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Flanagan a Leader at UCLA : College football: Center, after his father's suicide last May, has to do some fast growing up.

October 06, 1994|JIM HODGES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He has become a leader, sort of by default, which is the way he became the starting center at UCLA. There simply wasn't anybody else.

Somebody had to do it. Mike Flanagan didn't volunteer. He was drafted.

Mike Sr. would have been proud.

"It's not something he wanted to do, but it's something that he's had to do," said Mike Sherman, the Bruins' line coach. "We have no seniors in the offensive line since (tackle) Paul Kennedy went out (because of an injury), and he's really stepped his game up the last couple of weeks. He realizes our back's against the wall, and Mike's a fighter."

A little more than a year ago, he was a foul-up, using Thursday beer-keg parties as a substitute for brooding about playing time he wasn't getting and coaches he was convinced didn't like him.

A lot of things led to the transition. He got to play after being certain he never would at UCLA. He grew up some.

And he got an early phone call May 18, from a neighbor in Sacramento.

"My father committed suicide," Flanagan says simply. "He was a manic-depressive and had a rough time. He hadn't worked in a couple of years, and he wasn't doing too hot and took a bunch of pills."

Mike Flanagan Sr., 54, had been a journalist, working in the Midwest, then in Washington, then as assistant managing editor of the Sacramento Bee. A divorce five years ago had taken its toll, and Mike Jr. stayed with him afterward until it was time to go to college.

Never enthusiastic about sports, Mike Sr. became a fan while watching his son play football and basketball for Rio Americano High in Sacramento. He listened to Mike Jr.'s problems, which were mainly trying to persuade coaches at UCLA he should play. When that playing time came, Mike Sr. became a one-man fan club.

"At the time he was kind of gung-ho," Mike Jr. said. "He would call Thursday and wish me good luck, call Saturday after the game to see how things had gone and call Monday to see how films worked. It was kind of, you knew when the phone rang that it was Dad and you'd answer, 'Hey, Dad, what's up?' "

What was up was a struggle with medication and his life.

"He went through about every kind of prescription drug there was, and everything had some kind of drastic side effect," Flanagan said. "He couldn't eat, couldn't sleep. Whatever, it wasn't working."

There is nothing harder for a young man than arranging his father's funeral. It ages him quickly. When spring became summer, and when a funeral was followed by selling a house and settling an estate, there was no time to be a boy.

There was time only for the weight room and contemplation. Flanagan had never been a dedicated weightlifter, and his football progress was slowed by a lack of strength.

He had come to UCLA as a 220-pound freshman with speed and athletic ability, but able to bench press his weight and little more. Now he's a 275-pound center who benches 385. A little treatment from a line coach who is no longer at UCLA had started the transition.

"I thought I'd never play," Flanagan said. "That was especially true with coach (Bob) Palcic. He rode me and rode me and rode me, and I was convinced he hated me and I was never going to play. He was a screamer, something I'd never been used to."

Flanagan had played under Mike Smith at Rio Americano, and Smith's motivation took different forms--from everybody.

"We do some weird things here," Smith acknowledged. "We're not yellers and hollerers. Instead, we eat a worm for every point we win by--an earthworm."

But college coaches don't eat worms. Palcic yelled--a lot.

"It wasn't that I had that many problems with Mike," said Palcic, now the offensive line coach with the Atlanta Falcons. "I just felt he hadn't been playing to his potential. He had extremely high scores on his (Scholastic Aptitude Test), but he wasn't getting good grades. I sat down with him and said, 'I see you had an 1,100 or something on your SAT and you're not performing in the classroom. You're 6-5, 275, and you're not playing very well on the football field.

" 'You're not using the talent God gave you. You're underachieving.' "

The grades picked up. Last winter, he was on UCLA's Director's Honor Roll with a 3.23 grade-point average. Part of that was because he got to play football, but it took a while.

He was the second-string center as the season opened, and he played the final 17 snaps when James Christensen injured his knee in the second game, against Nebraska. The next week, Craig Novitsky moved from guard to center, which angered Flanagan.

"I think Novitsky is a great player, a great guard or tackle, but I thought I was a better center," Flanagan said. "It was really eating me up inside that they didn't have confidence enough in me to think I could play."

Left tackle Jonathan Ogden was injured at Stanford, and Novitsky--who was chosen in the fifth round of the NFL draft by the New Orleans Saints--replaced him. Flanagan moved back in at center and he has been there since.

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