One April afternoon when Larry was 13, several of his buddies came by the house for him, shouting, "They're burning down the 7-Eleven!" A Simi Valley jury had acquitted the cops who'd beaten Rodney King. The city was in flames. A trucker named Reginald Denny was beaten half to death a few blocks from the Crenshaw Christian Center, where Brenda took the family to church. Larry was halfway to the street when his mother's voice froze him like a tractor beam: "You ain't going nowhere!" Meekly, obediently, Larry walked back into the house.
His mother's iron fist at least had a velvet glove on it. Upon arriving at Washington in August '97, Tripplett discovered how tough tough love could be. "It was like everybody [on the coaching staff] was mad at me about everything," he says. "I was so unprepared to play college football, there was no way I wasn't redshirting."
So miserable was he during that redshirt season that a few teammates predicted he would quit. "Larry would sit by his locker after practice, staring at the floor," recalls senior center Kyle Benn. "I'd be showered and leaving the locker room, and he'd be still in his uniform, sitting there, saying, 'I don't know, man. I don't know.' I didn't think he'd be around long. Four years later he's a team leader, a preseason All-America, and he's making guys look really, really bad."
Tripplett's luck on the Seattle campus started changing one winter morning in 1998. Three weeks into a film course in which he'd enrolled, Tripplett thought it might be a good idea to attend the class. He found a seat next to an attractive coed, who rolled her eyes when he began flirting. "He misses class for three weeks, then has the nerve to try to talk to me when he should be paying attention," says Tasha Likkel. "I was a bit irked by that."
Despite her initial iciness toward him, he caught up with her after that first class. They talked. Likkel eventually agreed to a date. "He was a perfect gentleman," she says. "He didn't try anything my parents wouldn't have approved of." Both her parents were pastors, which delighted Brenda.
On Valentine's Day in '98, Tripplett left a card at Likkel's dormitory. "Never in my life have I encountered a girl like you," he had written on it. "You are young, beautiful, intelligent, independent and, at the same time, still a lady." He also left a brown bag with a gift inside. The university's biggest teddy bear had purchased a smaller one for Likkel. "Larry and I have been pretty solid since then," she says.
They've dated 3� years, and both speak of their plans to marry. "He says he wants eight to 12 children," says Likkel. "Believe me, that's not going to happen."
While many men his age shy away from commitment, Tripplett says he can't wait until he "can afford" to get hitched and become a parent. "I'm going to be the father of the year," he says, admitting that he's eager to be for his children the male role model he seldom had. His father moved to San Mateo, Calif., when Larry was nine and started acquiring McDonald's franchises. (He owns seven.) Although he regularly sent checks that made his son's life more comfortable and flew to LA to see several of the boy's high school games, the two were not particularly close. They've had a rapprochement in the past year, and Larry goes out of his way to give his father credit for taking care of him in this fashion. However, he also stands by a statement he made earlier in his college career: that the most influential male role model he had while growing up was Cliff Huxtable.
After a redshirt freshman season in which he saw spot duty, Larry began to take on a starring role at Washington. He was named second-team All-Pac 10 as a sophomore and in 2000 had the breakout season Hart had been predicting for him. Of all the big plays he made, none was larger than a tackle on Oregon State's penultimate play from scrimmage against the Huskies, with Washington up by three points. "Larry's the best defensive tackle I went up against all season," says Beavers center Chris Gibson. "He'll hit you in the mouth"—how proud Hart would be to hear that!—"then make the play."
That's exactly what Tripplett did on this critical snap, breaching the line of scrimmage and tackling running back Ken Simonton for a three-yard loss, forcing Oregon State to attempt a game-tying 46-yard field goal, which barely missed. As things turned out, if the Beavers had won, they would have taken the Pac-10 title outright. Instead they finished in a three-way tie with Oregon and the Huskies, who beat Purdue 34-24 in the Rose Bowl.