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Pain Blocker

Despite playing with a broken rib, Saffer brings fire to UCLA offensive line

November 08, 2002|Rob Fernas | Times Staff Writer

Coughing wouldn't seem an especially hazardous activity for a player considered among the toughest on UCLA's football team.

But don't tell that to offensive tackle Mike Saffer, who was in class Sept. 27 when he took a deep breath to clear his throat.

"As soon as I coughed, it felt like somebody took a knife and stabbed me right in the side of my back," he recalled. "I fell over and I walked out of class."

X-rays revealed that a rib he had injured the previous week playing against Colorado had broken "all the way through," Saffer said, from the force of the cough.

Doctors told him he would miss four to six weeks. Not a chance, Saffer thought.

"I felt, God, this is my senior season, I can't afford to be missing that much time," he said. "I can't afford to let my teammates down."

Though Saffer has often clashed with his teammates, verbally and physically, the fifth-year senior prides himself on always giving his best on the field, even when his condition isn't the best.

He'll bring that never-back-down attitude into UCLA's game Saturday night at Arizona, which will be a homecoming for the Tucson native. Saffer spent much of the week scrambling to secure about 65 game tickets for relatives and friends.

Though the broken rib still bothers him, the 6-foot-5, 305-pound Saffer will make his 39th start for the Bruins. He will wear a protective pad around his rib cage. The injury caused him to miss one game, ending a streak of 26 consecutive starts at right tackle.

"[Doctors] told me as soon as I could deal with the pain, then I could play," he said. "I just said, 'To hell with it. It can't get any worse.' "

Saffer sat out the San Diego State game Sept. 28 and the week of practice before the Bruins' Pacific 10 Conference opener Oct. 5 at Oregon State. He played every snap against the Beavers, helping UCLA gain 625 yards, the ninth-highest total in school history, in a 43-35 victory.

"There have been times when I've come back to the huddle hunched over and really trying to take some deep breaths to get rid of the pain," Saffer said.

Of course, there are those at UCLA who would argue that Saffer was a pain in the side long before he suffered a broken rib.

From the moment he arrived in Westwood in 1998 from Tucson Sabino High, Saffer had a knack for getting under people's skin. He was brash and outspoken and quickly earned a reputation for getting in teammates' faces, usually those of the defensive linemen he opposed in practice.

"He came in a little bit cocky, a Parade All-American and all that stuff," said Mark Weber, the Bruins' offensive line coach. "Some of the older guys put him in his place....

"There are some older players who he's not that fond of. But the whole thing is handed down. I'm sure there are some younger players who don't like him."

Whatever you think of Saffer, teammates say it's hard not to respect him. Senior defensive end Rusty Williams says he fought with Saffer "every other day" when the two were battling for starting spots that they eventually earned as redshirt freshmen, yet he has nothing but admiration for Saffer's dedication on the field.

"I've played against him for four years and he works hard," Williams said. "I don't know if he likes to work hard, but he comes out and he does it."

Quarterback Cory Paus, another fifth-year senior, who's out for the season with a broken ankle, said of Saffer, "Smart guy. He complains an awful lot. He's a very good leader, but at the same time you just want to tell him to shut up sometimes."

Perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that Saffer, following in the footsteps of his two brothers and grandfather, would like to become a lawyer.

"It runs in the blood a little bit," he said. "We like to argue and throw our opinions at everything."

Saffer's father, Don, was a reserve guard for the Bruin basketball team and played on the 1967 national championship team coached by John Wooden and starring Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), then a sophomore.

Weber says Saffer's work ethic and character make him an elite offensive lineman. A preseason All-American, Saffer is on the watch list for the Outland Trophy, awarded to the nation's top interior lineman.

"He's an intense individual and he plays that way," Weber said. "He's got a real passion for the game of football. He gets after it.

"He has all the qualities of the best [offensive] linemen we've had--Andy Meyers, Shawn Stuart, Kris Farris, all those guys."

Saffer, who graduated in December with a degree in history, said he plans to move to Phoenix after the season and begin training for NFL combines.

"I'll be happy just to get a shot, whether I get drafted or whether I go [as a] free agent," he said.

Until then, Saffer is doing everything possible to finish his UCLA career with a flourish. The Bruins became bowl eligible with their sixth victory last week against Washington and have big games remaining against rival USC and Pac-10 leader Washington State.

A few more victories, and he might not feel the pain at all.

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