question.
“We do a lot of the hard work,” Barclay continues. “I’m not saying they don’t do it, too, but we’re not here to do a lot of interviews or get all the press. That doesn’t matter. We’ve been dealing with it forever.”
Forever to a college senior is all the way back to high school. The wretch says he understands, the pretty girls go to the star players.
Barclay smiles one of those smiles that normally are preserved for the moments right after a knockdown block, laughs out loud and says something about how that’s not really the case all the time.
Perhaps the stagehands get the groupies, too, on Broadway, but the lineman normally is the one with the gash across the bridge of his nose, with his teeth knocked, maybe a little bit crooked, if they all even remain in place.
It’s hard to find stardom in the offensive line because no one is watching you. Everyone follows the ball, so the only time you are noticed is when it is your man who makes the play on the runner or quarterback.
“Everyone remembers that one block you miss, the one block where Geno gets sacked. We’re used to it, though. You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t like it,” Barclay said.
His is a violent world played in the shadows of the game and Barclay is now wrapping up his fifth year of it at West Virginia, which marks the end of his college career.
“It’s special,” he admits. “We
can go out the best way possible. To come to this game, the last game of my college career, is special. It’s been a long ride and we’ve been through a lot of things since I came here. It’s all been fun.”
That might be an exaggeration. Running through three head coaches isn’t fun. Having Rich Rodriguez walk away within days of the most devastating defeat in school history isn’t fun. Failing to win a BCS spot after such a high as the victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl is not fun.
Three coaches have come onto the scene since Barclay arrived from Pittsburgh, and that means three line coaches as well.
It makes for a tough time, for there is little in the way of continuity, especially since you went from such extremes with Rodriguez’s run, run, run offense to Dana Holgorsen’s pass, pass, pass offense.
“It’s been tough,” Barclay admits. “You go through a lot of stuff each year, learning their style, what they like. At the same time it’s made everyone stronger and a better person because you’ve learned all the different stuff that they are teaching.”
It’s been tough on the coaches, too, having to learn what buttons to push on each player to get the most out of them, to know that they were set in their ways and may not accept either your system or your coaching style.
Somehow, though, everyone got through it without any permanent physical or psychological damage, Barclay emerging as one of those special players who can lead.
“He’s the leader of our team, a captain,” said junior center Joey Madsen, one of Barclay’s front-line playmates. “I have looked up to him ever since I’ve been here.”
Now, Barclay can count in hours the time he has left as a college football player and it is, in many ways, a scary proposition. When you are in college and on a team your life is planned out for you — class at 8 a.m., lift at 10 a.m., lunch at noon, class at 1 p.m., practice at 4 p.m.
When this game ends that’s over for Barclay. He works out on his own, gets ready for the NFL scrutiny that will come his way when they probe his mind and his body to see if he is NFL material.
“It’s pretty crazy,” he admits. “I just have to put in a lot of hard work after this and see where it takes me.”
If it happens to be to the Pittsburgh Steelers, he won’t mind a bit.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.