CHARLOTTESVILLE -- Stalking his domain in size 14 shoes with an equal mix of speed and fury, charm and charisma, Chris Slade, the Virginia Cavaliers' defensive end, is as much the politician as the pass rusher.
His high school teammates dubbed him "The Chief" for his slight resemblance to Boston Celtics center Robert Parish. His football antics conjure up vintage memories of Mark Gastineau's sack-dancing, arm-waving, trash-talking career with the New York Jets.
Off the field, Slade is even more loquacious. He greets nearly everyone as he walks to class, carries on an ongoing debate with basketball player Bryant Stith about who reigns as the big man on campus, and may even take his voice to the student airwaves this fall on a weekly sports radio show.
"That's just the way Chris is," said Cavaliers tailback Terry Kirby, Slade's distant cousin. "In this time of your life, you have to be a little cocky."
Problem is, Slade is just a sophomore. He angered several of the Cavaliers' elder statesmen last season with visionary comments of one day captaining the team. He amused reporters with thoughts on college being academically easier than high school and tales of his golfing exploits with Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants. And Coach George Welsh booted him from practice several times for roughing up quarterback Shawn Moore -- accidentally, of course.
"I didn't do it on purpose," Slade said. "That's how I got noticed last year -- doing things that coaches see."
Yet his outlandish behavior is condoned because his pass rushing makes him an anomaly on a team that had only 17 sacks last season. On his first collegiate play, Slade planted Penn State quarterback Tom Bill into the Beaver Stadium grass. Welsh knew he had something big, and scrapped an experiment last spring that had Slade moving into outgoing senior Ray Savage's slot, a hybrid defensive end-linebacker position that capitalized on Savage's pass coverage talents.
The move may have been doomed from the start, what with Slade going for the ball -- or whoever had the ball -- on every play. Action is a big hang-up with him, and he's tickled to be back at pure defensive end. "After dropping back in coverage for nothing and not being able to hit anyone on every play, I wanted to get back at defensive end in the action where I wouldn't get bored," he said.
"We decided we wanted him back where he is to rush the passer," Welsh said. "Those are guys that are hard to come by, and we think he's pretty good at it."
Good enough for a total of 52 tackles, 4 sacks, 3 pass breakups, 2 fumbles caused and Virginia's defensive most valuable player award in the Cavaliers' 31-21 Citrus Bowl loss to Illinois. Not bad for a player who arrived here as a sidekick to Kirby, the 1988 consensus national high school player of the year.
The two led Tabb (Va.) High School to a 43-4 record in football and took the basketball team to the state tournament during their four years. But Slade, who received numerous state and national awards, was more the handyman while Kirby captured state AA player of the year honors in both sports.
"I always did all the dirtywork," said Slade, who hasn't ruled out the possibility of joining Kirby on Virginia's basketball team. "He scored the touchdowns and in basketball he scored all the points and I got all the rebounds. . . . People knew I was there, but he got most of the credit."
That ended last year when Kirby was sidelined with a rib injury against William and Mary the same week defensive end Don Reynolds suffered a sprained ankle. Slade stepped into Reynolds's starting role the next week at Clemson, and remained there when Reynolds returned a month later. Meanwhile, Kirby missed three games, and once the ribs healed he saw only limited action behind Marcus Wilson.
It didn't take long for Slade's outrageousness to manifest itself. Several Cavaliers taunted Clemson when the Tigers rumbled down the hill leading into Clemson's Memorial Stadium, and Slade led the charge. The verbal jousting didn't help though, and Virginia lost to Clemson for the 29th straight time.
The teams meet here Sept. 8, and most of Slade's teammates have adopted Welsh's policy of not commenting on the game until after Virginia's opener at Kansas. Not Slade. "This is going to be the year we take them," he said. Clemson recruiters apparently bad-mouthed Virginia during Slade's senior year of high school, and he hasn't forgotten. "I have a personal vendetta against Clemson."
His 6-foot-5, 225-pound physique is 13 pounds heavier than a year ago, and he insists he hasn't toned down the out-of-control act that helped him earn the Bill Dudley award as the team's outstanding freshman.
And no one -- friend or foe -- seems to be able to slow him down. Even the Virginia coaches concede they aren't always sure whether to have Slade play the standard team defense, or just leave him alone to wreak havoc on opposing offenses.
It's no secret which option he prefers.
Said Slade: "I like Plan B."