You can pick up all sorts of literature if you stroll through the University of Virginia, ranging from anti-apartheid to anti-imperialist. But the tract most likely shoved at you on a street corner shows a hulking figure clutching a football helmet. The flyer is captioned, “Jim Dombrowski, Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award candidate.”
The flyer is eye-catching because of the mass of Dombrowski, a 6-foot-5, 293-pound offensive tackle, and a glance inside reveals some substance as well. He is a not unhandsome, exceedingly intelligent fifth-year pre-med student with an uncommon talent for making defensive linemen look like Cabbage Patch dolls, and that makes him a realistic candidate for the two most prestigious lineman awards in the country.
The campaign to promote this marvel is just slightly less intense than another memorable public-relations effort by the Cavaliers a couple of years ago that threatened to elect All-America basketball center Ralph Sampson to every known public office. And Dombrowski, an honorable mention All-America last year, suddenly has become the heir apparent as Virginia’s latest athletic folk hero. This is a rarity at a school that, until last year’s victory over Purdue in the Peach Bowl, was an unlikely source of football all-Americas.
The awards campaign for Dombrowksi, who was given the first annual Ralph Sampson scholarship last year, is in recognition of his considerable role in Virginia’s startling football resurgence over the last couple of seasons.
He was instrumental in the Cavaliers’ rushing offense last year, which, averaging 231 yards a game, was ranked 17th in the nation. And he was instrumental in their 27-24 victory over Purdue. That last game, more than anything, brought him back to Virginia for an optional fifth year, forgoing the NFL and med school.
“I never really considered leaving after last year,” he said. “I worked so hard and so long to be on a winning team. I’ve only been on two in my life, one in high school and one in college. Going to a bowl was a dream, and after that I wanted another one.”
His Williamsville South High School team in suburban Buffalo, N.Y., won only nine games in four years, but he was fairly heavily recruited as a prep all-America. He chose Virginia because he fell in love with the campus and the town, not because he was looking for a football school. At that time the Cavaliers had just completed a 4-7 season, and they went 1-10 his freshman year.
“I realized that my high school program was weak,” he said. “They impressed on me that, if you’re good enough, they’ll find you one way or another. It’s not like you have to go to Nebraska or Oklahoma to be recognized. I liked the school. Granted, I had no visions of going 10-1 or 11-0.”
He just as easily could have wound up in the National Hockey League. He was a talented defenseman who began playing at 7 and competed in upstate New York and Canadian leagues before giving it up at 16 because a coach suggested he concentrate on football. He scored 55 goals for Williamsville’s junior team, and still harbors fantasies of chasing Wayne Gretzky around a rink.
“It’s my first love,” he said. “I was bigger at 7 than my 10-year-old brother. I’d have been huge considering that most hockey players are 5-10, 180. I don’t regret football, but it’s curious. I fantasize about what might have happened.”
A leftover benefit of his former love is his uncanny balance. His quickness and footwork for a player of his stature are generally regarded as his greatest assets. Part of it is natural ability, but much of it is a result of his training on skates.
“He’s got size and he’s smart and he has great feet, so he’s got great balance,” Virginia Coach George Welsh said. “You watch film of him and he’s never down; you never see him on the ground. He just has talent. I said it the first time I saw him, even before he was a good player. He had the best feet of any big man I’ve ever seen.”
Of course, all this is available in the Jim Dombrowski pamphlet, of which there are 5,000 circulating around the country.
“It’s nice and I’m honored and they’re doing a very nice job with it,” he said.