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Heart of Bruins is centrally located

Fifth-year senior Robert Chai paid his dues to become UCLA's starting center; now he's ready to add a happy ending to a long and winding career.

December 25, 2006|Lonnie White | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — UCLA fifth-year senior center Robert Chai could be playing the final football game of his career when the Bruins face Florida State in the Emerald Bowl on Wednesday.

If that's true, Chai will not be disappointed thanks to UCLA's upset victory over USC this month.

"We dedicated that game for Chai. We wanted him to go out with a bang," junior guard Shannon Tevaga said. "He's the leader of our offensive line and a player we all learn from on and off the field. He's our hero."

Chai, who will turn 23 next month, has had anything but a smooth career at UCLA.

Recruited by former coach Bob Toledo, Chai committed to the Bruins from Newport Harbor High in 2001. At the time, UCLA was 5-0 and ranked fourth in the nation after a victory over No. 10 Washington at the Rose Bowl.

"When I made the decision to go here, UCLA was a top-10 program known all over the place with players like DeShaun Foster and Rob Thomas," Chai said. "I really wanted to be a part of that."

But Chai had no idea that the Bruins' program was about to go through a major makeover.

"Actually, things started to change right after I committed," Chai said with a laugh. "My mom used to always tease me when two weeks after I decided, UCLA went on a four-game losing streak and ended up not playing in a bowl game."

Unfortunately for Chai and the Bruins, their run of bad luck was only starting.

Four months into Chai's first year, Toledo had been fired and replaced by Karl Dorrell. By the start of his third year, half of Chai's freshman class had either transferred or been forced to leave because of poor grades or discipline problems.

Throw in major injuries to both knees, consecutive defeats in lower-tier bowl games and a string of losses to the Trojans and it's easy to see why Chai's teammates look up to him so much.

"Robert is the glue, he keeps the team together, especially on offense," sophomore quarterback Patrick Cowan said. "He's everybody's favorite guy. He's the nicest guy. The smartest guy and let's not forget, one of the oldest."

Chai, a sociology major, takes everything in stride because of his experiences at UCLA. He has seen the Bruins split at the seams as a team and lose a coach (Toledo), and come together and rally behind one (Dorrell).

"Being a part of a collegiate sport just builds so much character," Chai said. "You have to deal with things that people have to deal with later in life every day like managing your time, paying bills and living up to your responsibilities.

"But most important for me was just dealing with adversity throughout my whole career. I've had some ups and downs and learned that you can't run away from things. You have to stand up and face it. It's this type of experience that I think is going to help me as I go on in life."

Although Chai started 13 games before this season, he was not a regular starter for the Bruins. Most of his playing time came when often-injured center Mike McCloskey was sidelined and not because he had earned a starting job.

"The thing about Robert is that he's always positive. I never saw him discouraged," said Wendy Chai, his mother. "Sometimes, he was disappointed that he couldn't play more. But he would say that he understood the coach's decision and just worked harder."

This season, Chai -- who did not participate in spring drills the last two years because of injuries -- finally got his opportunity to start and he has made the most of it. He's started every game and played a key role in the development of quarterbacks Ben Olson and Cowan.

"He's always been a real classy guy," UCLA offensive line coach Jim Colletto said. "He's done a nice job of playing a tough position for us. He really runs the whole ship and led the way by playing with a lot of passion."

That was evident early in the Bruins' 13-9 win over USC on Dec. 2 at the Rose Bowl. With the score 0-0 in the first quarter, Chai played a big role in UCLA's first scoring drive, not just with his blocking but also his words.

"Robert came in the huddle and just told everyone that we're going down and score," Tevaga said. "He talked about taking it to SC and to not sit back. That really sparked us."

With Chai controlling the middle, UCLA scored its only touchdown of the game and set the stage for the Bruins to end a seven-game losing streak in the city rivalry.

"He was so happy after the game," Wendy Chai said. "To him, it showed that hard work and determination pay off. To beat SC, that was his dream. To finally have that happen in his last game against them was really special."

Even if Chai decides to give the NFL a try next year, he knows he'll play his final game with the Bruins in two days.

"I realize that after Florida State, I could be done," Chai said. "But I'm OK with it coming to an end. I've had a great time here. Beating SC was great, but beating Florida State would be an awesome way to end my senior year."

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lonnie.white@latimes.com

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