He was only 8 years old, but Mike Malano felt snubbed.
If he had an agent, a press conference could have been called. Or maybe even a demand to be traded would have been issued. Worse yet, Malano could have held out of practice until his needs were met.
But being only 8, his only viable option was to stick out his lower lip, have his eyes focus down at his feet and not say a word.
Malano's organized football career had just begun. A third-grader playing on the fifth-grade Pop Warner team, Malano wasn't too high on the football organization's ladder. His request — his lone desire — was denied.
"I was a huge Broncos fan as a kid and I loved wide receiver [Steve Watson], No. 81 in the early 80s," Malano said. "I just remember I was upset because I wanted to be a receiver, and I wasn't having any luck with that. I don't think I got a fair look."
Malano was tall for his age, and that's why he was playing with the fifth-graders. He was skinny, too, which made him figure he was an ideal candidate for wide receiver. The coaches didn't. "I could catch the ball, but they didn't think I was cut out for the sleek wide receiver position," Malano joked.
So, Malano made the first career move of his life. He followed his second dream: To become a linebacker. "My favorite players were Randy Gradishar and Karl Mecklenberg," Malano said. "That was my new thing. Once no one took me too seriously about wanting to be a receiver, I wanted to be a linebacker."
For the next couple of years, Malano was a linebacker/fullback extraordinaire for his Pop Warner team. Malano, who consistently was outgrowing his teammates, didn't possess the speed of a ball carrier, but he could drag would-be tacklers a couple of yards.
But by the time he was a seventh-grader, Malano had become too big to play linebacker. In fact, he had to lose 10-15 pounds, which, admittedly, wasn't easy.
"They told me they didn't need me at running back and that I'd be a better outside linebacker, basically a defensive end, and I'd be good at offensive guard, so I said, ‘Go ahead.'"
Malano wasn't blind. He knew he was well on his way to evolving into a 6-foot, 2-inch, 304-pound giant that he is now, some 12 years later.
Again, Malano's dream had been swiped right from under his feet. First he wanted to be a receiver. Then he dreamt of being a linebacker. Then, in just his fourth year of football, coaches were moving him to the line. The dreams of scoring touchdowns were virtually over. Malano had been relegated to the trenches, where he would anonymously fight one-on-one battles, play after play after play while the ball carriers and play-making linebackers get all the glory.
"I think I pouted for a little, but my mom said it was all right to be there," Malano said.
If father doesn't know best, mother certainly does.
Malano had always associated linemen with being these faceless monsters who do battle off camera, while fans focus exclusively on the ball. His outlook changed one Sunday afternoon when he was watching the NFL on TV.
The Cincinnati Bengals were playing, and the color commentator was raving about offensive tackle Anthony Munoz. Occasionally, in between plays, the commentators would break down film of Munoz battling in the trenches. Munoz, who eventually became a Hall of Famer, was the model offensive lineman. Malano started to notice Munoz was getting his due.
He became Malano's model on the field. "I started watching guys like Anthony Munoz, who was the best offensive lineman in that day," Malano said. "And I tried to be like him. He was one of the most aggressive offensive linemen I've ever seen. He played the position with a passion, with almost a defensive kind of aggressiveness.
"I started to watch him a lot. When they would break down the game on Munoz. they'd say to watch him destroy this guy, so I'd sit at home and watch him."
Malano knew then and there he wanted to be an offensive lineman.
Malano has always shared a special relationship with the game of football. If he wasn't playing it, he was watching it. The level of competition was secondary to Malano.
"All I ever wanted to do was become a football player," Malano said. "I'd watch anything, Canadian football, any college game, any professional game. … If it was on, I'd be watching."
By the time Malano was a freshman in high school, success was second nature. His freshman team finished the season undefeated for the first time in school history. As a sophomore on varsity, Horizon High School (Scottsdale, Ariz.) was 10-2 and lost in the state quarterfinals. In Malano's junior season, Horizon, which was ranked in the nation, was 10-0 during the regular season but lost in the first round of the playoffs. Finally, as a senior, Malano helped Horizon win the coveted state championship. Individually, Malano was issued the greatest honor given to an offensive lineman. He was awarded the Frank Kush Award, which went to the best offensive lineman in the state of Arizona.
It's no wonder the recruiters came knocking and calling.
Malano had been recruited heavily by Arizona State and Colorado State. But the Sun Devils went through coaching turmoil, which soured Malano's outlook on playing at ASU.
"Really, I had committed to Arizona State," Malano said. "I was getting recruited as both an offensive and defensive lineman. They had a really bad year that year and there were things in the paper about the coach getting fired, so I didn't want to go there anymore."
So Malano took San Diego State University offensive line coach Ed White's advice. "You can't meet a better guy than he is," Malano said of White, a former Minnesota Viking. "He was great to my mom and he was an all-around great guy. So I decided that's where I wanted to go."
His years at San Diego State were valuable, even if SDSU never made it to the top of the national rankings. In some ways, his team may have underachieved. Consider some of the players: LeRoy Glover, Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila, Kyle Turley, Ephram Salaam, Az-Zahir Hakim, Nate Jacquet ...
"One year, my first year playing, we went 8-3 and we should've won every game," Malano said. "But we'd play well one week, then let down the next week. We had a better team than our record would show. We lost games we shouldn't have. But we had talent."
Perhaps that was Malano's greatest lesson learned while in college. Talent doesn't necessarily equate into success.
"Coming from high school, I knew how to deal with winning," Malano said. "But I didn't necessarily know how to deal with losing games. I learned that's when you show your true character — when you're not playing for a bowl game or a championship. But you still have to keep working and play for pride.
"I knew how to win. But I had to learn how to lose."
Malano was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in the seventh round of the 2000 draft. He was injured as a rookie and spent the 2001 season on the practice squad. His offseason will be short, considering he's headed overseas in April as one of seven Vikings allocated to the NFL Europe League.
He's excited to get a chance to play again. After two years of playing in nothing but practices, Malano welcomes the opportunity to play on a field where a scoreboard is used, regardless of the venue.
"I haven't played in a long time," said Malano, who signed a two-year contract with the Vikings Jan. 14. "I started every game in college and I take pride in playing. I want to get on that field again. Hopefully, I'll show (the Vikings) I've been working hard and that they can be confident in me so I have a role to fill in Minnesota.
"A guy who plays well and works hard and holds himself accountable is a valuable asset to the team. To show them that I am one of those things, it'll only boost their confidence in me." VU
First car: Mazda B-2000 truck
Current vehicle: Dodge Ram
Favorite vehicle: Dodge Ram
Hobbies: Hunting, fishing, any athletic sport
Toughest player ever faced: LeRoy Glover (San Diego St.)
"He took a young freshman to school a little bit."
Favorite TV show: The Simpsons
Favorite movie: Tombstone
Favorite actor/actress: Robert DeNiro/Catherine Zeta-Jones
First job: Christmas tree lot guy
Best childhood memory: In seventh-grade, won Arizona state Pop Warner championship
Offseason residence: Las Vegas, Nev.
If I weren't playing football: High school social science teacher and football coach
Getting To Know: OL Mike Malano
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