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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

Griffin Has Become a Center of Attention

September 13, 2000|ERIC SONDHEIMER

While growing up and playing touch football at the park, the most terrifying moment came when one of those smart-aleck kids on defense used to yell, "Can the center!"

It was a silly intimidation ploy, but it worked. Since centers in touch football are usually the slowest, smallest players and end up becoming sportswriters, it was a brilliant strategic move to mess with our psychological well-being.

So forgive me for feeling a sense of gratification each time center Billy Griffin of Ventura High puts a defender on his back and smirks at the startled player.

Griffin is mean and nasty and takes special pleasure in hovering over each of his knockdown victims. It's as if he's sending a message, "You may be tough, but you aren't tougher than me."

Griffin is more than tough. During the summer, he ran the stairs at Ventura's Larrabee Stadium.

"People threw up," he said. "It was intense."

He'd rise at 5:30 a.m. to work out in the weight room, ignoring the passing surfers.

He weighed 220 pounds at the end of his junior season. By the time of Ventura's opener last week against Simi Valley, the 6-foot-3 Griffin weighed 270.

"I worked my butt off," he said.

Of course, he ate as much as he could, too. One story describes how Griffin attended a party where four large pizzas were ordered. He consumed two by himself and was still hungry.

You have to feel sorry for running back Tyler Ebell of Ventura. He's either going to have to win the lottery or ask Bill Gates for a loan to pay for the pizza, doughnuts and restaurant buffet trips that Griffin and the rest of the offensive linemen expect for helping Ebell run wild this season.

Ebell rushed for 330 yards and four touchdowns against Simi Valley.

Ebell may not be President, but he knows his line clears a path with the precision of a Secret Service detail.

All the line asks for is a little love and food.

"Last year, our fullback got us doughnuts on Saturday mornings," Griffin said.

Do you get the hint, Tyler?

Coach Phil McCune doesn't let just anyone play center. He looks for top athletes because the position demands a quick first step, versatility, intelligence, resilience and, most of all, fearlessness.

"He's really fun to watch," McCune said of Griffin. "He really dominates. He really is a nasty guy."

Any nose guard who's thinking of doing something dastardly to Griffin, a word of warning: You won't be able to boast about it on the next play because you'll be lying on the ground, looking at the trainer administering smelling salts and asking whether you see one or two fingers.

"When it's time to play, he gets dangerous," Ebell said. "You might get a cleat in the mouth if you're not watching."

Out of uniform, Griffin is respectful and polite. He'd gladly walk a grandmother across an intersection if asked.

But put a nose guard in front of him and a transformation takes place. He unleashes all his aggressiveness and competitiveness. He offers no mercy until the referee blows the whistle.

During seven-on-seven summer passing competitions, when no blocking or tackling was permitted and no linemen were in sight, Griffin showed up to practice his snaps. Looking out of place among pint-sized receivers and defensive backs, Griffin looked like he wanted to charge like a wild bull.

"I wanted to go out there and hit one of those skinny guys," he said.

It's a long season and Ventura's 41-0 victory over Simi Valley was just the beginning. The Cougars' offensive line, with Griffin anchoring the middle and Ebell running behind, is something to behold.

And to all the centers who were canned as kids, Griffin is a hero.

It's payback time.

*

Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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