COMING OF AGE : At 26, Cal State Fullerton's Bavaro Is Maturing Into a Pro Prospect

Times Staff Writer

The Cal State Fullerton football offices are equipped with just about everything John Bavaro could want or need: plenty of projectors, plenty of game films, a couple of televisions, a refrigerator, a few sofas and a shower.

Late into some evenings and occasionally into the earliest hours of morning, Bavaro sits alone, working the controls of a projector.

If the film is of the Titan defense, he focuses on himself, No. 98, the nose guard. He forwards and rewinds, watching what he did, what he didn't do, what he could have done.

During the season, he is more likely to watch films of opponents' offenses, looking for tendencies, searching for vulnerabilities.

He watches so much film--more than any player defensive line coach Gary Spielbuehler has ever been around--that you'd almost think the guy lived in the Titan Football House.

And, well, he did actually. For a brief time last year, Bavaro showered and slept in the house that serves as the coaches' offices. Presumably, that was slightly more comfortable than living out of his blue Chevy Blazer, a vehicle that spends a lot of time in the football parking lot.

If Bavaro is a bit more intent on the game than the typical college football player--and trust us on this, he is--there is ample reason.

For one thing, he is older than any other Titan. At 26, he is eight years older than the youngest player on the Fullerton team. And he has responsibilities. While some other players worry about how to stretch a scholarship to cover the costs of a few nights out, Bavaro worries about how to stretch his to support a son, soon to be 3 years old, who lives in Canyon Country with Bavaro's wife, from whom he is separated.

Last year, after the seventh game of the season, the stress and the worry of supporting a son became too much, and Bavaro, then a junior, left the team before the New Mexico State game, unannounced.

He decided he needed to earn money.

"I've got a little boy. I love my little boy," Bavaro said.

He loves football, too, but between football and a little boy, no contest.

"I had to drop," Bavaro said. "There was no way I could do both. All this . . . piled up. I couldn't concentrate on football."

Bavaro turned back to construction work, which he has done off-and-on since he was 18. At 6-foot-3, 260 pounds, he is rather employable. He saved money and went to school during the spring and summer to make up the credits he had lost.

"Things got worked out," Bavaro said.

Now he is back with the Titans, a fact that Northern Illinois noted with displeasure on Saturday in the first game of the season, a 26-17 Fullerton loss.

Bavaro, a distant relative of Mark Bavaro, the New York Giants tight end, had seven tackles--six unassisted, three for losses--and a blocked extra-point attempt.

After watching the films, Northern Illinois Coach Jerry Pettibone called Bavaro the best defensive lineman his team had played against in his five years as coach.

"Bavaro will be drafted," Pettibone said. "He's a great football player. He gave us fits."

Two of Bavaro's tackles for losses came on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter after the Huskies drove to a first-and-goal at the Fullerton 8. Northern Illinois, set back to the 17 by Bavaro, had to settle for a field goal.

Bavaro's other tackle for a loss came on the Huskies' next possession, another one on which they were forced to kick a field goal.

Those plays might be better remembered if the Titans had managed to regain the lead and win, or if the absence of safety Mike Schaffel after a first-quarter injury hadn't so weakened the Titan secondary that it gave up two touchdown runs to quarterback Stacey Robinson.

Bavaro's ability is all the more impressive because he is still fairly new to football.

He never played a game in high school because, Bavaro said, he never felt comfortable with the program at either of two schools he attended, La Canada and Westminster.

He never played a college game until he was 22, at Glendale. Before that, he had been a construction worker and a bouncer--a job more prestigiously known as a nightclub security official, Bavaro jokes.

But weight rooms were more Bavaro's scene than clubs, and a friend put him in touch with coaches at Glendale, where Spielbuehler was then coaching.

"When I first saw him, he'd never had experience playing in a game at all," Spielbuehler said. "The one thing he had was that natural explosiveness and quickness, those assets he still has now."

Then as now, Bavaro was ready to put in time with the projector. He knew he needed to.

"I was aggressive. That's what saved me at first," he said.

Spielbuehler put him on a crash course.

"He was learning things you normally learn in high school," Spielbuehler said.

He caught up quickly, and as a sophomore was named the most valuable community college defensive player in Southern California.

He signed with San Diego State, but left before the first game, and says now it just didn't work out. He checked with his contacts at Glendale, and hooked up with Spielbuehler again at Fullerton after sitting out the 1987 season. Last year, he had 25 tackles in seven games, six of those for losses.

This year, Bavaro has gotten off to a good start in his last season of college football.

He keeps his distance from many of the players. They don't really have much in common, he says. Last year, he was close to defensive lineman Alex Stewart. This year, it is center Marc Hauser.

"I don't really mess around much," Bavaro said. "I'm here to play football and go to school."

He also is there to try to impress professional scouts, hoping to be chosen in the National Football League draft, hoping for a career that can put behind the worries of unpaid bills.

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