When John Katnik showed up for USC spring practice in 1986, he had the feeling that his new teammates in the offensive line were looking at him disapprovingly.
"I thought they were looking down at me like they were thinking, 'Why did we recruit this guy?' " Katnik said. "Those guys were huge, and I might have said the same thing about myself. I had to prove myself."
As USC's starting center, Katnik is listed at 6 feet 1 inch and 250 pounds. But John Matsko, USC's offensive line coach, said Katnik fudges on his height.
"I measure myself against him every week, and I'm taller than he is at 5-11 3/4, although he says he's taller than me," Matsko said. "I've always looked up to the guys I coach, but I look eyeball to eyeball to John."
If Katnik is undersized, though, it has little bearing on how he performs, according to Matsko.
"John is an over-achiever," he said. "He practices well all week and plays exceptional on game days. He's a good technician and the best guy I've ever coached at blocking linebackers. And I haven't really coached him. He just has a knack of doing it.
"It doesn't matter to me how big a guy is. I just want to know how big his heart is--and John has a great heart. That's why he's such a good football player."
So Katnik, who transferred to USC from Fullerton College, is now a fixture in the offensive line. He wouldn't be at the school now, though, had it not been for a chance meeting between Dick Tomey and Ted Tollner, USC's former coach, in Honolulu in December of 1985.
Tomey, who is now Arizona's coach, was Hawaii's coach at the time. He tried to recruit Katnik for Hawaii but the center wanted to stay closer to home.
A few days before USC's Aloha Bowl game with Alabama, Tomey got together with Tollner and sold him on the playing ability of Katnik, who had been ignored by most Division I schools when he left Fullerton.
Katnik's coach at Fullerton, Hal Sherbeck, also wrote a letter to Tollner, extolling Katnik's talent.
Tollner offered Katnik a scholarship without ever watching him play, which is unusual.
"I don't see myself with any disadvantage because of my height and weight," Katnik said. "I've never been the biggest guy on the line, though. That's why I thought I'd never be here. The same thing happened to my brother Norman. He wanted to come to USC."
Norman Katnik wound up at Arizona, where he was a starting center in the late '70s. John has a USC legacy, though, since his father, two other brothers and a sister graduated from the school.
Katnik says he has been a center since he was barely able to snap a football. He was all-state at Foothill High in Santa Ana and was then All-American honorable mention at Fullerton College, but centers live in anonymity.
"I don't get that much recognition, but what little I get I love," he said, laughing.
Even trivia buffs might be hard pressed to name 10 great centers, college or professional. "I can't do it and I've been playing it for years," said Katnik, laughing again. "Those big 6-8 or 6-9 tackles get all the press."
Katnik maintains his sense of humor even during games. After USC had driven 98 yards to a touchdown against California Sept. 26, Katnik turned to quarterback Rodney Peete and said, "I hope we don't have to do that again."
That sort of a drive is drudgery and Matsko has apparently prepared his linemen for the long haul.
When practices ostensibly end, the offensive linemen are still on the field.
"Everybody else is going home and we're out another 10 to 15 minutes going through dashes," Katnik said. "You get mentally tough doing that, even though it's hard to do.
"When Matsko came in, he said our team will be as good as the offensive line. I would agree with that.
"It bothered me for a while because we were working so hard, but now I know why. And, if you have something to complain about to each other after practice, you come together."
Matsko agreed. "If they're not complaining, or griping, they're not working hard enough," he said.
For all the hard work, Katnik seems to enjoy himself. He said that he likes blocking for Steven Webster because the tailback hits a hole at precisely the right time and isn't running over his back.
As for Peete, Katnik said: "He's an excellent leader. I think the quarterback has to be the leader on the team. I think he has shown more leadership this year than last year."
Katnik, a public administration major, said he isn't sure what he'll do after graduating, but there's a possibility that he may go on to law school. His father, Andrew, and brother, Norman, comprise the law firm of Katnik & Katnik.
"If I came in, it could be called Tri-Kat," said Katnik, laughing again.
Trojan Notes USC is ranked first in the Pacific 10 and sixth nationally in total offense, averaging 466 yards a game. . . . Tailback Steven Webster is the Pac-10's leading ground gainer, averaging 120 yards a game. He is the first USC tailback to rush for 100-plus yards in three consecutive games since Marcus Allen did it in his Heisman Trophy-winning season of 1981. . . . Last Saturday, Oregon beat Washington, 29-22, in Eugene, Ore., before a crowd of 44,421, the largest ever to see a sporting event in the state. Oregon Coach Rich Brooks anticipates a crowd of 40,000 for the USC game Saturday at Eugene. "I'd like to see another sellout, but I don't think it will happen," Brooks said. "Deer season has opened here." . . . UCLA's Troy Aikman, Oregon's Bill Musgrave and USC's Rodney Peete rank 1-2-4 nationally in passing efficiency. . . . With freshman quarterback Ronald Veal running Arizona's option offense, it is being called the "Veal bone."