Roger Laubengayer, a guard on the Occidental College football team, relishes the afternoons he can don his tie-dye shirt, make the 35-minute drive to Venice Beach and just hang out. To Laubengayer, Venice is a constant reminder that he is worlds away from the impoverished rural surroundings of Ellsworth, in central Kansas, where he was raised.
Last year, Laubengayer transferred from Coffeyville Junior College, where his penchant for originality was often a point of controversy.
"I guess I was basically a redneck--that's all there was," Laubengayer said. "So once in a while, if I wore a pink shirt, that was something everyone would talk about."
Laubengayer, who says he never heard anyone speak a language other than English until he got to Coffeyville, felt stifled in Kansas. His parents had moved to Sacramento and he had wanderlust.
"Most of the kids I knew are probably married and working on the farm or the salt mine or the brick plant," he said. "I haven't kept in touch with most of my friends. I call one or two of them at Christmas."
At Occidental, Laubengayer, who is an academic senior with a fifth season of football eligibility, has found an alternative way to make his presence known--he dominates on the field. The first time Tiger Coach Dale Widolff saw the Coffeyville game films, Laubengayer was hardly inconspicuous.
"We realized that he was the type of guy that could make a big impact," said Widolff, who was impressed with Laubengayer's aggressive style.
Widolff's appraisal was accurate. Last year, Laubengayer was second-team All-Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and led the team in "ticket takers"--hits on unsuspecting opponents who have stopped before the whistle has been blown.
At 6 feet, 235 pounds, Laubengayer was considered by many Division I recruiters as too small to play guard. He had, however, caught the eye of scouts from Kansas, Kansas State and Clemson. But he long dreamed of living near the ocean and he wanted a crack at playing at a Division I school on the West Coast.
Instead, in the first Coffeyville intrasquad scrimmage of the 1986 season, it was Laubengayer's knee that cracked. A teammate landed on him in a pile and crushed his leg. Laubengayer underwent surgery to repair torn ligaments, sat out his sophomore year and completed a rigorous rehabilitation program.
After a year, his knee had healed sufficiently and Laubengayer was ready to resume his quest for a scholarship. But word of his injury spread fast. He was labled damaged goods and the intermittent recruiting letters dwindled accordingly.
The reality of his situation soon sunk in and Laubengayer sought the advice of his coach, Dick Foster.
"Every kid has visions of grandeur coming into our program," said Foster, who has a record of 122-22-2 in 14 seasons at Coffeyville. "Most kids are so level-conscious that they don't realize that wherever you go, if you're successful academically and athletically, you'll be happy."
Foster saw a promising future for Laubengayer, who maintained a 3.96 grade-point average at Coffeyville. "He's a great student and a great kid," Foster said. "To me, he's the epitome of a college football player."
Laubengayer took Foster's advice to heart, and when he got a letter from Occidental, which has won or shared 4 of the past 5 SCIAC titles, his interest was piqued.
"I picked up the letter and it was from Los Angeles, so naturally I called back," Laubengayer said.
When you've spent your whole life looking at amber waves of grain, even the freeways of Southern California can be appealing. But when the game starts, Laubengayer is just a big, ol' tough Midwesterner, and few things fire his competitive spirit more than challenges on the football field.
Chief among the challenges he's faced at Occidental has been the annual game with Claremont, when he lines up against all-conference linebacker Rory Wilson, dubbed "The Grinch" by his Claremont teammates.
"He's the only linebacker that I really thought was any good last year," Laubengayer said. "I was pretty psyched up to play against him this year. And he didn't play bad against us, it's just that he was on a ship that was dying, going down. So you could tell that he was frustrated.
"And they played him at defensive line, so I don't think he was at his position."
Occidental drubbed Claremont, 29-0.
Offensive line coach Bill Dobson saw the last meeting between Laubengayer and Wilson as more of a mismatch, however.
"Roger took that guy on a roller-skate ride about 10 yards downfield and deposited him on his back," Dobson recalled.
But Laubengayer's strongest suit might be his ability to recognize and execute the nuances of the postion.
His appreciation for the finer points of the game, Dobson says, sets him apart from the other linemen in the conference.
"It's such an exact science," said Dobson, adding a lineman can miss his block if his step is an inch off. "The angle of that step has to be precise because you've got a guy lined up right across from you, whereas when you get out in space like a (running back) or wide receiver you can afford to be less precise."
Dobson says Laubengayer has established an outstanding work ethic and has a knack for focusing on the task at hand.
One notable instance was when he was having a difficult time with his Spanish class last year.
"I was thinking, 'Boy, I wonder how I could get down there and study Spanish this summer,' " he said.
So Laubengayer organized a study trip to Guatemala for 7 Occidental students and a professor.
But taking that initiative didn't surprise his coaches.
"If he's going to get a Nobel Prize for bringing peace to Central America, or discover a cure for AIDS, or figure out a way to end the deficit--he's just one of those people," Dobson said.