By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Owen Schmitt and his mother woke up before dawn in Fairfax on a January morning in 2003. They borrowed a car from a family friend, filled the gas tank and drove 215 miles through snow to West Virginia University. When they finally pulled into the parking lot behind Mountaineer Field, Schmitt suggested they turn around.
Already during his winter vacation, Schmitt had made a half-dozen similar trips to colleges within driving distance of Fairfax. He had peddled a tape of his football highlights to coaches at Maryland, James Madison and Virginia Military Institute -- only to be turned away each time. As Schmitt sat in the car, he watched West Virginia players walk to and from Mountaineer Field and felt convinced that failure loomed again.
"Just look at these guys," Owen told his mother, Serena Drangle. "They're all ungodly giants. This is a waste of time. There's no way I could ever play here."
On Monday afternoon this week, Schmitt walked through the same parking lot, himself the ungodly giant. A senior preseason all-American for No. 4 West Virginia, Schmitt wore a tattered weightlifting T-shirt and hair shaped into a mohawk. His right thumb was heavily bandaged -- "a nuisance," he called it -- and a three-day beard obscured a few cuts on his cheeks. Schmitt is 6 feet 3, 260 pounds, and his coaches and teammates consider him the toughest player in college football, an essential cog in the offense for West Virginia, which will play Maryland in College Park at 7:45 p.m. tomorrow.
Even now, in his third year as West Virginia's starting fullback, Schmitt can't quite make sense of his role reversal. In five years, he progressed from a losing team at Fairfax High School to a losing team at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls to the West Virginia scout team to, finally and improbably, college football stardom.
"Honestly, my mind is kind of stuck back when I was the guy nobody noticed," Schmitt said. "Some days, I'll be talking on the phone with one of my old buddies, explaining all this, and it will just totally hit me. I mean, I can't believe I'm even playing with these guys."
Nor can teammates believe that they're playing with him. Schmitt has built a reputation at West Virginia for accomplishing the unbelievable, and his feats are gossiped among coaches and players like folklore. He can squat 650 pounds and clean more than 500, which means he can bend to the ground, pick up a quarter-ton weight and then lift it to his head. He bulldozes down the field headfirst when blocking, and he already has cracked and mangled eight face masks during his college career. One such twisted bar of steel sits in the office of West Virginia Coach Rich Rodriguez, who once said, "I didn't know you could bend those things before."
Schmitt has a high tolerance for pain borne from practice. He underwent several surgeries to correct a cleft palate as a child, including one when he was in fourth grade in which doctors inserted a piece of hip bone into his jaw. That scar runs under Schmitt's nose and pinches his upper lip, and it's a constant reminder that he has endured worse, no matter what football throws at him. Last season, Schmitt played through wrist, leg and back injuries. He separated a rib from his vertebrae late in the year, and he couldn't so much as sit down two days before West Virginia's bowl game. He played anyway, running for 109 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Georgia Tech.
"Whatever legend you've heard about Owen Schmitt, double it and you're getting close to the truth," said Bill Stewart, a West Virginia assistant coach. "The pro scouts come in here and leave drooling over him. This guy emulates everything you'd want in a football program. He's happy to do anything. And then he does everything well."
In West Virginia's win at Marshall on Saturday, Schmitt was on the field for 66 plays, lining up at fullback, tailback, tight end and wide receiver. It was, he said, the perfect role for him: a heavy dose of blocking for stars Patrick White and Steve Slaton interspersed with the occasional run of his own. Schmitt ran for more than 300 yards in both 2005 and 2006. In 120 carries for the Mountaineers, he has never lost yardage.
Coaches at West Virginia promote Schmitt as emblematic of what their program aspires to become. He's an honor roll student, a selfless team player and the star of the offseason weightlifting program. West Virginia fans cheer for him with cult-like fervor. At games, one group of students holds a giant sign that reads, "Schmitt Happens." Preteens have begun emulating his shaggy mohawk.
"He's like 'Rudy' or something," Slaton said. "Everybody loves him."
Said Schmitt: "I don't understand why I get that attention. I mean, we have actual stars on this team."
Schmitt spent his life identifying himself as the underdog, and the last few years have done little to override that outlook. He grew up with his grandparents in Gilman, Wis. -- a 500-resident town without a youth football league -- and moved to live with his mother in Fairfax after eighth grade. Schmitt spent two years on junior varsity at Paul VI Catholic before transferring to Fairfax High School. He became a star running back for one of the worst teams in the AAA Liberty District, but mediocre grades and a 6-14 record as a varsity player discouraged recruiters.
After graduation, he moved back north and joined the football team at the only school that would take him: Division III Wisconsin-River Falls, a team coached by John O'Grady, an old friend of Schmitt's grandfather.
During the team's first contact practice, Schmitt bruised three experienced linebackers during a blocking drill, and O'Grady blew his whistle. He pulled the freshman over to the sideline and asked Schmitt to sit out, so that he wouldn't hurt any of his teammates. Then O'Grady moved Schmitt to running back, where he amassed 1,063 yards as a freshman.
"It was so clear he didn't belong here," O'Grady said. "He loved hitting, loved contact, more than any kid I've ever had. After that first season, I told him: 'You've got bigger places to be. Go find them.' "
So Schmitt came home for winter break and started making road trips with his videotape. A coach at Maryland told him to "stay at River Falls," Schmitt said. Another school sent Schmitt's tape back to his mailbox in Fairfax, unopened.
One day before he flew back to Wisconsin for the second semester, resigned to a Division III career, he made the trip with his mother to West Virginia. He handed the tape to an assistant coach, who eventually passed it along to Rodriguez. A former walk-on himself, Rodriguez watched the tape and decided his scout team could use a gritty fullback. A few weeks later, West Virginia contacted Schmitt in Wisconsin and offered him a chance to pay his own way and join the practice squad as a walk-on in 2004.
"Anybody who watched him play that first year on the scout team knew he wasn't going to stay there," said Stewart, the assistant coach. "He was tearing it up, making our guys look silly. All of us coaches kind of looked at each other like, you know, 'Wow.' It was kind of like that feeling of just winning the lottery."