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Football: Man of promise

Ken Fowler | Friday, October 27, 2006

Victor Abiamiri has made a name for himself.

His attitude is fierce and pointed, his intelligence sharp and his football knowledge top notch. He draws double teams because one man simply isn’t enough.

NFL scouts drool when they see a 6-foot-4, 270-pound defensive end with the Irish senior defensive end’s foot speed and power. His body size and weight are perfect for the position, and what NFL teams see is upside – something people have always seen in him.

A native of Randallstown, Md., a Baltimore suburb, Abiamiri returns to a home crowd for the contest Saturday following two games in which opposing quarterbacks often found themselves looking at dirt, then turning up to see a white “95” bulging from a deep blue jersey.

But Abiamiri didn’t first pick up any of his coveted traits from a whistle-blowing drill sergeant or a pull-your teach coach. Abiamiri’s path to football stardom started with a head coach and defensive coordinator who had a simple mantra: “Fifty men working together, loving each other, cannot be beat.”

Growing up Gilman

Abiamiri and Ambrose Wooden never met until August of 1999. They’ve gone to school together ever since.

Wooden, now an Irish cornerback, remembers when he first encountered the hulky Abiamiri in football practice at the beginning of their freshman year at Gilman School on Baltimore’s northern edge.

“He was probably the same size he is now, maybe 40 pounds lighter. I saw him and he said he dunked in fifth grade,” the 5-foot-11 Wooden says with a smile. “I was like, wow, I can’t even dunk now.”

The two would spend the next four years under the tutelage of two men – Gilman head coach Biff Poggi and volunteer defensive coordinator Joe Ehrmann. The two have a unique coaching style that stresses brotherhood over competition.

Their focus on teaching players how to become men – is so different than other programs that Abiamiri calls Gilman “probably the only place in the world” to get the kind of coaching he did. And he soaked it up.

Abiamiri says Poggi and Ehrmann have been “father figures” to him.

“They’re probably some of the best influences I’ve had in my live,” he says. “They, and my own father, turned me from a boy into a man.”

Wooden remembers his teammate Abiamiri starting at safety as a freshman, all 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds of him roving in the secondary, ready to make a play. The big man was then known as “Ookie Rock” – a nickname Wooden says comes from Abiamiri’s dancing. Abiamiri jokingly said he will haunt Wooden (called “Mo” since childhood) for remembering it.

One day “Ookie Rock” intercepted a pass and started running down the sideline.

“We were going crazy,” Wooden says.

He remembers the “big and goofy” Abiamiri looking toward the end zone.

“He didn’t make it,” Wooden says with a chuckle.

The personality switch

His teammate would become a defensive end with a mean streak that stands in stark contrast from his otherwise soft, intelligent persona. Off the field, he seems more peace-seeker than quarterback hunter.

Brady Quinn laughs about Abiamiri’s Jekyll and Hyde. “Vic,” he says, is “one of those guys that’s a lot of fun to be around.”

“It’s tough to put into words,” the Irish quarterback said with a smile. “He’s one of those big, mean guys that really doesn’t like to be mean. I think that’s why he kind of likes playing football because he’s able to go out there on the field and dish it out on the field and be happy.”

For Abiamiri, it’s simple. When he’s on the football field, he’s looking to scare opponents. Off the field, he’s the man Poggi and Ehrmann helped form.

He says he applies the lessons he learned from Poggi and Ehrmann “in the locker room, in the dining hall, in the dorms.” Abiamiri says he makes sure any teammates who are upset or down know they can turn any situation around with hard work.

Yet when inches away from an offensive tackle before the ball is snapped, all he’s trying to do is intimidate.

“I actually don’t think it’s that tough to change your mentality,” he said.

Gilman School’s motto is simple: “Turning Boys of Promise into Men of Character.”

Abiamiri has always had a lot of promise.

The position switch

Poggi and Ehrmann moved Abiamiri to the defensive line after his freshman season, a move that Baltimore high school football would never forget. As a junior, he had 17 sacks. As a senior, he recorded 12 more and threw in an interception, for old time’s sake.

For colleges across the country, he was the defensive line stud of his graduating class.

“He was everyone’s No. 1 at defensive end out of high school,” said Tom Lemming, a longtime national recruiting analyst. “Basically every school in the country was going after him.”

After a long recruiting period and at least one report of recruiters trying so desperately to get Abiamiri that they flouted NCAA rules, the academics at Notre Dame lured one of the nation’s top prizes to South Bend in 2003.

“Teams saw his size and speed,” Lemming said. “He had long arms and long legs, and he was explosive off the ball.”

Playing defensive end, a tough image can help, too. Abiamiri has earned that on the field, with 17 career sacks, including six this season and eight in 2005.

Even before he had any, Abiamiri was confident. Just ask former Irish weak side end and current New York Giant Justin Tuck, who Abiamiri says took him under his wing during their two years together at Notre Dame.

“He came in and was about six-four, 250 as a freshman – about the same size I was as a junior,” Tuck said. “He told me he would compete with me for playing time.”

That year alone, Tuck had 13.5 sacks. Nonetheless, Abiamiri saw significant action. The freshman started five games and played in all 12; he registered 22 tackles, including four for losses, and a sack.

“There are two things you have to be to play as a freshman – talented and smart,” Tuck said. “And he was both.”

Eye on the motor man

More than 40 games after Abiamiri first suited up for Notre Dame, pro teams from across the country are once again looking at his promise and potential.

Projected by some to be a first-round pick, Abiamiri is playing under the careful eyes of scouts. Like he did during his senior year of high school by announcing his commitment after the season finished, Abiamiri is pushing any NFL Draft talk aside.

Like every other Irish player – and most in college football – he says it would be too much of a distraction. Thinking about the weekly jumps and bumps from analysts like ESPN’s Mel Kiper would be overwhelming.

It would keep him from his mental preparation, he says – keep him from doing what he needs to do to help his team win now.

And one of the best ways Abiamiri can help his team now is by freeing up other Irish defenders when he faces double teams.

“Victor has put himself in a position now where teams – when we go against anybody, they know where Victor is,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said. “I think that he’s drawn some special attention.”

A lot of that special attention comes from big games, like the two he’s had against Stanford. In 2005, he recorded four sacks in the final game of the regular season. This Oct. 7, he added another three against the Cardinal.

“All you can do is help yourself by focusing on the game at hand every week,” he says.

If Abiamiri stays as focused as he has been, it’ll help the Irish in the short term and – come April – pad his wallet.

After his performance against Stanford and then his sack and two more quarterback hurries against UCLA last Saturday, Kiper has Abiamiri shooting up to No. 10 in his “Big Board” list of the best draft prospects in the nation.

Weis credits much of Abiamiri’s success to his ever-churning legs and forceful body push – and that, the coach says, is something NFL scouts love about the senior just as much as his physique.

“The one thing I do know about [Abiamiri] that I didn’t know when I got here is that he has a very, very, very high motor that goes with his athletic ability,” Weis said. “There are a lot of people with athletic ability that don’t have a high motor [but] he goes high on every play. It presents a problem week in and week out for any [offense] that we go against.”

The home option

Abiamiri will try to be a problem once again Saturday in an important game for the senior. He says he managed to get 15 to 20 tickets for family members in the Baltimore area to see his first – and only – collegiate game in the area.

“It’s awesome to be able to go home and play in front of family and friends,” he said.

But against an option team, his job is a little different.

He will have to replace his bull rushes and swims with mental focus and sharp discipline. As offensive tackles block toward the center of the line and fullbacks come full-steam-ahead toward the corner, Abiamiri’s task will be much different.

“We might not even block ol’ Victor, much less double him,” Navy coach Paul Johnson said Tuesday. “We will read him on the option.”

That means Abiamiri will be forced to wait out Midshipmen quarterback Kaipo-Noa Kaheaku-Enhada as he scurries to the corner. If Abiamiri takes the wrong angle or bites at the wrong time, Navy could run right through the Irish defense.

“It’s the most frustrating offense in all of football,” Tuck said, glad no NFL teams run it against the Giants. “You need a lot of mental preparation.”

Abiamiri thinks he has that. He thinks he’ll be able to stick to his man on every play and be patient.

For most defensive ends, that patience is tough. But for one who’s used to being as calm off the field as he is fearsome between the sidelines – maybe not.