Speaking for the entire beleaguered offensive line, Lou Lombardo sat at an oval table Tuesday to face the media -- a battery of tape recorders, microphones and television cameras -- three days after Maryland's worst performance in years.
Lombardo's presence, as much as his words, spoke volumes about his new-found status as a starter, and a leader, with the Terps. He talked about refocusing and regrouping as a team, and about taking responsibility as a senior for offensive line breakdowns that helped render the offense feeble.
What he didn't address was his incremental rise through the depth chart over five years, how he learned on the field from predecessors -- Eric Dumas, Matt Crawford, Tim Howard -- and learned off the field how to conquer a sizeable obstacle: dyslexia.
Lombardo, Maryland's 22-year-old starting right tackle, will play a key role tomorrow,when the Terps (3-2) host North Carolina State (3-2) in a season-defining ACC game at Byrd Stadium. As one-fifth of an offensive line that recently has been banged up and beaten, Lombardo's task is to help contain the Wolfpack's pass rush, expected to be significant, and allow time for Maryland's quarterback to work in the pocket.
Dyslexia? He's all but mastered it now, which is why he initially was reluctant to speak of the neurological learning disability he was diagnosed with in eighth grade. Dyslexia, which has affected former athletes such as Nolan Ryan and Bruce Jenner, causes difficulties decoding and recognizing words and numbers.
There is no cure, aside from working hard and relying on support from family and friends. Lombardo has done both. "He understands what his limitations are and he's come great lengths to overcome them," Maryland offensive line coach Tom Brattan said.
In high school, Lombardo followed a regimented schedule; he had no choice. Football practice was followed by a study session at home that often lasted until at least 1 a.m. His father double-checked his math homework. His mother inspected English assignments.
"I was a night owl," said Lombardo, a two-time first-team all-state selection at Calvert Hall College High in Baltimore. "I had to do it because if I didn't' take the extra time to really sit down and study, I would make mistakes and do badly in school."
Besides Maryland, Lombardo also was courted by Penn State and Ohio State, neither of which had offered a scholarship as early as former Maryland coach Ron Vanderlinden. When Lombardo verbally committed to Maryland, both Big Ten schools still tried to sway him, said Lombardo, who told each program, "I gave Maryland my word."
In College Park, dyslexia became a "daily thing." Maryland coaches acknowledge Coach Ralph Friedgen's offense is difficult enough to grasp without a learning disability.
Dyslexia most often caused Lombardo to mentally flip-flop numbers on play calls. For instance, he'd set himself at the line of scrimmage, hear "45" called as an audible and inexplicably run "54." "I'll be thinking 45, 45, 45," Lombardo said, "and I'll be almost positive it's right in my brain and I've just run 54. So it's like, 'Man,' " he sighed.
During summers, Lombardo teamed with left guard C.J. Brooks for extra instruction. After mid-summer workouts, the two gathered in an upstairs classroom in the Gossett Team House or on the practice field for 30-minute sessions. Brooks quizzed him, either by writing notes on a board or rattling them off orally. What's your assignment if this happens? Where do you go here? They repeated and repeated. Said Brooks, "It definitely helped that we did that."
Added Lombardo: "You just rep it, rep it, rep it. Over the years it starts to go and you start to lose it. You just match the number with what you do."
In addition, the coaching staff gave Lombardo tapes that highlighted his assignments, which he pored over.
"I think it's the role of a coach," Brattan said. "If they are your players, you find the best way for them to learn. Some are visual, some are book, some are repetition, some are film. It's your job to be as patient as you can be until they learn the stuff. You have what you have, and it's your job to make them into players."
As a criminology major, Lombardo doesn't encounter too many problems because numbers aren't typically involved. But he's also adopted geography as a major, and numbers are starting to become a factor again.
It is not a problem as long as he reads and rereads his work, always remembering that "the biggest key is finding someone not dyslexic to check your work."
Lombardo said he's glad he didn't wait for Ohio State or Penn State to offer scholarships. He knows he chose the right school, which is only a short drive from family.
This year, with the learning disability improving, he is starting for the first time and will play a pivotal role in Maryland's most important game of the season to date.
Concluded Lombardo, "I'm ecstatic."