By John Sleeper
SEATTLE — It was Picture Day last Friday at Husky Stadium, and kid after kid was lined up for one reason.
They wanted to get this 6-foot-1, 300-pound guy to sign a T-shirt, a roster, toilet paper, anything.
The guy was Larry Tripplett, the Washington Huskies’ All-America candidate at defensive tackle. A two-year co-captain. A senior. An all-Pacific-10 Conference first-teamer last year. The best, most feared defensive lineman the Huskies have had since Steve Emtman.
Mean? Not a mean bone in his body. His fireplug body, his ear-to-ear grin, his clear, boyish eyes, his soft, singsong voice was more Pooh Bear than Cortez Kennedy.
The kids loved every minute of him.
"That’s fun for me," Tripplett said. "All the fans were coming up, bringing stuff for us to sign. Pictures of what they took of us even two years ago. That kind of attention I enjoy."
Tripplett gets a lot of attention these days, not all of it wanted. A Lombardi Award candidate, given to the nation’s top lineman. A consensus preseason All-American.
Virtually every preseason magazine tabs Tripplett among the elite players, let alone defensive tackles, in the country.
And that’s not entirely a bad thing. Although Tripplett says he won’t read the dozens of clippings from magazines and newspapers until sometime later, he does admit to liking the spotlight, just a tad.
"This is college football, man," he said. "We’re on a stage."
Tripplett says the word "we" a lot. While many claim to be a team guy, interested in victories more than stats, you believe Tripplett when he says it.
"Team wins," he said. "That’s what means everything. If I had zero tackles and zero sacks, that would be fine with me. Of course, I like to help contribute to the team. Who wouldn’t? But my goal is to get that victory.
"That Rose Bowl, man, there’s nothing like it. To accomplish something like that means more than pretty much anything in the world right now."
After all, what else did he have to prove by returning to Washington after his junior season? He had accomplished virtually everything anyone could. A Rose Bowl victory. Personal adulation. A certain amount of fame. Enough respect from his coaches and teammates to be elected a captain.
So why come back? Another shot at the stage. Another season with his buddies. One more year to be a kid.
Then there’s Michigan. Saturday. A high-profile game with two high-profile universities. National television. Keith Jackson.
"Michigan, that’s it," Tripplett said. "That’s what college football is all about. The only thing that could make it better is if it could be in the Rose Bowl."
But there is that NFL thing as well. To be brutally honest, one of the reasons Tripplett stayed in school was because of the depth of defensive linemen going into the NFL draft last April. Economics. Should Tripplett even come close to duplicating what he did last year, he stands to be more prominent in the draft and make a ton of green.
Tripplett certainly has room to improve, defensive line coach Randy Hart says. Tripplett can say all he wants about stats not being important to him, but numbers catch eyes. He certainly can add to his 7 1/2career sacks. His 77 tackles.
"There’s more for Larry to do," Hart said. "He can be more dominating. He can have the mentality that he can make every tackle. That’s what’s been missing. Part of it’s because he’s too darn nice."
And that’s what Tripplett’s had to do. Get Emtman mean. Every game. Every play.
It’s been an uphill fight for the youngster who was raised in Los Angeles by his mother, his grandmother and two older sisters.
"If you watch him with his family," Hart says, "that’s all you need to know about Larry."
So the personality issue might be an obstacle in the angry world of football, especially in the NFL. But slowly, you begin to see the transformation. Yes, Tripplett still is the Bill Cosby-loving kid who grew up in LA, but he also pinned freshman offensive lineman Robin Meadow to the ground in a fit of anger at training camp.
"I’m the kind of guy that, if you don’t bother me, I won’t bother you," Tripplett said. "But if I’m pushed, I can get that angry. I’m a totally different player when I’m mad than when I’m just doing my job. I’m one of those guys who probably needs to get mad."
Randy Hart is going to love hearing that.
Offensive linemen, however, will have a different reaction.