'Bam-Bam' Plays at One Speed - Fast

To ascertain the origin of Christian Varner's nickname is to listen to a bunch of workable theories -- more than enough of them, really – before wandering away, confused and no nearer to figuring it out than when you started.

His mother says she began to call him ‘Bam-Bam’ because he had a large head as a kid, but Varner says the inspiration may have been his childhood habit of banging his cranium against the wall. There also exists the theory that Varner, Maryland’s starting free safety, earned the moniker because of his batting skills, which garnered him a baseball scholarship offer from Clemson as a center fielder.

And finally, according to teammates as well as the University of Maryland media guide, the nickname refers to his ability, as an undersized safety, to deliver a knee-wobbling hit.

No doubt Brad Schell would pick this option.

See, it was at Schell’s expense that Varner’s reputation as a big hitter and his nickname first intertwined – in College Park, at least. It was the spring game after Varner’s freshman year, and Schell caught a pass that led the brawny tight end directly into the path of Varner, who weighed around 180 pounds at the time.

“He broke my best friend’s collarbone,” UM quarterback Sam Hollenbach says.

Schell “was coming across on a little drag pattern and he caught the pass –- and this is a guy who’s six-five, two-fifty-five -– and Christian kind of gave him a helicopter. He flipped him around and broke his collarbone. It was a big-time hit,” Hollenbach says.

Says his former high school coach, Albert Howard: “He had one speed: fast. He’d hit everything that was moving and half the things that were standing still.”

But Varner, possibly the most consistent performer of the 85 scholarship players on Maryland’s roster, doesn’t see himself as a big hitter for a small guy – or as a small guy, period.

“Mentally, I don’t know I’m my size. I think I’m six-three, two-hundred-forty pounds,” Varner says. “You couldn’t tell me I’m my size. I really don’t know. I think that people are smaller than me when I go against them. I got a mental block.”

But his obstinance – while other kids gorged on cake at birthday parties, he demanded collard greens -- wasn’t always channeled into good. Varner went through a phase in his early teenage years that started with having girlfriends forge his mother’s name on doctor’s notes, which caused him to have to repeat the eighth grade, and culminated in his expulsion from Randallstown High School as a freshman.

Varner had been called up to the varsity football squad when he was caught with a box-cutter on school grounds and expelled. His mother, Dona Rawlings, was inconsolable. Christian had been her pride for so long, her church-loving, considerate little man. Rawlings, already scraping by her lonesome to raise Christian, his younger brother and sister along with two of her sister’s children, feared her eldest was slipping away.

After a few days she traded her tears for toughness.    

“You’re getting older,” she told him, “and I can’t take care of you forever.”

Rawlings had sent her son to Randallstown to avoid the problem-ridden neighborhood school. So enrolling at Woodlawn High, after all of this, would have been Russian Roulette. Instead, he enrolled at the Catonsville Center for Alternative Studies, a school for problem kids,

“He saw that wasn’t what he wanted to be for himself,” Rawlings says. “He didn’t belong there.”

Varner’s transformation, like some of his tackles, was swift and lasting. He collected straight As at Catonsville, satisfying a judge into letting him go back to Randallstown near the end of the school year.

“God blessed me,” he recalls, “and I stepped through it.”

Since then, he hasn’t veered off the path he planned when he promised his mother, at 13 years old, not to worry about paying for college because he was going to earn a scholarship.

“Since that incident, he’s been so on target, it’s crazy,” Rawlings said.

Randallstown athletic director Mike Gelman hopes Varner will return this season to speak with his students. His name remains almost legendary at the Baltimore County school, where Varner excelled in football, basketball and baseball.

“He didn’t make the same mistakes twice,” Gelman says. “He turned into a role model.”

He’s also begun to patch his relationship with his father, with whom he’s been spending more time than ever before, according to his mother. Dale Varner wasn’t around while his son was growing up, which, Christian says, helped formulate his attitude on the field.

“It’s from my childhood, the way I was raised. Don’t let nobody come in your house and mess with you. And when they do, they gotta pay for it. My mom raised me that way,” he says.

“I had to be the man of my house at a young age. So I had that man-mentality at a young age: It’s my house. It’s my family. These are my brothers.”

In his first year at Maryland, Varner earned playing time immediately and made the ACC All-Freshman team. He claimed a starting position as a sophomore, and he now anchors a defense expected to be a strong point for the 2006 Terrapins. His physicality allows the coaching staff to slide him toward the line of scrimmage for run-stopping purposes, but he also can cover wide receivers because he’s fast and shifts gears without hesitation, defensive backs coach Tim Banks said.

He’s also the guy who the rest of the defense looks to for guidance.

“He’s definitely one of the leaders of the team, not just the defense. I think he’s very well-respected. Character kid,” head coach Ralph Friedgen said. “He’s a very solid football player and a very competitive guy. Very good representative of a Maryland student-athlete.”

Those are the sort of comments that make Dona Rawlings cry. But then again, when it comes to Christian, she’s an equal-opportunity crier – at scrimmages, during games, during their nightly conversations. Whenever.

“The littlest things,” Varner says, smiling.

“I cry all the time because, I tell him, I don’t deserve him as a son,” she says.

While tears are mostly joyful, she also shudders to see her son in collisions. After he got the wind knocked out of him during his first youth-league game, he walked angrily off the field mid-game, took off his gear and told his mother he was retiring.

“That’s fine by me,” she said, relieved.

Just like he once promised her his scholarship, he tells her all the time about how he’s going to make the NFL. She attends all home games and makes as many road trips as possible. And her phone blows up whenever Maryland plays. She’s got a large family, and relatives in North Carolina, Alabama and West Virginia call her every time Christian is shown on TV making a tackle.

“When it gets into games, I mean, an animal comes out of me,” he says. ”And it’s just like, jump on it. Jump on this electric ride, ‘cause it’s gonna be fun.”

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