"Got yo' back!" It's one of those streetwise playground phrases that has entered the modern vernacular. It's an expression of friendship and protection. For the uninitiated, it's short for, "I've got your back covered," and it implies, "If anyone wants to harm you, they'll have to come through me."
From the steel town of Emmaus, Pennsylvania (outside Allentown), Pat Green, Vanderbilt's starting right tackle, might not be the most streetwise player the Commodores have had. But for the fifth-year senior, the phrase could hardly be more suitable.
Vandy quarterback Greg Zolman, you see, is a lefthander. As he sets up to pass, he turns his body to face the left sideline to throw off his left foot, and his vulnerable backside faces right. That makes it the right tackle's-- Green's-- job to obstruct gargantuan gorillas whose mission it is to assail Zolman from the stern prior to release.
The pass rushers in the SEC are always among the nation's tops. Vanderbilt's ability to protect Zolman from rear-enders this year, to keep him healthy and in the game, will be one of the keys to its season-- making the role of the 6-7, 340-pound Green a vital one.
"If I miss a block, if I miss a pass protection, he's going to get killed, and he's not even going to know it," said Green. "He's a three-year starter, so he's a pretty valuable asset back there. We've got to protect him as best we can. I think we [the Vandy offensive line] did a really good job of that last year."
Indeed they did. Green and his mates surrendered only 15 sacks the whole 2000 season, or 1.4 per game-- a key reason Zolman was able to play every meaningful snap.
In the flurry of hype that precedes the 2001 season, it's Zolman who's the magazine cover boy, the player most often projected for an All-SEC season. But if Zolman has the year most Vandy fans are expecting, he may end up owing Green & Co. more than a few steak dinners.
Fortunately for Zolman and the other Vandy signal-callers, getting around a man of Green's stature is no small task. The "Green Mountain"-- or the "Green Monster", take your pick-- is the heaviest player in school history, a man not easily circumvented. (Green's teammates prefer the moniker "Green Bean." Why? Next to Mississippi State's 360-pound lineman "Pork Chop" Womack, Green is just a "side dish," yuk, yuk.)
Most linemen of Pat's height must follow a strict protein diet to add the weight necessary to play the position-- but that was never a problem for Pat. Even in kindergarten, Pat dwarfed the other kids on the playground. His body expanded upward as it expanded outward. "My freshman year of high school I was 6-5, 300 pounds," he says. "That was what, nine years ago? I'm pretty much used to being this big."
There was never much question that Pat would have mammoth bulk, for in the Green family, beefiness is-- how shall I put this?-- widespread. Green's father played center for Notre Dame during the Hanratty-Theismann era, and his grandfather played for Loyola-New Orleans. An uncle on his mother's side was 6-6, 270, and a great uncle blocked for Tulane in the inaugural Sugar Bowl game. Becoming a football lineman was almost Green's manifest destiny.
"Pat's pediatrician had never seen a child grow so big so fast," said Pat's father, David Green of Emmaus. "We knew Pat would be large from day one. Although he was a big baby weight-wise (9 pounds), he was also extremely long. Pat's legs bowed so much that before he could even walk, his legs were put into casts to straighten them. The docs surmised that he was so big in utero that there was simply not enough room for his legs to develop normally."
When conversing with Pat Green, however, one must quickly discard every stereotypical notion about oafish offensive linemen. This is a man who notched a 1370 on the SAT, who graduated from Vandy on time-- despite the enormous demands placed upon Vanderbilt student-athletes-- and who has been accepted into the prestigious Owen School of Management.
Few fans realize how much thinking is involved in playing offensive line. "I'd say a good 90 percent of playing the line is mental," says Green. "Once you're playing at this level, everyone is more or less the same size. The mental aspect is, you have to know what you're doing, and you have to know what your opponent is doing before they do it."
Few offensive line recruits are physically mature enough to see action during their first year on campus, and most wind up redshirting as true freshmen. Yet Green remains the only offensive lineman during the Widenhofer regime to see action as a true freshman. "It was baptism by fire," he says now.
His first two years he saw mostly spot duty. In the 1998 Florida game when starter Raminte Byndom went out, a wide-eyed Green was abruptly thrust into the fray. Staring across the line of scrimmage, he saw none other than Jevon Kearse staring back. "It was interesting," he says. Three weeks later he got his first start, against the Tennessee team that went on to a national championship. "That was interesting too," he says.
Before the 1999 season, a year in which Vandy won 5 games, Green injured his knee and ended up taking a medical redshirt. Unable to run, Green failed to change his eating habits, and his weight ballooned upward-- to how much, he doesn't know. But Strength Coach Todd Suttles has stayed on top of Green to keep his weight down to a MERE 340-- and his strength up. "I got 225 [pounds] for 30 [repetitions] the other week," said Green.
Based on his size alone, he has a decent shot at going to the NFL, as a number of his teammates have recently done. But if that doesn't work out, the man-mountain will also have a Vanderbilt M.B.A. degree in his back pocket. He will have plenty of options.
Green honestly doesn't seem to mind that the big hawgs up front labor in obscurity, while guys like Zolman get all the pub. "That's just our place in life," he chuckles. "You learn to live with it."
Despite the fact that Green is a lineman and the lean Zolman plays a so-called "skill position", a number of things have worked to link the unlikely pair together. They both come from the Rust Belt. They both became part of Woody Widenhofer's first recruiting class. Their first summer on campus, they were assigned to live together. "He [Zolman] is probably the cleanest person you'll ever meet, and I'm a little more messy," Green laughs. "That was kind of fun. But we got along really well."
Both Green and Zolman obtained their undergraduate degrees last May. And both were accepted by Owen, where they will begin pursuing graduate degrees this month, in addition to trying to help Vandy toward that elusive winning season.
So even over at Owen this fall, nobody better mess with Zolman. 340-pound Pat Green will have his back covered over there, too.