By MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Players jump and slap each other on the helmet as the physical and psychological preparation for the game reaches a frenzied pitch.
This is a pack of wild dogs moving in on a kill. It is a school of hungry sharks on to the scent of blood.
But just behind the large, churning mass of blue and gold stands a solitary figure who wears the same colors but is seemingly detached from the pregame mayhem. This isn't an obscure fourth-stringer, or a pipsqueak kicker who doesn't want to get hurt in the celebratory scrum.
It is the rock they have built this place around for the past four seasons - Nick Kaczur. When the 2004 season ends, Kaczur will likely become the first UT player to receive All-Mid-American Conference recognition for four straight years.
With Kaczur you get no fuss, no flash and no nonsense. While the pregame pandemonium circulates all around him, he chooses to compose himself and put his energy into the task at hand. Kaczur is like a solitary monk deep in meditation - until he moves out of the shadows and inside that 100-yard box.
"Nick is a real different guy," UT coach Tom Amstutz said. "Until you put the ball on the tee and the lights come on, you hardly even know he is here. "But from the second the game starts, he is all-out, 100 percent football. There is no off switch, and no low gear. He is not yelling and screaming, but Nick is every bit as intense as anyone out there on the field. He doesn't say much - he just plays the game extremely hard."
Kaczur, a 6-5, 305-pound offensive tackle, has started every game in his college career - 46 straight. During that stretch, Toledo has had one of the top offenses in the country. There is a clear connection between those two facts.
"In order to accomplish anything on offense, good line play has to come first," Amstutz said. "When you start with a Nick Kaczur, you feel good about being successful."
Kaczur is the anchor, the immovable object. He plays a position where fans rarely even know your name, and he thrives in that obscurity. He engages in a wrestling match with other 300-pound men with every snap of the ball, and he is so dominating at his position that those battles are rarely even a draw.
Kaczur grew up in the working-class town of Brantford, Ont., in the greater Toronto metropolitan area. Brantford is also Wayne Gretzky's hometown, and a place where every kid wants to be a hockey player.
Like his two older brothers, Kaczur played the sport with a passion. "Back home, pretty much everyone has the same dream - to some day play in the National Hockey League," Kaczur said.
But it was a financial hardship on Kaczur's mom with three kids in hockey, and Nick's sheer size was making him a rather unpopular figure out on the ice, even in his early teens.
"It was kind of hard being the biggest guy all the time," Kaczur said. "A lot of the parents didn't like a bigger guy playing hockey because I was hurting their kids."
So when he reached high school and football became an option, Kaczur hung up the skates. "That was my first chance to play football, and I like contact sports so I thought I'd try that," he said.
Kaczur was voted the best lineman at Collegiate High School for four straight years. He was the team's offensive MVP for both his junior and senior seasons. And he was selected as the No. 1 high school lineman in Ontario as a senior.
"Around here, football isn't a big deal, so it wasn't until his last year of high school that we really realized that Nick might have a future in this," his brother Chad said.
Kaczur had the size, power and skill to be a major college football player in the U.S. - but he did not have the grades. So Kaczur took a job working construction, and spent his evenings building up his academics.
"I hadn't worked as hard as I should have, so I had to go back and take some classes over," Kaczur said. "I'd work 12 or 13-hour days on construction, and then come home and have to hit the books, so it was rough."
Kaczur graduated, and elevated his grade-point average, and played in the Canadian Junior Football League while he was at it. He enrolled at UT in January of 2001 as a 21-year-old freshman.
Kaczur was No. 3 on the depth chart at UT during spring football in 2001, but by the time workouts started in August, he was a starter.
Kaczur's blocking skills and refined technique shocked the UT coaches, because offensive line is arguably the toughest position to learn in the college game.
When he started the first game of the 2001 season as a true freshman, Kaczur was the first Rocket to do so in 23 years.
"That is very unusual to see a freshman on the offensive line. That's the hardest position for a freshman to play," Amstutz said. "A skill kid can go out and run a route, but that offensive lineman has so much more to learn with all of the different blocking schemes."
Kaczur was named a freshman All-American by the Sporting News after helping the Rockets average 213 yards rushing per game, and he was second-team All-MAC. Toledo won the league championship and the Motor City Bowl.
"I've been here at Toledo the same time, and I've seen Nick working at football almost every day," UT senior center David Odenthal said. "He plays the offensive line like he was born to play it. He was a very skilled player from the day he got here, and he's gotten better every year."
In Kaczur's sophomore season, the Rockets were fifth in the nation in offense (472 yards per game) and Kaczur was a first-team All-MAC pick. UT won the West Division again, but got beat by Boston College in the Motor City Bowl.
Kaczur got thrown out of that bowl game defeat after a fracas in the end zone that involved a number of players from both teams. He has taken the occasional unsportsmanlike conduct penalty too, especially when frustration over the team's performance gets the best of him.
"I guess I got a little carried away there with my emotions," Kaczur said. "I get pretty involved in the intensity of the game, but I need to watch that so I can stay out on the field and help my team."
Last season, Kaczur was the core on an offensive line that allowed a MAC-low nine sacks in 12 games. UT ranked No. 11 in the country in total offense.
This year he has wowed the pro scouts who are in the press box for every game. Kaczur finishes as well as anyone in the conference, they say.
Often, after pass blocking for UT quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, Kaczur will rumble down the field and throw a second block for the receiver. A few unsuspecting defensive backs have absorbed pile-driver blocks from Kaczur that were painful, even to watch.
"When you see that - it just doesn't seem fair," UT junior linebacker Anthony Jordan said with a smile. "Nick is a great player and such a physical guy - and when he hits somebody, everyone in the stadium feels it.
When he gets some momentum and then throws a block, he just punishes people."
UT offensive line coach Mike Devlin knows the makeup that is required to play in the NFL. He put in seven seasons with the Buffalo Bills and the Arizona Cardinals after earning Big Ten lineman of the year honors as a senior at Iowa. Devlin thinks Kaczur has the tools, but more importantly, the intangibles.
"He has the size and the strength, but there are hundreds of big, strong guys around. What they really like to see in the NFL is a guy who is big and nasty and tough," Devlin said.
"In the pros, if you're not tough, they will search you out and they'll expose you. But Nick is a tough player, and he's got a real nasty streak in him."
Devlin said the pros might look at Kaczur as a guard or a center. The Canadian Football League would love to have him and a number of CFL teams have extensively scouted Kaczur, but they don't expect him to be available after the NFL draft.
"There is a tremendous upside to him," said Greg Mohns, the director of player personnel for the Toronto Argonauts. "There is the size, he's athletic, and he's got really good quick-twitch movement for a big guy. One thing I found curious from watching him closely is that every time you felt like he was about to get beat, he had the ability to stalemate the other guy.
"From a CFL standpoint, he's a sure-fire first-round pick, and a guy who would pretty easily have a 10-15 year career without blinking an eye," Mohns said.
Mohns remarked that Kaczur has an uncanny "mirror ability" that allows him to anticipate a defender's moves and block them.
"And he finishes like no other person I've seen," Devlin said. "That's part of that old-school mentality. He doesn't like people messing with our quarterback, so he gets after them. In my opinion, he's a strong first-day candidate for the NFL draft."
While a career in the pro football ranks seems almost certain for Kaczur, he has given a lot of thought to life beyond football. He knows what he wants to do.
"I'd like to maybe work as a game warden or something like that," Kaczur said. "It would definitely have to be something outside. I can't ever see myself working inside, or sitting at a desk - never. I could even see myself going back to construction if I had to - anything that keeps me outside."
Gradkowski said he expects Kaczur to find success in the pros because he has the work ethic to go along with his considerable skills.
"Nick is a blue-collar kind of guy, and it shows in the way he approaches football," Gradkowski said. "He brings his lunch pail and goes to work every day. He is big and tough and real talented, and with him over there protecting my back side, I never worry about getting hit. Nobody beats him."
Kaczur, who has focused his studies at UT on resource management, comes across as a bit of a free spirit.
When the MAC assembled the media last summer to meet with its best players, most of them were decked out in suits, blazers, or a shirt and tie. Kaczur had on flip flops that were in desperate need of a 30,000-mile retread, cut-off shorts, and a T-shirt. His hair would have been unkempt, if he worked with it a little. His scruffy goatee made him look like a 300-pound version of Shaggy from Scooby Doo.
"He has an unusual and unique personality," Amstutz said. "But Nick does not try and pretend to be something he's not. He's a rugged, laid-back, outdoors kind of guy. But when the ball is snapped, there is an extreme intensity that comes out of him. Before a game, you won't hear him yelling in the locker room. When it's time to play, he plays."
Amstutz said Kaczur's age has been an advantage.
"He's a mature young man, and he has always had the maturity to be humble about his abilities. He looks at football as something he wants to do as a job, and he kind of treats it that way now."
Kaczur knew little about American football before coming to UT, but he seems to have been cut from the same stock as many of the best U.S. players.
"Being from Canada, I didn't know much about the schools and the teams down here," Kaczur said, "but the coaches filled me in on the winning tradition here at Toledo. I wanted to play someplace where winning was important, but the biggest factor was that it was close to home. Being close to my family, that was a big thing for me."
Kaczur's hometown is about 4 1/2 hours from Toledo, but he has family members at just about every Toledo game - often one of his brothers.
Kaczur, whose father passed away this summer, said having two older brothers was good preparation for the physical play on the football field.
"They're both hockey players, and they got me ready for football by working me over pretty good when I was younger," Kaczur said.
"We were pretty rough on each other at home, wrestling around like most brothers do," Chad Kaczur said. "Who knows, maybe that's why Nick is such a tough guy now."
Kaczur's dedication and love for football does not translate into an obsession, however. On Sundays, Kaczur prefers to watch NASCAR over the NFL, but his first choice includes neither.
"When I'm not playing football, I like to relax and maybe just go fishing," he said. "It's pretty peaceful, and anything to do with water and being outdoors, I really enjoy."
With the pros most likely in his future, the fishing will have to be done in the offseason. Kaczur has at least three games left in his senior season at UT, and has invitations to play in two of the postseason all-star games.
"It would be great to see him get drafted and play pro ball in the States," Chad Kaczur said, "because not very many guys from Canada get a chance to play in the NFL. It would be an unbelievable experience for his family, but Nick would probably just act like it was no big deal."
Contact Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6510.