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Born To Block

Nov. 01, 1993
Nov. 01, 1993

Table of Contents
Nov. 1, 1993

Table of Contents
Motor Sports
Horse Racing
Bicycling
Business
The World Series
NFL Injuries
Felix Potvin
Jim Pyne
On The Scene
Basketball
Point After
  • Susan Willmot was an owner of Play the King, a 6-year-old gelding who broke down at Pimlico in 1989 and was destroyed by lethal injection. When SI sought Willmot's permission to use photographs of the breakdown for our story on racing injuries, she responded with this letter

Born To Block

Virginia Tech center Jim Pyne is the latest in a lineage of linemen

Jim Pyne was born to the NFL the way some thin Waspy guys are born to regattas. It's a bloodline thing. The trio of helmets that represent the Pyne family's football legacy—the cracked leather antique worn by Jim's grandfather George Pyne Jr. for the Providence Steam Roller; the Boston Patriot relic belonging to his father, George Pyne III; and the version that Jim wears now for Virginia Tech—are all scarred and soiled as if they have been used to break rocks or haul dirt. Jim was bred to be a lineman, playing from a low crouch at center, that dark manhole of a position, where the games are long and everything sounds like one big whang.

This is an article from the Nov. 1, 1993 issue

The Pyne tradition reads like a dynastic saga, except that everybody ends up in pro football (or construction) instead of politics. Pyne is universally regarded as the best college center in the country and will certainly be a high, if not first-round pick in the NFL draft next April, which would make him the first third-generation player in league history. But Pyne's is not the most glamorous or enriching legacy a young man could have. The truth is, people don't pay much attention, or much of anything else, to centers. Pyne could have 10 illustrious forefathers and the only person watching him on every play would still be his mother—and, of course, his father, from whom Pyne received this family motto: "Just achieve, and don't be a real pain in the ass."

How do you tell a great center? It's kind of like picking out a great hammer: At first glance, don't they all look alike? Pyne's head seems to have been shaped by a helmet. He is bald on top and has the requisite cleft in his chin to suggest toughness and durability. A cursory examination of his physique reveals that he is 6'2" and 285 pounds, with a certain impenetrable quality. He holds Virginia Tech records in weightlifting, including a mark of 401 pounds in the hang clean. All are hallmarks of a born center.

"It's not a romantic position," he says. "We're different people, a different breed. You're always banging your head into something. Everything falls around you. I like the word relentless."

Certainly Pyne doesn't reveal his talent in an artful swivel of his hips. The real indicator of his NFL potential is the fact that when the whistle blows, he is usually still driving into some guy 10 yards down-field, his legs bent, back straight, eyes glazed. Or that in short-yardage situations Pyne will order the coaching staff to "run it over me." When the Hokies are facing third-and-one or fourth-and-inches, the call is likely to be quarterback wedge, a keeper by Maurice DeShazo right through center. "I wish I had a whole line of Pynes," DeShazo says.

Pyne, a four-year starter, has participated in more than 2,300 snaps. ("He even looks old," DeShazo says.) That fact is accompanied by this amazing statistic: In his college career Pyne has allowed only one sack by the man he is blocking.

In a blocking stance he looks like a pommel horse. He has a short trunk and long arms, which end in wrists so large he has to wear a custom-made band on his watch. But Pyne's defining feature is his neck, the 22-inch muscle mass that defies all conventional tailoring. This summer he went to a men's shop in Boston to buy a dress shirt. The shop attendant draped a tape measure around that neck, then pulled away, flapping the tape in distress. "We have nothing for you," he said.

Pyne inherited his build and stance from his 288-pound father, a self-made success story with an occasional tendency toward bullying. George Pyne III played defensive tackle for the Boston Patriots in 1965 before he went on to found a construction and machinery company and develop a thriving business building condominiums. That was a considerable advancement for a family with small-town working-class roots. George's family ran a flower shop; the parents of his wife, Rosaleen, were Irish immigrants, a fisherman and a cleaning woman whose names are inscribed on a plaque at Ellis Island.

"He's a tough man," Jim says of his father. "You got to understand, he loves carrying bags of cement. He's nuts."

George still puts on a game face every weekend, even though the games now involve the two sons who play collegiately: Jim and his brother David, a preseason All-America at tackle for Division I-AA Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. David, a 6'4", 295-pound specimen who is 13 months older than Jim, is also a pro prospect. George has been known to make two games on a Saturday, hopping puddle jumpers from Easton to the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg. If there is a big guy bellowing in the stands, chances are it's George Pyne III.

Nobody likes George on game day. Not even Roseleen is inclined to put a question to him. "Please," he will respond, then retreat to a glower. Two years ago, when Virginia Tech played South Carolina, Jim's girlfriend, Pam Schucolsky, and a couple of friends were late arriving. As they filed to their seats, they heard some yahoo yelling and cussing at them. "Sit down you dingdongs!" he hollered. Pam turned. The yahoo was Jim's old man.

Sometimes George's larger-than-life behavior is not amusing. He can be meddlesome, criticizing his sons' coaches or campaigning on his sons' behalf. Virginia Tech administrators roll their eyes at the mention of his name. "A hard man," says one assistant coach. With good reason, according to George, who says he has had a hard life and is determined to see that his children don't have one. "It's hard being a father," he says. "Half of me is happy, half of me bleeds."

Jim admits that his father can be interfering. They have wrangled over George's desire to be involved in Jim's career and choice of an agent. "He's not always as nice as you'd like him to be," Jim says. "We've had our battles. But you have to understand he overcame a lot to get where he is."

George is much more interested in his sons' football careers than in recounting his own. Actually, none of the Pynes knew their father had played professionally until Jim and David came across pictures and memorabilia in the attic when they were in the seventh and eighth grades, respectively, and beginning to play Pop Warner football. "Basically, I didn't want them growing up in a shadow," George says. "They weren't going to be the sons of George Pyne."

And anyway, George wasn't exactly Gino Marchetti. His lengthier and far more productive career was as a businessman whose construction company at one point had 900 condominiums under contract and provided his family with vacation homes and boats in Cape Cod and Florida. In 1989, when the bottom fell out of the building industry and George's business as well, he started a company dealing in heavy machinery. Clearly he has been too busy to worry about where to hang his photos and trophies. "They just stayed in the box," George says.

Once his sons had discovered the remnants of his football career and had embraced the game themselves, George decided to take charge of their athletic development. He dragged his stuff down from the attic, took the kids to the backyard, strapped on the pads and snapped on his chin strap, got down in a stance and told them to hit him. From then on, George would conduct blocking and tackling drills in the yard, even in the dead of summer. "I figured if they could play against me," he says, "the other guys they faced wouldn't be a problem."

The neighbors no doubt thought the Pynes were crazy, a nearly 300-pound man down on his haunches while two 135-pound preteens threw themselves at him. Jim would launch himself at his dad and nothing would move. "You'd be driving with your legs, just digging a hole in the ground," he says.

George's mandate to achieve helped produce a family of athletes and honor students. Each of the four Pyne children went from Milford High to a year of postgraduate studies and athletic success at Choate prep school, before going on to college. The eldest, George IV, now 27, went to Brown, where he was the football team captain in 1988. He is a marketing executive in Atlanta, after finding that working with his father strained their relationship. Tara, 25, is a graduate of Providence College and works in the family business. David is a 3.0 student in business who will join the firm if his shot at the NFL fails. Jim carries a 3.3 average in business management.

The family was sold on Choate after George IV and his mother toured the campus and were shown where John F. Kennedy slept as a student. But attending school there, with the sons and daughters of the elite, was a revealing experience for the descendants of Massachusetts fishermen and laborers. "The high society, the snobs, I didn't fit in with," Jim says. "But it was strict and tough, and you found out who you were."

The Pynes' traditional proving ground has been the football field. George's father, George Pyne Jr., played at Holy Cross in the late 1920s and was known throughout the Blackstone Valley, in blue-collar towns like Milford and Uxbridge, as a local boy who made good. On Sundays he would assume an alias and go to Providence to play semipro ball. That's how, in 1931, he wound up playing tackle for the Providence Steam Roller.

Like his father, George III used football as a means to an education and a better life. George suffered from dyslexia to such an extent that his high school counselor advised him not to apply to college. George finally found a school that would accept him—tiny Olivet College in Michigan, where he started and starred at defensive tackle for four years. He was drafted in the 16th round in 1965 by the Patriots, then of the AFL, and became an immediate starter. But he left after one season and settled down to make a living and raise a family.

Jim Pyne has apparently been blessed with a talent beyond that of his father and grandfather. David discovered that during his senior year at Milford, when he went against Jim, then a junior, in a drill. "It was like hitting a brick wall," says David. "I thought, Oh, my god." A year later David came home from Choate for Thanksgiving to watch Milford play Shrewsbury High. On the second play of the game Jim threw a vicious block on a noseguard, knocking him five yards backward and into a referee. Jim then pancaked both player and ref and wound up on top of the pile.

Such plays caused Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer to get on a plane to Boston within two hours of viewing a recruiting tape. "Usually you can tell if a guy has ability after about five plays," Beamer says. "Jim's was a three-play tape." In his pitch Beamer pointed out Tech's tradition of turning out great linemen—such as Bruce Smith, the 1984 Outland Trophy winner, and George Preas, the Baltimore Colt who threw the block in the 1958 NFL championship game against the New York Giants that allowed Alan Ameche to score the winning TD.

In the NFL, Jim's chief assets will be his speed (he has run a 4.9 in the 40) and quickness and his incredible strength. The combination makes him, among other things, an ideal pass blocker. Of course, his genes don't hurt. Jim doesn't know what qualities he inherited from his grandfather, who died when he was a baby, or from his father, since he never saw cither of them play. George maintains that the speed and strength come from him and that the dimple in Jim's cheek comes from his grandfather. David suggests the real inheritance is something else: "Some people might say it's in the genes. I'd say it's more the work ethic."

George explains it in his own way. "All these kids," he says, "if you cut them open, they all have that heart."

PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERPHOTOGeorge III played for the Pats before tackling the construction business.PHOTOIn 1931 George Jr. was the first of the Pyne line to make the pros.PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERPyne, who has allowed only one sack in four seasons at Tech, is destined for the NFL.