Stephen Hoffmann: Blood, Guts and Brotherly Love

It is rare sight when two brothers have the opportunity to play football together at the collegiate level. Stephen Hoffmann was able to do just that in 1991, when he signed with the Washington Huskies; joining his older brother, All-American linebacker Dave "Hammer' Hoffmann. But the roots of this brotherly bond trace back to Garland, Texas, and the spit-and-vinegar nature that each boy possessed.

"Dave loved sports," said Stephen to Dawgman.com recently. "I was three years younger than him. He'd grab me and take me outside and he'd say, `Let's throw the football,' or, `Let's go shoot some hoops.' One particular time, some guys from down the street were much older than us. Dave was probably in about the fifth grade and I was in the second grade, and these guys were in the ninth grade. We challenged them to a game of tackle football. They said, `Sure, we'll take you on.' I remember I went to tackle this one guy and put my eye right in his knee. I had the biggest black eye of my life. It was so bad that the next day I couldn't even open my eye. But football was fun for us to play. We had a lot of experiences like that."

At about the time Hoffmann was in the sixth grade, his family relocated to San Jose, California. Stephen described the tradition and togetherness that permeated the Hoffmann household.

"At our house a lot of our buddies would congregate," said Stephen. "Our Mom and Dad put in a pool. With everybody over there all the time, instead of calling it Club Med, it got to be known as Club Hoff. Everyone in school knew of our place as Club Hoff. My Mom was known as Mama Hoff. That was a source of pride for her. It was just a cool place to hang out, come over and take a swim. The night before football games, the guys would come over and have a spaghetti feed. Mom and Dad would cook up all-you-could-eat spaghetti, and everyone had a place to hang out. I appreciated it, because we had a pretty close family; it was a chance for us to share that closeness with other people from school, and in particular the guys on the team. So it was pretty cool."

Dave Hoffmann went off to college at Washington, but returned at breaks to visit his family. And he brought certain Husky teamamtes along to experience Club Hoff. "Oh yea," said Stephen with a chuckle. "(Steve) Emtman, (James) Clifford and (Mark) Brunell all came down. It was a long trip, but they made it... I always liked to tell Emtman that it was at Club Hoff where I taught him how to dunk a basketball."

Stephen Hoffmann was highly recruited coming out of high school, taking a trip to Notre Dame and having the opportunity to visit Miami. He signed with the Huskies and redshirted in 1991. It was in the following year that Stephen got the chance to play with his brother.

"I was backing up Mike Lustyk, and he went down with an injury," Stephen said. "The next game against Stanford was to be my first start. And it was great having a guy like Dave in the huddle there. Just having a big-time stud around you, along with guys like James Clifford and D'Marco Farr, made it great. I was a little bit nervous, given it was my first start. But really, the way Coach (Don) James drilled us in practices, it was quite hard, and with no idle time at all. By the time you got to the game, you were ready and comfortable in that situation."

That day became even more memorable with the younger Hoffmann tallying a quarterback sack and securing a key fumble recovery.

"Stanford went for it on 4th and one," said Stephen. "I was able to get through the line and snatch the ball up. It was a pivotal moment in the game, and it was a lot of fun to play with Dave that year."

By the spring of 1993, Dave Hoffmann graduated and moved on to the NFL's Chicago Bears. For Stephen the following autumn, the unfortunate reality of injuries suddenly beset his powerful 6-foot-6, 290-pound frame. For the next three years, he endured more than his share of physical ailments. The first signs of trouble emerged just prior to Washington's season opener in 1993.

"It was the morning we were playing Stanford during warmups, and my calf started to feel real tight," he said. "I was thinking it was a muscle that wouldn't loosen up. So I played on it. But as the day went on, I was talking with Dr. (Steve) Bramwell and Dr. (William) Scheyer and describing how the pain was going up my leg and into my hamstring. That was their first inkling that it was a problem with my sciatic nerve, and a disk issue in my back. They said that I had about twelve weeks to decide what to do. The reason they said twelve weeks is that if it is pinched for more than twelve weeks, that's when you start risking permanent damage.

"I went to Ohio State (the next game) and gave it my all. But it was a tough deal, as I felt like I was playing on one good leg and one wooden leg, or useless leg. I had surgery and I am glad that I did. I got back to spring practice the next year."

It was in September 1994 that the Huskies traveled to Miami, and ended the Hurricanes' NCAA record home winning streak at 58 straight games. Stephen Hoffmann relishes the memory.

"We were still on probation, we were not able to go to a bowl game yet," he said. "To us, we looked at that game as a chance to show the nation what kind of team we were. We were also listening to the Miami guys talking about how they were going to mark the wall with our name (with a tombstone signifying 59 consecutive wins).

"It was hot and humid and we stuck with them. We were in great shape. I remember seeing many of those Miami guys falling down to the ground with cramps in the 3rd and 4th quarter. I got some good shots on their quarterback. I was also able to knock a ball up for one of our 'backers to get it. I would usually fake a pass rush and try to tie up one or two offensive lineman for just enough time to let one of one our 'backers squeeze by. Then I would drop back into about 7-8 yards of a zone coverage. It was a roll out pass, and I knocked it up into the air.

"They had their receiver Jammi German. He was called the `Blitz Buster.' My buddy Mike Ewaliko had a chance to give just a great shot on him as he was coming across the middle. The Miami trainers had to help him off the field, and I don't think he came back. So we were like, OK, we've busted the `Blitz Buster', he's out of the game and is no more. And the tide is now turning..."

Hoffmann describes the scene at Sea-Tac Airport upon the team's return.

"We came home late that night," he said. "There were many fans there at the airport. And the fire department was there too. They were spraying hoses all over the plane, as a celebration, as a way of signifying what we had achieved. It was like one or two (in the morning). It was a crazy deal."

Just like his brother Dave in 1992, Stephen Hoffmann was elected captain by his teammates in 1995. Immediately he had a unique situation on his hands, followed by another disheartening injury.

"That was the year that (Washington Head Coach Jim) Lambright decided he was going to introduce the purple helmets back into the team," he said. "Oh man, that was his love because he played with a purple helmet. But to be in the middle of that, when the guys on the team wanted to stay with the gold helmets... A lot of us didn't know what the purple helmet meant, but it meant a lot to Lambright. Being the mediation between the players who wanted the gold helmets, and the head coach who had decided to make a change, that gave me good experience in dealing with two sides of a debate.

"That senior year was also not an easy year for me. In double days I broke my wrist; one of our safeties hit my wrist when he went through the wrong gap on a call. I knew if I had it operated on, the season would be lost. So I played with it, but it was difficult. As a defensive lineman you need both hands to get extension and control the player in front of you. To have one good hand and one hand that I couldn't even do a push-up on - it was basically locked into place - made it a pretty tough season.

"The fondest part of that senior season was the Apple Cup," he said. "Running out of that tunnel as they introduced the seniors - that meant a lot to me because there was a lot of effort that went into the years prior to that. To be recognized by the fans and to run through the gauntlet of my teammates was a big deal to me."

It was the 1993 Rose Bowl, however, that provided Stephen Hoffmann with his most cherished memory. Despite a 38-31 loss to Michigan, it was the last time that the Hoffmann boys would play football on the same field together.

Under the Rose Bowl's glaring lights and in front of national TV cameras, the final seconds ticked off the clock. Michigan quarterback Elvis Grbac jogged off the field veering toward the raucous throng of Michigan fans, his arms raised triumphantly. Meanwhile, Washington players Darius Turner and Mark Brunell, seething with frustration at the offensive play calling, jogged off the field and disappeared into the locker room. Other Husky players mingled a bit, then slowly dispersed over the span of several minutes. But not Stephen and Dave Hoffmann. They talked quietly and looked on as the Michigan players and fans celebrated. The glum Husky fans exited the stadium.

"To play in that Rose Bowl game with Dave was pretty special and something I will never forget," said Stephen. "Especially considering that our family, including our younger brother Matt, was there. It was the third year in a row that we had all gathered there. We had made that trip a type of family reunion. We had a great time. And I thought we played a pretty decent game. Of course when you lose, there are always things you wished you could have done better.

"But it was a pretty special moment for us," he added. "Dave and I took our time walking off that field."


Derek Johnson can be reached at uwsundodger@msn.com

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