Ties That Bind

He was the bad kid in the neighborhood.

Really?

“Yeah,” Nate Pirak said, “I probably was.”

Not a bad kid.

“A mischievous kid,” Mike Rohrbach said. “He lacked a little direction.”

Pirak would find the direction he needed with the help of the Rohrbach family.

Now, years later, he really is the bad kid in the neighborhood. Step into where he lives on Saturday afternoons in the fall and you’ll feel the full force of his 240-pound body from his middle linebacker position on the Central Washington University football team.

“He plays with a very high motor and a lot of intensity,” Wildcats defensive coordinator John Graham said. “His engine’s running all the time.”

In the weight room as well as on the field.

“He even competes in our winter conditioning program,” head coach Beau Baldwin said. “He comes in with the mentality that he’s going to get better and not just get through this.”

That mentality has helped make Pirak the player he is today: the leading tackler on the 19th-ranked Wildcat team, which goes for its sixth win in seven starts Saturday (6 p.m.) against arch-rival Western Washington in the teams’ fifth annual Battle in Seattle at Qwest Field.

Watching from the stands and cheering him on will be the family that made a big difference in his life — the Rohrbachs, the father Mike and the mother Karen.

“When I see them,” Pirak said, “it’s like my family.”

The familial ties extend to the Wildcat football team.

A Rohrbach offspring is a teammate of Pirak’s. Chris Rohrbach is one of the leading receivers for the Wildcats.

Theirs is a tight relationship. “We are really close,” Chris said.

They lived in the same neighborhood growing up in Edmonds. Then, when Pirak’s parents got divorced, the Rohrbach family “was always there for me,” Pirak said.

“In the summer, he pretty much moved into our home,” Mike said. “He’s been with us a long time. We love him like a son.”

Chris and Nate would go on to play football together at Meadowdale High School and help breathe life into a moribund program.

“They worked hard to turn everything around from somewhat of a non-competitive culture to a competitive culture,” Meadowdale coach Mark Stewart said. “They set a standard of how we were going to do things. They came out their senior year and were determined we were going to be a good football team.”

And the Mavericks were a good team, reaching the state playoffs before falling to O’Dea. And so ended the days of Nate and Chris playing together. Or so they thought.

Chris headed to the University of Washington and Nate enrolled at a community college in Mesa, Ariz.

Though he had a partial scholarship to play football at Western Washington, Chris opted to walk on at the UW for sentimental reasons. His father had played for the Huskies in the 1970s and was a co-captain on the first Don James Rose Bowl team. Then, starting in 1989, Mike became the Husky team chaplain, serving until last year, when he resigned so he could watch Chris and Nate play for Central.

Unlike most kids coming into a big-time college football program, Chris felt right at home from the start at the UW. Like he said, with his dad as team chaplain, “I grew up in the Husky locker room.”

Husky players often showed up at the Rohrbach home. “Chris grew up catching balls in the backyard from Mark Brunell and Brock Huard,” Mike said.

It was another Husky quarterback who influenced Chris into turning out for football his freshman year of high school. Up until that time, he had played soccer, basketball and baseball, and was very good at all three sports.

Then he heard Husky quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo speak at a Run To Win sports camp for youth. “Marques said a lot of kids make the mistake of specializing in one sport,” Mike recalled. “The next day, Chris decided he was going to turn out for football. He moved to the varsity after one practice.”

Shortly thereafter, he was a starting wide receiver.

While the Huskies didn’t offer him a scholarship, they did invite him to walk on and — after a redshirt freshman year — he got to dress for all the home games for the next two years, though he never saw any action.

That doesn’t mean he didn’t have some thrilling moments. Former Huskies often talk about the rush they got from running out of the tunnel onto the field at Husky Stadium on game day. Imagine then the feeling of running onto the field with your dad at your side.

“Before the first Husky game he suited up for, he said, ‘I would love to have you run next to me,’” Mike said with a little emotion in his voice. “I had tears in my eyes. After that, every game, there he was. It kind of became our tradition.”

But as much as Chris enjoyed being there with his dad, he missed actually being on the field, playing the game, rather than just practicing all the time.

“I loved my situation at the UW,” Chris said. “I liked my receiver coach, I had the utmost respect for Coach Willingham, but I wanted to play football.”

In January of 2006, he enrolled at Central. Six weeks later, he was joined by his good friend Nate Pirak, a transfer from Mesa CC.

A running back and cornerback in high school, Pirak had switched to middle linebacker in junior college. His inspiration? It was his father figure, Mike Rohrbach, a former linebacker himself. Rohrbach the elder was also the one who introduced Pirak to perhaps the greatest middle linebacker of all time: Dick Butkus, showing him game films of the former Chicago Bear.

Butkus became his idol.

Last year, Rohrbach got on the field for the first time since high school, but only for about half the season. A broken hand sidelined him a week before the Battle in Seattle. Pirak sat out the 2006 season, leaving him with two years of football eligibility.

Needless to say, Baldwin is happy to have both players on his team.

“Chris is doing a great job,” the coach said, noting that Rohrbach, a senior, has yet to drop a pass. “He has sneaky speed and he understands the game extremely well. You can tell he’s been around football and understands the entire game.”

As for Pirak, “he plays the game with a lot of emotion. That’s who he is.”

As well as a guy you want to try and avoid in the neighborhood on Saturday afternoons.

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