A UNITED FRONT
Never without an opinion or unwilling to express it, Andy Meyers is offering insight about his running mates on UCLA’s offensive line.
“Chad Sauter is so laid-back,” he says. “It can be fourth and one for the national championship and Sauter will be singing a song.”
But probably not a solo.
“Usually after I sing a couple of verses, I’m not the only one singing,” Sauter responds. “They’ll jump in.”
From right tackle to left, they are Chad Overhauser, Meyers, Shawn Stuart, Sauter and Kris Farris. Or, Granddad, Mr. Dirt, the Brain, Joe Cool and the Kid, and their song will be “Auld Lang Syne” in Dallas at the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day against Texas A&M.;
Wedding bells have failed to break up that old gang of theirs, but graduation will end their string of having started 21 of the Bruins’ last 23 games as a fivesome, keeping opponents off quarterback Cade McNown and opening holes for Skip Hicks.
Only Sean Gulley, who arrived at UCLA with most of them, broke up the group and only briefly, starting the USC game of 1996 for Meyers, who had broken his leg, and the Washington State game of this season when Sauter was slow to recover from a back injury, and slower to convince coaches that he really was the player they wanted at left guard.
“I almost shed a tear in the Washington game when they introduced the seniors,” says Stuart, a junior. “Me and Andy came in with most of those guys. The only one we didn’t come in with was Farris, and we’ve played games and been with him.
“We’ve been playing together a long time.”
Save for Farris, they were recruited together and signed letters of intent together. Most were on the scout team and then backups together and, except for Overhauser, took first-string positions together.
And lived together. And have eaten together, away from campus every week or so.
“It doesn’t really matter where, as long as it’s food and there’s lots of it,” Overhauser says. “We aren’t too finicky.”
Adds Sauter of the five devoted trenchermen, “It’s a pretty ugly sight, I’ll tell you.”
They have stood up in Overhauser’s wedding.
“Andy was a little upset [at losing a roommate], but since I let him in my wedding party, he was happy,” Overhauser says. “He was one of my groomsmen. He also did the toast. Shawn was in it, also. And Chad and Kris came.”
And another wedding is planned.
Meyers says he and Stuart haven’t been away from each other more than 10 days in five years, and when Stuart is married next year, there is unsmiling talk of adding a room to make sure the two aren’t far enough apart to forget blocking assignments.
The group has suffered the pains of 6:30 a.m. workouts with strength-conditioning Coach Kevin Yoxall together, and grown to 300 pounds together, stretched over frames varying from Stuart’s 6 feet 3 to Farris’ 6-9.
They have gone to class together--"Stu and I have had the same academic schedule for five quarters,” Meyers says.
And they have dealt with UCLA’s revolving door for offensive line coaches together, from guys such as Bob Palcic and Steve Marshall, who stressed strength and intimidation, to Mike Sherman and current line coach Mark Webber, who lean heavily toward technique.
In between was Don Riley, who was just that, in between.
They have turned five Xs on a play sheet into flesh-and-blood individuals, with frailties and shortcomings, and with compensations for those shortcomings.
“We make up for what other people lack,” Meyers says. “If I have trouble doing something, Shawn might do something a little different to compensate for me, and vice versa. We just know how we play. If there’s a play that some people just can’t get their heads to run it right, we just do something to compensate for it.
“I remember walking in here--five years ago for those guys, four years ago for me--and we were bumping into each other and falling all over the place. We didn’t know which way we were going. We didn’t know which way was the entrance to Spaulding Field. Now everything is smooth. We’re smooth. Hips are together, shoulders are together, stunts [by defensive linemen] are passed off well.”
Says McNown of the five, who tied for fewest sacks given up in the Pacific 10 with 24 this season, “They’re the group to be with. They’re the group everybody wants to hang out with.”
But only if everyone is an offensive lineman. No backs or receivers need apply.
“We pretty much have somebody always living together,” says Stuart, who then recited from the Book of Behemoths, Chapter I, Verse 1: “Linemen always live with linemen. You live with linemen and that’s the way it goes.”
Says Meyers of the backs and receivers, “We’re too high-class for them.”
It began with Overhauser, from Sacramento, and Sauter, from Torrance, in 1993, sizing each other up and deciding that two XXXLs belonged under the same roof.
“We came down here at spring football practice, after I signed my letter of intent, and he was here and we sat down and watched practice and I introduced myself,” Overhauser says. “And I said, ‘Hey, you want a roommate here?’ And that’s how it happened.”
The same year, there were Meyers, from Fontana, and Stuart, from Saugus.
“Shawn and I . . . roomed together at the [high school] Shrine game before we were incoming freshman,” Meyers says. “We got hurt together. Well, I got hurt in the Shrine game and he got hurt in two-a-days. So we had medical hardship together. And we came in and roomed together in Saxon Suites as freshmen.”
Meyers broke his leg in the Shrine game, and Stuart blew out a knee in a preseason scrimmage with the Bruins. Both stayed out of school during the fall of 1993 and rehabilitated, and they came in together, a year of eligibility saved. That’s why they are juniors and Sauter and Overhauser are seniors.
A year later, it was Stuart, Meyers and Overhauser.
“Shawn and Andy and I went to the same church for a long time,” Overhauser says. “I said, ‘Let’s move in with each other’ and our living situation was great.
"[Sauter] wanted to live in Westwood and we wanted to live a little more off campus. So he stayed in Westwood and we moved over by Westside Pavilion. We paid less rent than he did, but we had to pay for a parking pass and he doesn’t.”
Sauter’s reasoning was that “they could do my praying for me.
“I like the night life. I love the fun of being in college. I want to be around all the fun so after the game I can hang around Westwood and party with my peers.”
By then Overhauser had pushed ahead, starting the last nine games of the 1994 season at right tackle when Paul Kennedy was injured.
Sauter had also started three times at left guard when James Christensen had knee problems.
Meyers and Stuart were scout teamers, cannon fodder.
And Farris was in high school in Mission Viejo.
“When I came in here my freshman year . . . I was so intimidated by the older-linemen clique that I never thought I would be a part of it,” he says. “Because I’m playing now, they knew they had to let me in or else, because you have to play as a unit or it’s not going to work out.”
Farris became a project for the other four.
“Farris came here with bigger intentions of film school than football and he’s pulled a 180[-degree turn],” McNown offers. “Football is a lot more important to him now. Starting has a lot to do with that.”
To start, Farris had to learn that it was OK to be a bull if the china shop is the offensive line.
“I have three sisters, and my whole life was adults telling me ‘You can’t be too aggressive, you’re too big,’ ” he says. “ ‘If you’re aggressive, you’re going to hurt someone. You can’t roughhouse with someone, you’re going to hurt them. You can’t play these games with people because you’re going to hurt them.’
“It’s one of those you-don’t-know-your-own-strength deals.
“So when you get on the football field, it’s kind of the opposite. You have to maul this person with your size and use it to your advantage. It’s a whole different frame of mind.”
Sauter taught him. So did Meyers, and the others chimed in.
Farris made it easy.
“We liked Farris from the start,” Meyers says. “The day he walked in, he was cracking jokes. He’s always been a hard worker . . . and that’s all we care about. We don’t care if you’re the best athlete, if you’re horrible and you work hard, you’re automatically with us. If you’re good and you’re a slacker, you aren’t going to enjoy your five years here.”
This season, Farris won the UCLA Pancake Award, which has nothing to do with breakfast, but everything to do with putting the guy in front of you flat on the ground.
It’s a testimony to aggression, and an eclectic group has its comedian in Farris.
“He’s goofy,” Meyers says.
And Overhauser is, well . . .
“Overhauser is more like the calm, granddad kind of figure,” Sauter says.
Adds McNown, “Overhauser acts a lot older than he is. He’s 22, maybe, but he walks around like he’s 29.”
And Meyers . . .
“He’s the dirt of the offensive line,” Sauter says. “He’s like the ugliest stepchild in the closet. You don’t want to tell anybody about him, but you love what he does.
“He’s the mercenary of the offensive line. He’s the one who does things that we all want to do, but our consciences tell us not to. He plays so aggressively and he’s always on the verge of rioting. He’s a hell of a guy off the field, but a nut on the field. He always wants to hit somebody.”
Says Meyers, “I’m the one out of control.”
Stuart is the one in control.
“Stu is the quarterback,” Meyers says. “He makes sure Cade audibles right. I’m not kidding. Stu knows the routes, the signals. He knows his stuff.”
Says McNown of suggestions that Stuart helps him with audibles, “I don’t think I’ve heard that, or maybe I didn’t listen.”
With a 3.57 grade-point average, Stuart is mentally qualified to handle the list he goes through every time he calls the blocking assignments.
Sauter, the only offensive lineman with a GPA below 3.1--he’s at 2.6--goes on experience and energy.
“I’m the anti-Shawn as far as academics go,” he says. “It sounds bad, but I’ve never really been interested in school. I’ve always loved the competition in pretty much every aspect of my life besides school. Everything I pick up, I try to be the best at. I even drive aggressively.”
His laid-back demeanor is a bit misleading, and perhaps it fooled coaches who decided he shouldn’t start the season opener at Washington State.
“Sauter is his own individual,” Meyers says. “I think Sauter’s a harder worker than people give him credit for. I just knew Sauter was the best player. It was a little bump for him, [and losing the starting job for a game] built a little fire under him. We took it as it was and said, ‘Gully is here, so here we go.’ Then Sauter was in and the O-line went from 75% to 100.”
The 100% will be reduced by 40% after New Year’s Day, with Sauter and Overhauser moving on and Oscar Cabrera and Brian Pollak moving in.
“We’ve played together so long, I know everybody’s quirks and they know mine,” Meyers says. “They’re like my brothers. It kind of stresses me out that they are leaving. We have younger guys that are going to step up and they’ll be good, but it will be different.”
Different roommates with different memories.
And a different song to sing.