It's Jan. 2, 1989. Michigan coach Bo Schembechler paces the sidelines at the Rose Bowl. The Wolverines hold a 15-14 lead and have the ball on the USC one-yard line with two minutes to play. It's fourth down. The offensive schemers in the press box yammer over Schembechler's headset, feverishly promoting a menu of play calls. But Bo knows what he wants to order, and he barks it out: "Run it over the Big Boy."
The Michigan assistant coaches, looking to execute something a bit more intricate, resume yammering. Finally, Bo sets his jaw and makes his feelings perfectly clear. "Goddammit," Schembechler says. "We're going to run the——ball over the——Big Boy!" So on the next snap, fullback Leroy Hoard tucks the ball under his arm and grinds toward Greg Skrepenak, the 6'8", 322-pound sophomore right tackle and the biggest——boy ever to don the maize and blue. Hoard hits pay dirt, and with that touchdown Schembechler claims his second and final Rose Bowl win, 22-14.
Two seasons have passed, and Bo has retired, but Skrepenak—a.k.a. the Big Boy, the Barge, Big Daddy and Skrep Daddy—is still at Michigan, where he is still the biggest man on campus. Since succeeding Jumbo Elliott at tackle (and rendering his name a misnomer), Skrepenak has started 36 straight games and become the team leader in "pancakes"—blocking an opposing lineman onto his back. As a first-team All-America last season, Skrepenak anchored a line that gave up only three sacks and so dominated Mississippi in a 35-3 Gator Bowl blowout that its five members were all named co-MVPs. Says Wolverine head coach Gary Moeller, "If he's not the best offensive lineman in the country in his senior season, then we haven't done our job."
But in the matter of pancakes, some Michigan coaches suspect that Skrepenak would as soon eat them as inflict them. His girth has been an issue ever since he arrived in Ann Arbor from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., as a 330-pound 17-year-old who would later balloon to 370. True, there was a nimble athlete underneath all that flesh: At G.A.R. Memorial High, in addition to being a football All-America, he had been an all-league dunk machine in basketball and a sweet-swinging first baseman. But that didn't stop Schembechler from phoning Wilkes-Barre to harangue Skrepenak's parents, Greg and Barbara, about "the fat boy" during the summer after his redshirt freshman year. Despite playing last season at a svelte 322, Skrepenak still fields daily queries from weight-watching teammates and coaches, a process he calls "being hounded."
August 25, 1991
"I'm like, If I get the job done, what are you yelling about?" says Skrepenak, who shrugs off the hounding just as he does the astonished looks he gets at local malls.
Lots of Big Daddy's pounds are packed away in his limbs. He stands on size-17EEE feet, with legs almost as thick as the telephone poles his father has climbed since 1966 for Pennsylvania Power and Light. At the end of Skrepenak's arms are meat hooks so huge that he needs only one of them to long-snap a football. As Barbara puts it, "Gregory's body isn't made to be just 300 pounds. You've got to figure there's 50 pounds in each hand and 50 in each foot—that's 200 pounds right there."
But Skrepenak is learning the value of slimming down. At 21, he realizes that his stock in the NFL draft—where he will go either very high or very, very high—and the national title he craves will hinge on his performance this fall. He ran two miles a day over the summer and discovered that he didn't have to eat a pizza before bed every night. His decision last spring not to turn pro early has heartened his coaches, who want him to assert his leadership. "We need Greg to be more emotional, less laid-back." says line coach Jerry Hanlon.
Easygoing to a fault, Skrepenak is beginning to face up to his preeminence, just as he has come to terms with his size. That lifelong venture began in a modest home on Coal Street in Wilkes-Barre, where an American flag flaps on the porch and the decor inside looks as though it has all been mail-ordered from the Michigan campus store. "We haven't got much," explains Skrepenak's dad, "but what we got, we share." That includes anything in the refrigerator. "We have leftovers now that Greg's gone."
The Skrepenaks knew their first son would be special the day he was born. The elder Greg was given a 10-pound, 23-inch bundle to hold. "He had a head as big as this helmet," he recalls, gesturing to a bronzed dome atop a Gator Bowl trophy on the living room table. "There was all this black hair. And ugly, boy, ugly."
From the time Greg was little, or at least young, Barbara, a nursing home administrator, knew she would have to protect him. He was so much larger than the other children that he was scared to play with them. Greg's coordination in his formative years was such that he couldn't even be trusted to carry sodas to the refrigerator.
By the time Greg was through elementary school, his coordination was catching up to his frame. His dad had him jumping rope on the back porch every night, and at age nine he had his first go at the gridiron, in mini-football. Only, Greg wasn't mini enough. The rules stated that if a player weighed more than 130 pounds, opposing coaches had the final say on whether he could suit up. When Greg arrived for his first game, he was told to make a U-turn. He headed to the bathtub and bawled. "He's thinking he's a freak," says his dad. "I tried to explain to him that you don't see 98-pound kids playing football on TV. I said, 'You'll see. Someday you'll have your time.' "
"I busted my butt for that," says Skrepenak. "Then when they told me I couldn't play, I cried my eyes out. That's where my problem with aggressiveness really started."
Once he began junior high, though, Greg became a dominant two-way tackle. By the time he was a senior, being mammoth was no longer a burden—even though he had to be weighed on an industrial scale.
"In a way, his only downfall as a football player was that he wasn't real aggressive unless he got upset," says his high school coach Charlie Fick. "As big as he is, that's as nice as he is."
Skrepenak was so disproportionately large that recruiters had a hard time getting a fix on his talent. But Michigan assistant coach Cam Cameron watched him rack up 20 points in a basketball game with half a dozen slams and was immediately taken with his coordination. Skrepenak was also courted by Penn State and Notre Dame, among others, but Michigan offered the young man something no other school could compete with.
"Greg came to Michigan because of Bo," says Cameron. "He loved Bo." Schembechler was like Skrepenak's dad: demanding, firm, supportive and the sort of guy who could slap backs at the corner tavern. Bo knew the kid had gumption when he wore a Penn State T-shirt on his first trip to Ann Arbor. Schembechler gave him some serious ribbing.
"Well," said Skrepenak to the coach, "at least Penn State has won a national championship." Schembechler smiled. A 300-pounder who was quick on his feet, too. But whether Skrepenak would be a prodigy or simply prodigious was an open question when he arrived at Michigan. He helped answer it when, in a rare lapse in control, he duked it out with a defensive tackle two weeks into fall camp. "In high school I always blocked my guy," he says. "I got to college and learned that if you're not aggressive, you get your butt kicked."
Which is why his friends and coaches are urging him to be as fit as possible; they see his controlling his weight as a barometer of his commitment. Yet, for Skrepenak, measuring up is a matter that won't be settled on a scale. He gives the distinct impression that he knows what he wants and knows what it will take to get it. "I've never lined up across from someone I thought was better than me," he says. "Not anywhere, anytime. My dad instilled a lot of confidence in me. He said the only person who can beat me is Greg Skrepenak. And that's what I believe."