Two weeks ago, when Rueben Solorio was introduced to Eric Tautolo, it was not a happy moment. Solorio would have just as soon driven a Buick into a brick wall at 60 m.p.h.
A recapitulation of their violent meeting: Solorio, a 215-pound defensive end for Cal Lutheran, was sniffing around the line of scrimmage for a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo ballcarrier when Tautolo, a 6-5, 320-pound offensive tackle, rammed his shoulder pad into Solorio's gut, lifted him into the air while shoving him backward, flipped him parallel to the ground and finished him off with a belly-flop block--registering a 6.0 both on the judges' cards and the Richter scale.
Disturbing images such as this are not exactly what Solorio had in mind when he decided to play defense instead of offense after coming to Cal Lutheran in 1984. The former All-Southern Section tight end-defensive end from Schurr High in Montebello chose defense because he "got a kick out of trying to hit people"--not the other way around.
Truth be told, Solorio has collected his share of tackles over the past three years. Last season, he was second among Kingsmen defenders with 88 tackles, had 4 sacks, 4 fumble recoveries and 9 tackles for a loss. He also was named to the All-Western Football Conference second team.
And in three games this season, the senior has 28 tackles, 3 sacks, 4 tackles for a loss and 1 interception.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Solorio is his durability. He started as a defensive lineman in his first game as a freshman and since that time has not missed a game. The streak is made more impressive by the fact that coaches never have made up their minds where to play him.
As a freshman, he was a defensive end. In his sophomore year, Solorio was switched to defensive tackle. Last year, he was standing up again at left end. This season, as a part of defensive coordinator Gary Patterson's new pro 4-3 alignment, Solorio lines up like an end-linebacker on half of the plays and is a down lineman the rest of the time.
It is when Solorio shifts to tackle that he runs the risk of being plowed under and plopped on by huge offensive linemen like Tautolo.
"It's tough in the middle," he said. "It's not a lot of fun when all you're doing is crashing bodies and you can't see where the ball's at. I just say to myself, 'I'm going to do this,' because, well, I have to."
Solorio is a guy who would throw his body on a hand grenade for the good of the squadron.
His way of looking at things is commendable, indeed, if one considers that he often is outweighed by 50 pounds by offensive linemen. It wouldn't be so bad if his foot speed made up for his lack of size, but Solorio probably couldn't beat the Fat Boys in a 40-yard dash.
"He's not big enough to be inside," Coach Bob Shoup said, "and he's not quick enough to be outside or an outstanding tight end."
Next thing, the coach will claim it's instinct-- the one characteristic coaches often fall back on when they cannot explain an athlete's success.
"It's just that he plays so well in terms of instinct," Shoup said. "He makes the right decision most of the time. He has good innate abilities. He seems to sense the blocking."
In summary, then, Solorio is football's version of the amazing Kreskin.
And when a 320-pound offensive lineman occasionally escapes his senses, Solorio soon is knocked back to them.
Later in the Cal Poly game, Solorio made a play that could have turned the game in Cal Lutheran's favor. With the Kingsmen trailing, 31-13, and the Mustangs in possession of the ball on their own 12-yard line, quarterback Tom Sullivan threw a pass that was batted by a CLU defender. The ball momentarily wafted, looking as if it would fall harmlessly to the ground. But Solorio scooted over, snatched it in mid-air--his fifth career interception--and rumbled toward the end zone.
"I thought for sure I was going to score," he said.
He didn't. He was dragged down from behind at the two. He deferred to quarterback Tom Bonds, who promptly threw a touchdown pass to Joe Monarrez. Two minutes later, after a Solorio sack, the defense recorded a safety and CLU trailed by only eight points. Eventually, the Kingsmen fell to the bigger, more physical Mustangs, but the statistics sheet revealed the loss wasn't Solorio's fault. He had 11 tackles, an interception, broke up a pass and recorded a sack.
All in spite of a bruised ego and tail bone, compliments of Tautolo.
"He's made the most of his potential," said Ken Davis, Solorio's coach at Schurr. "He didn't have the speed to play at a big college. Hardly anyone recruited him or any of our athletes. But he's done a lot with what he has--a lot of tenacity and heart. No matter what, he's going to make something out of himself.
"In fact, he already has."