It was beginning to look like Route 66, a good omen if Brady Dargan ever sensed one.
Funny, Dargan thought to himself as the miles and hours whizzed by during his drive from Green Bay, Wis., to Los Angeles last summer. The number 66--which he wore as a defensive lineman for the Occidental College football team--was eerily popping up almost everywhere.
"It seemed like the mile marker signs all said '66 miles to . . . ,' somewhere," Dargan recalled. "I'd get change back after buying something and it always included 66 cents. It was pretty weird. I guess it was fate."
It was luck, however, that intervened on Dargan's behalf about 120 miles outside Denver.
Dargan had been driving almost nonstop for more than 24 hours when he fell asleep at the wheel for a few seconds. By the time he woke up, he was heading toward the center divider of the two-lane highway.
Dargan turned the steering wheel hard to the right.
The car careened across the pavement, jumped the right shoulder and rolled, 1 1/2 times, into a roadside ditch.
"I was upside down, hanging out of my seat belt," Dargan remembered. "I could feel the blood going all over my arm and in my eyes."
Dargan walked away from the wreck with nothing more than a few cuts on his arms and his head. But the close call embellished even further the nickname, Accidental, with which Dargan's friends branded his college choice when he left the legendary land of Lombardi and Lambeau Field for Eagle Rock three years ago.
"I guess you could say it was an eventful journey," said Dargan, a junior. "I'm glad that one is over."
A trip to the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Division III playoffs is the journey that has occupied most of Dargan's thoughts since he arrived safely on campus in time for preseason workouts.
Occidental's season-opening 16-14 loss to Menlo last Saturday was about the only setback the Tigers can afford if they expect to gain a bid to the invitation-only playoffs--a destination the school has not reached since 1985.
Dargan figures to be one of the key factors for Occidental should the Tigers sweep through their remaining eight games, the first of which is Saturday at Azusa Pacific.
"We beat ourselves last week," said Dargan, 20. "We let down at times. We had them backed down at times and let them out. I have to help make sure that doesn't happen again."
At 6-feet, Dargan seems to carry much of his 260 pounds in thighs that have the circumference of your average redwood. Gary Etcheverry, Occidental's defensive coordinator, describes the oversized political science major as "a sack of bowling balls."
Dargan, who was cut from a Pop Warner team because of his size, is an atypical defensive lineman at Occidental.
The Tigers employ a unique 3-4 defensive scheme which makes quickness rather than size a premium up front. Tiger linemen do not avoid their offensive counterparts by running around them. Instead, they take blockers--and ideally the offense--out of the play by slanting into them, allowing linebackers and defensive backs a clear shot at ballcarriers and passers.
When Dargan arrived at Occidental, Coach Dale Widolff didn't waste much time sizing up the big kid from Wisconsin, who aspired to play the same position--linebacker--as Green Bay Packer Hall of Famer Ray Nitschke, the most famous 66 of them all.
After a few seconds, Widolff mentally penciled Dargan in on offense.
"When we recruit kids we flat out tell them that they can start out at whatever position they want to but we may move them after a few days if we think it will benefit the team," Widolff said. "It's rare that a guy can weigh 240 and play defense for us."
Dargan, however, was adamant about getting the chance.
"I thought he would last a few days," Etcheverry said.
Instead, Dargan's been a starter at defensive tackle for three years.
"He's basically a 260-pound guy that has the athletic ability, from his knees down, of a 175-pounder," Etcheverry said. "You tend to think that people his size don't require the effort of someone 5-9, 180 pounds. But Brady gives effort that is usually associated with someone much smaller and clearly much lighter."
Dargan enhances his mobility and coordination during the off-season by competing for the Occidental track team in the shot put, discus and hammer throw. Despite never competing in the hammer until he came to Occidental, Dargan fell just five inches short of qualifying for the the Division III nationals.
"It keeps me disciplined and working towards a goal," Dargan said of track. "It also keeps me in shape for football.
"I know myself pretty well and if I didn't have the week-to-week goal that track provides, I'd probably say, 'Ah well, I think I'll just sleep today.' "
With the Tigers in the hunt for a playoff spot, Dargan said he won't rest easy until an invitation is in hand.
"This team is capable of getting to the playoffs and playing for the national championship," Dargan said. "We have the elements to do it, especially our defense.
"That opportunity was one of the reasons I came all the way out here. And I intend to get what I came for."