SAN DIEGO — Ask Brad and Mitch Burton, junior defensive linemen at San Diego State, what it is like to be identical twins, and you get no stories of spooky premonitions or extrasensory perceptions, no belief that their destinies are linked uncontrollably by some genetic code they cannot break.
You get none of the stuff one hears when twins tour the afternoon talk-show circuit. You find instead a lovingly close bond between brothers, each of whom has found a best friend in a mirror image of himself.
"We're very compatible, very close," Brad said. "Ever since I can remember, I knew we were twins. We're brothers, but Mitch and I have always gotten along like great friends. We're a lot more harmonious than we are different."
SDSU's Denny Stolz has worked with three sets of twins in 21 years as a head coach, but he said the Burtons are the closest.
"You never see one without the other," Stolz said. "I mean, they are close. They come to eat at the same time. They get on the bus at the same time. They come to meetings at the same time. It's very difficult to tell them apart."
The Burtons figure they have grown so close in part because they have no other brothers and sisters. They grew up together alone.
"People are always asking me, 'What is like to be a twin?' " Mitch said. "Well, what's it like to be a regular sibling? I don't have anything else to compare it to. We just always went through everything together."
Football is no exception.
When the Burtons played at El Capitan High School, they were a perfectly matched set of tight ends. When they went on to SDSU, they both began on the offensive line--Brad as a guard and Mitch as a tight end. They were separated briefly when Brad was moved to the defensive line before last season but were reunited by the eighth game when Mitch, too, was moved from offense.
That reunion will be complete Saturday night at 7:30 when they make their first college start together, in a Western Athletic Conference game against Wyoming at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium. They will be side by side on the defensive line--Brad at nose tackle, Mitch at end.
"Anytime you get to play with someone you're that close to, it makes it that much more fun and worthwhile playing together," Mitch said. "We were always in the same huddle in high school. Now we're in the same huddle in college."
That way they not only share defensive techniques; they share their successes. When Mitch made a third-quarter sack that snuffed a potential Oregon touchdown drive Saturday, Brad was right there to congratulate him.
"I don't think there was anyone happier when he got that sack," Brad said. "It's great to see him do so well."
Mitch played possibly his best defensive game against Oregon, taking over at end when Todd Coomes left in the first quarter with a broken ankle. Coomes underwent surgery Wednesday and is out for the season. Mitch is his likely replacement.
It has given the Burtons their first opportunity to start together since high school. Brad did start four games last season and began this season as a regular, but when Mitch made his one previous start against Stanford three weeks ago, Brad began the game on the sidelines because of a compound dislocation of his right index finger that he sustained in practice.
The injury might have restricted some of Brad's playing activity, but it has helped to make it easier to tell the brothers apart--at least on the field. With a large padded cast covering his right hand and wrist, there is no mistaking Brad.
"Sometimes it slides off a little bit, and that really hurts," Brad said. "And it is hard to do certain pass-rush moves with it. But I've been playing with it for two games now, and I'm starting to feel comfortable with it."
Brad has permission from trainer Don Kaverman to play without the cast, but for now, he is choosing to keep it.
"When I first hurt my finger, I couldn't touch it without extreme pain," Brad said. Three weeks later, he still only has limited movement in the joint.
Even without the cast, there are ways to distinguish the Burtons apart, both on and off the field. The easiest is when they are in uniform. Brad wears No. 91, Mitch No. 87. And even identical twins have their differences.
Beginning chronologically, Brad was born five minutes before Mitch on Dec. 13, 1966. Brad is the "big" brother in more ways than one. At 6 feet, 5 inches and 260 pounds, he is an inch taller and 25 pounds heavier.
Brad gained the edge several years ago when he was hospitalized for about 10 days because of an injury from a baseball game.
"I've been trying to catch up with him ever since," Mitch said. "Then when he was trying to play on the offensive line, and I was at tight end, he was trying to gain more weight immediately than me, so he was eating more."
Brad also has a mustache that he has worn for several years. But he is not convinced it is an attempt to differentiate himself from his brother.