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The Picture of Tough

Violent tattoos illustrate UCLA tackle Rodney Leisle's intimidating attitude

September 30, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

As if those massive biceps, a chiseled, 6-foot-3, 290-pound frame like a block of granite and meaty hands the size of catchers' mitts weren't enough to intimidate opponents, UCLA defensive tackle Rodney Leisle has two billboard-sized tattoos, one on each arm, that essentially scream: Don't mess with me!

On his left biceps is a skull biting through a thick chain that winds all the way around his arm. On his right biceps is a skull-topped body squeezing a football in one hand and crushing a USC football helmet under the other. On his right triceps is the Chinese symbol for strength.

"How many people do you know who bite through chains?" asked Leisle, a senior who has caught the eye of NFL scouts. "I got these to show how tough I am. They represent what I want to be like. I want to be strong, intense, tough as nails, tough as chains. Heck, you've got to be tough to put a big mural on each arm."

Those who have known Leisle for his five years at UCLA, who have seen him toss offensive linemen around like tackling dummies, fight through double teams to make tackles, grit his teeth through pain, injuries and extreme fatigue, and taunt and challenge opponents, were hardly shocked by Leisle's tattoos.

"He is a very intimidating player, you have to admit that," said Dave Ball, a senior defensive end. "It's all part of the 'Leisle mystique.' "

But it's no mistake. Leisle plays so hard in practice that defensive line coach Don Johnson said, "Sometimes I have to put the harness on him, so he can have something left over for the games." Leisle (pronounced LESS-lee) is such a workout fiend, he calls the UCLA weight room "my second home."

He is tireless and relentless, and there is a sense of urgency to whatever Leisle does, whether he's bench-pressing 450 pounds, his personal best, wrestling a teammate in practice or fighting through the chaos of the trenches to the quarterback.

His mentality could best be summed up by the words he scrawled on his gloves last season, "KILL" and "DESTROY," not so subtle messages that someone -- Leisle wouldn't say if it was the NCAA, the university or Bruin coaches -- made him remove.

"I try to establish a new line of scrimmage," Leisle said. "I want to push them back so the linebackers have room to work. When a guy is getting pushed back, he gets intimidated. He's telling his teammates, 'That guy is kicking my ... you gotta help me.' I don't let up, even if I'm tired and feel like passing out.

"If you're standing there, looking at [the opponent] and saying, 'I'm still here, come get me,' he's like, 'Holy moley, what is he on? What is he doing?' That's part of the intimidation factor." Leisle can get carried away at times, as he did Saturday night, when he was ejected for punching an Aztec player in the stomach near the end of a 20-10 victory over San Diego State.

Leisle said he was retaliating for an earlier shot. But it was Leisle who was caught and will have to sit out the first half of Saturday's game against Washington as punishment for the ejection.

If the Huskies take advantage of Leisle's absence and build a considerable first-half lead, Leisle will be steaming on the sideline.

"I can't stand losing, and I'm going to do everything in my power not to lose," he said. "A lot of people don't have that. They give in. They don't care. They say ... 'I'll get 'em next time.' For me, I never think there's going to be a next time. I've got to do it now. That helps keep me motivated."

Leisle was tough long before the tattoos.

When your father leaves home when you're 2, and your truck-driver stepfather is a loving but stern disciplinarian -- a man who taught Rodney not to cry when he got hurt, who whacked his hands with a fork if he didn't display good table manners, and would give him "whippings if I wasn't home on time," Leisle said, but also taught him to hunt and fish and to act responsibly -- you don't have much of a choice.

Leisle, who was always too big to play youth football but excelled in baseball, basketball, soccer and track, was also hardened by a dismal senior season at Bakersfield's Ridgeview High, when his 1998 football team went 0-10 and was blown out of almost every game.

"Do we have to?" Leisle said with a wince, when asked to talk about his high school football career. "Losing every game, it was hard. After games, you're just yelling, and after a while, you get sick of it. You try to think about different things to motivate players, and none of them worked.

"So during games, I was like, 'If no one else is going to try to get a scholarship, I'm gonna try to get one.' I just worked as hard as I could, and it paid off. It forced me to build self-motivation, to discipline myself."

Leisle said he "didn't even know what a scholarship was" in his sophomore year, when his coach sent a highlight tape and Leisle's transcripts to USC.

The Trojan response: Leisle wouldn't be accepted with those grades.

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