Mean Streak Pushed hard by a Woody Hayes protege, nice-guy Washington tackle Larry Tripplett has learned to be nasty--at least on the field

September 16, 2001

Brenda Dean got the news through the grapevine and was
mortified. Her son, Larry Tripplett, had been in a fight--kind
of. During Washington's spring practice a year and a half ago,
Tripplett, a junior defensive end at the time, grew tired of
being held, so he rocked offensive tackle Elliot Silvers with a
forearm shiver at the tail end of a play. The dueling endomorphs
grappled briefly, and the skirmish was over.

It was not over, though. When Huskies defensive line coach Randy
Hart arrived at his office the next morning, he found a
voice-mail message awaiting him from Brenda: "Coach, I understand
Larry got into an altercation at practice, and I wanted you to
know that I've spoken to him about it and that I don't condone
such behavior." Hart still breaks up every time he retells that
story. "Poor Brenda," he says. "She probably was up half the
night thinking, I've failed! My son got into a fight!"

He returned her call immediately, assuring her that the "fight"
had been nothing, not bothering to mention that he'd been
thrilled to see her son bare his fangs.

Raising Larry by herself for the most part (she and Larry's
father divorced when the boy was one), Brenda had drilled into
the lad such values as humility, gentility and consideration for
others. When Tripplett arrived on campus as a freshman in 1997,
the consensus among the coaches was that she had perhaps done
her job too well. Larry was talented. He had sweet feet (he'd
played some fullback as a senior at Westchester High in Los
Angeles), amazing natural strength (he seldom lifted weights
before arriving at Washington) and an excellent burst off the
ball. What he lacked was a mean streak. "This guy has more
talent than I ever had," says Steve Emtman, an All-America
defensive tackle at Washington who retired from the NFL after
the '97 season and is a volunteer strength coach for his alma
mater. "Larry's only problem on the field [when he arrived] was
he was too nice."

Hart's biggest job was teaching Tripplett to leave his manners
on the sideline. Together they have succeeded handsomely.
Lawrence, as Hart calls his most talented pupil when he wishes
to get on his nerves, has learned to summon his inner ogre. A
6'1", 300-pound senior, Tripplett, who moved to tackle full time
last season, is one of the nation's top defensive linemen. He is
a terrific run stuffer who emerged in 2000 as a dangerous pass
rusher as well. Tripplett had 6 1/2 sacks last fall--"That's
remarkable, getting that kind of production from an interior
line position," says Seattle Seahawks director of college
scouting Scot McCloughan--and 11 other tackles for losses. He
played his best when he was needed most. Two of his sacks were
of Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey in Washington's 34-29 victory.
In that game, the Hurricanes' sole loss of the season, Tripplett
also blocked a field goal and recovered a fourth-quarter fumble.
He made potentially game-saving plays in four of the Huskies' 10
wins, and was named to a handful of All-America teams.

Last Saturday he had two tackles, including a sack on
third-and-seven from the Washington 14 that forced Michigan to
settle for a third-quarter field goal. The Huskies went on to
win 23-18, setting the stage for this weekend's showdown with
No. 1-ranked Miami. Has his play been enough to silence Hart?
"Please," Tripplett said while trudging off the practice field
during two-a-days last month. "I mean, you're never going to
silence Coach Hart."

Hart, who played guard at Ohio State from 1967 to 1969, has a
manic coaching style that evokes that of his mentor, Woody
Hayes. While Tripplett has come to appreciate--even to
like--Hart, he recalls in gloomy terms his first season under
this hypercritical assistant. "Bad things happened to me before
I got to Washington," he says, "but they always got better. When
I got here, it was as if the sun went away."

Practices were hell for him that first year. "Someone else could
mess up a drill," he recalls, "and Coach Hart would let it go.
When I messed up, he'd start yelling, 'No, no, no! Do it over!'
Even when I made a play, he'd yell, 'Why don't you do that every
time!' I thought about quitting every day, but it wasn't an
option."

Was Hart trying to run him off? "Hell, no!" the coach says with
a wide grin. "I was mad he wasn't starting. That's how good he
was."

If Hart was Tripplett's personal solar eclipse, the sun in
Larry's life was his mother. He grew up in Windsor Hills, a
middle-class enclave in Los Angeles. Brenda is a social worker
for L.A. County. When she wasn't around, Larry's babysitters were
his older sister, Ivy, and his grandmother, Zenobia. ("Not a lot
of testosterone in that household," says Hart.) Larry was the
prince. "We kept him in a bubble," says Brenda, whose gentle
demeanor cloaks a disciplinarian's iron will.

One April afternoon when Larry was 13, several of his buddies
came by the house for him, shouting, "They're burning down the
7-Eleven!" A Simi Valley jury had acquitted the cops who'd beaten
Rodney King. The city was in flames. A trucker named Reginald
Denny was beaten half to death a few blocks from the Crenshaw
Christian Center, where Brenda took the family to church. Larry
was halfway to the street when his mother's voice froze him like
a tractor beam: "You ain't going nowhere!" Meekly, obediently,
Larry walked back into the house.

His mother's iron fist at least had a velvet glove on it. Upon
arriving at Washington in August '97, Tripplett discovered how
tough tough love could be. "It was like everybody [on the
coaching staff] was mad at me about everything," he says. "I was
so unprepared to play college football, there was no way I wasn't
redshirting."

So miserable was he during that redshirt season that a few
teammates predicted he would quit. "Larry would sit by his locker
after practice, staring at the floor," recalls senior center Kyle
Benn. "I'd be showered and leaving the locker room, and he'd be
still in his uniform, sitting there, saying, 'I don't know, man.
I don't know.' I didn't think he'd be around long. Four years
later he's a team leader, a preseason All-America, and he's
making guys look really, really bad."

Tripplett's luck on the Seattle campus started changing one
winter morning in 1998. Three weeks into a film course in which
he'd enrolled, Tripplett thought it might be a good idea to
attend the class. He found a seat next to an attractive coed, who
rolled her eyes when he began flirting. "He misses class for
three weeks, then has the nerve to try to talk to me when he
should be paying attention," says Tasha Likkel. "I was a bit
irked by that."

Despite her initial iciness toward him, he caught up with her
after that first class. They talked. Likkel eventually agreed to
a date. "He was a perfect gentleman," she says. "He didn't try
anything my parents wouldn't have approved of." Both her parents
were pastors, which delighted Brenda.

On Valentine's Day in '98, Tripplett left a card at Likkel's
dormitory. "Never in my life have I encountered a girl like you,"
he had written on it. "You are young, beautiful, intelligent,
independent and, at the same time, still a lady." He also left a
brown bag with a gift inside. The university's biggest teddy bear
had purchased a smaller one for Likkel. "Larry and I have been
pretty solid since then," she says.

They've dated 3 1/2 years, and both speak of their plans to
marry. "He says he wants eight to 12 children," says Likkel.
"Believe me, that's not going to happen."

While many men his age shy away from commitment, Tripplett says
he can't wait until he "can afford" to get hitched and become a
parent. "I'm going to be the father of the year," he says,
admitting that he's eager to be for his children the male role
model he seldom had. His father moved to San Mateo, Calif., when
Larry was nine and started acquiring McDonald's franchises. (He
owns seven.) Although he regularly sent checks that made his
son's life more comfortable and flew to L.A. to see several of
the boy's high school games, the two were not particularly close.
They've had a rapprochement in the past year, and Larry goes out
of his way to give his father credit for taking care of him in
this fashion. However, he also stands by a statement he made
earlier in his college career: that the most influential male
role model he had while growing up was Cliff Huxtable.

After a redshirt freshman season in which he saw spot duty, Larry
began to take on a starring role at Washington. He was named
second-team All-Pac 10 as a sophomore and in 2000 had the
breakout season Hart had been predicting for him. Of all the big
plays he made, none was larger than a tackle on Oregon State's
penultimate play from scrimmage against the Huskies, with
Washington up by three points. "Larry's the best defensive tackle
I went up against all season," says Beavers center Chris Gibson.
"He'll hit you in the mouth"--how proud Hart would be to hear
that!--"then make the play."

That's exactly what Tripplett did on this critical snap,
breaching the line of scrimmage and tackling running back Ken
Simonton for a three-yard loss, forcing Oregon State to attempt
a game-tying 46-yard field goal, which barely missed. As things
turned out, if the Beavers had won, they would have taken the
Pac-10 title outright. Instead they finished in a three-way tie
with Oregon and the Huskies, who beat Purdue 34-24 in the Rose
Bowl.

In the weeks following the Rose Bowl, Tripplett toyed with
entering the NFL draft. Instead he dusted off his video camera.
"I want to enjoy my senior year here," he says. "I want to feel
like I completed this process." The NFL agrees with his decision.
"He would've been in the mix if he'd come out," says the
Seahawks' McCloughan, "but it almost always helps a kid to play
an extra year of college ball."

It should definitely help Tripplett. The teddy bear who didn't
lift weights seriously until he arrived at Washington increased
his squat over the summer to a school-record 750 pounds. "The
most I ever did was 735," says Emtman. "Thing is, Larry's not a
powerlifter. He's a great athlete who happens to powerlift.
There isn't a lineman at this level who can block him, if he
puts his mind to it."

Emtman spent time with Tripplett over the summer. They worked on
a semiobscure aspect of defensive line play: how to keep an
offensive lineman's hands off you. That explains why Tripplett
found himself sitting bolt upright in bed in the middle of the
night during two-a-days, chopping at the hands of imaginary
linemen. This happened several times. "Can you believe it?" he
said at the time. "I'm dreaming about football practice."

Is Coach Hart in your dreams? "His voice," says Tripplett,
looking into the distance. "Always his voice."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY ROBERT BECK Relentless Though Michigan double-teamed him, Tripplett kept the pressure on during a 23-18 victory last Saturday. COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN

"Someone else could mess up a drill and Coach Hart would let it
go. When I messed up, he'd yell."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)