UCLA tackle Sean Sheller is back where he belongs


Take a stroll across the UCLA practice fields with tackle Sean Sheller and walk the length of a college football career in his cleats.

Start at the north end, where the defensive linemen toil. This is where Sheller spent last season as practice fodder after a lifetime as an offensive lineman.

Meander across the sun-baked synthetic turf to a spot between the two fields. This is where Sheller leaned on crutches in 2008 in the aftermath of an ATV accident that chewed up his left knee and cost him a starting job.

Finally, head over to the offensive line pit at south wall. Here, Sheller now spends his days in sweaty bliss, among the blocking sleds and bags. This, Sheller says, is “home.”

The entire tour, with commentary, takes about 15 minutes north to south.

“That’s about 100 yards,” Sheller says, looking across the field. “But in my mind, it’s to the moon and back.”

Sheller, a fifth-year senior, can smile now after two years of having to grin and bear it.

“I see the guy I saw two years ago in spring practice,” offensive line coach Bob Palcic says.

Those two years, Sheller says, seem “a lifetime.”

Northern exposure

Sheller’s UCLA career began at the north end of the practice field, where the offensive line worked in 2006.

Going back there as a defensive tackle last fall seemed unnatural, as if he was a stranger in a strange land.

“I was like that kid who moves away as a second-grader, leaving all my friends behind,” Sheller says.

Asked to pitch in on defense, Sheller tried, but …

“I’d see him over there and it just didn’t look right,” offensive tackle Micah Kia says. “He’s a hoggy. We’re a different breed.”

Sheller felt much the same, saying, “I knew deep down in my heart that I was born to be an offensive lineman.”

In hindsight, there were benefits. For example, he gained a greater knowledge of how defensive linemen operated, crib notes he’ll reference this season.

But mostly there was frustration. He appeared in only three games — when the line needed bulking up for field-goal and extra-point tries. Otherwise, he played only in practice, for the scout team.

“I wondered if that was the only time I would ever be on the field,” Sheller says. Then, after the season, he was asked to go back to the offensive line.

“The party in my head lasted for a long time,” Sheller says.

Torn away

Sheller had played himself into a position to start for the Bruins in 2008, but instead ended up spending three months of that fall on crutches, shouldering regret.

“I’d let my teammates down. I’d let the fans down,” Sheller says.

His knee injuries occurred while his family was vacationing with friends in Lake Havasu. One night they took the ATV out for a spin.

“I was going fast and took too sharp a turn,” Sheller says. “It started to flip and I stuck my leg out, hoping to keep it from tipping over. Then I was on my back looking up at the stars, knowing something was seriously wrong.”

Sheller’s left leg was a mess, his ankle cut to the bone and two ligaments torn in the knee. A half-hour drive to one hospital led to a 45-minute ambulance ride to another for a four-hour stay in the emergency room, where “I could hear people whispering behind me, family and doctors, saying, ‘He may never play football again,’ ” Sheller recalls.

As slow as the strength in his knee came back, the healing of his emotions took even longer.

“I was into feeling sorry for myself,” Sheller says. “Then something clicked. It was time to take responsibility for my actions.

“I looked at myself and asked, ‘What kind of person are you? Are you a person who will crumble under all this, or are you going to rise from the ashes and become somebody?’ ”

Southern comfort

Sheller is almost giddy as he arrives at the south end at UCLA’s Spaulding Field. Pointing at the blocking sleds and bags, he says, “These are my toys. When you’re a little kid you have your little army guys. I’m 23. Look at this stuff. These things are fun.”

Fun came with opportunity. Xavier Su’a-Filo left on a two-year Mormon mission. An injury forced Nik Abele to retire. The Bruins needed offensive tackles.

Sheller spent the off-season gaining strength and bulk.

“He impressed me with his work to get back,” line coach Palcic says. “I think he looked in the mirror and said, ‘Hey, I haven’t had a lot success here for a lot of different reasons. This is the last shot.’ ”

Sheller came out of spring practice in the equation and, with Jeff Baca nursing a leg injury and facing an academic appeal to maintain eligibility, things started to add up.

Even that serious knee injury has taken on a positive spin.

“He called me the other day and told he got his arm tangled up with a defensive lineman and his elbow hurt,” says Sheller’s father, Steven. “He said, ‘Dad, that’s nothing compared to the pain I went through. I can handle this.’ ”

The journey from one wall of the practice fields to the other and back taught Sheller that lesson.

“I have a lot to make up for in one year,” Sheller says, looking at the blocking sleds and dummies. “But this is where I belong.”