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It's Jan. 2, 1989. Michigan coach Bo Schembechler paces the sidelines at the Rose Bowl. The Wolverines hold a 15-14 lead and have the ball on the USC one-yard line with two minutes to play. It's fourth down. The offensive schemers in the press box yammer over Schembechler's headset, feverishly promoting a menu of play calls. But Bo knows what he wants to order, and he barks it out: "Run it over the Big Boy."
The Michigan assistant coaches, looking to execute something a bit more intricate, resume yammering. Finally, Bo sets his jaw and makes his feelings perfectly clear. "Goddammit," Schembechler says. "We're going to run the——ball over the——Big Boy!" So on the next snap, fullback Leroy Hoard tucks the ball under his arm and grinds toward Greg Skrepenak, the 6'8", 322-pound sophomore right tackle and the biggest——boy ever to don the maize and blue. Hoard hits pay dirt, and with that touchdown Schembechler claims his second and final Rose Bowl win, 22-14.
Two seasons have passed, and Bo has retired, but Skrepenak—a.k.a. the Big Boy, the Barge, Big Daddy and Skrep Daddy—is still at Michigan, where he is still the biggest man on campus. Since succeeding Jumbo Elliott at tackle (and rendering his name a misnomer), Skrepenak has started 36 straight games and become the team leader in "pancakes"—blocking an opposing lineman onto his back. As a first-team All-America last season, Skrepenak anchored a line that gave up only three sacks and so dominated Mississippi in a 35-3 Gator Bowl blowout that its five members were all named co-MVPs. Says Wolverine head coach Gary Moeller, "If he's not the best offensive lineman in the country in his senior season, then we haven't done our job."
But in the matter of pancakes, some Michigan coaches suspect that Skrepenak would as soon eat them as inflict them. His girth has been an issue ever since he arrived in Ann Arbor from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., as a 330-pound 17-year-old who would later balloon to 370. True, there was a nimble athlete underneath all that flesh: At G.A.R. Memorial High, in addition to being a football All-America, he had been an all-league dunk machine in basketball and a sweet-swinging first baseman. But that didn't stop Schembechler from phoning Wilkes-Barre to harangue Skrepenak's parents, Greg and Barbara, about "the fat boy" during the summer after his redshirt freshman year. Despite playing last season at a svelte 322, Skrepenak still fields daily queries from weight-watching teammates and coaches, a process he calls "being hounded."
"I'm like, If I get the job done, what are you yelling about?" says Skrepenak, who shrugs off the hounding just as he does the astonished looks he gets at local malls.
Lots of Big Daddy's pounds are packed away in his limbs. He stands on size-17EEE feet, with legs almost as thick as the telephone poles his father has climbed since 1966 for Pennsylvania Power and Light. At the end of Skrepenak's arms are meat hooks so huge that he needs only one of them to long-snap a football. As Barbara puts it, "Gregory's body isn't made to be just 300 pounds. You've got to figure there's 50 pounds in each hand and 50 in each foot—that's 200 pounds right there."
But Skrepenak is learning the value of slimming down. At 21, he realizes that his stock in the NFL draft—where he will go either very high or very, very high—and the national title he craves will hinge on his performance this fall. He ran two miles a day over the summer and discovered that he didn't have to eat a pizza before bed every night. His decision last spring not to turn pro early has heartened his coaches, who want him to assert his leadership. "We need Greg to be more emotional, less laid-back." says line coach Jerry Hanlon.
Easygoing to a fault, Skrepenak is beginning to face up to his preeminence, just as he has come to terms with his size. That lifelong venture began in a modest home on Coal Street in Wilkes-Barre, where an American flag flaps on the porch and the decor inside looks as though it has all been mail-ordered from the Michigan campus store. "We haven't got much," explains Skrepenak's dad, "but what we got, we share." That includes anything in the refrigerator. "We have leftovers now that Greg's gone."
The Skrepenaks knew their first son would be special the day he was born. The elder Greg was given a 10-pound, 23-inch bundle to hold. "He had a head as big as this helmet," he recalls, gesturing to a bronzed dome atop a Gator Bowl trophy on the living room table. "There was all this black hair. And ugly, boy, ugly."
From the time Greg was little, or at least young, Barbara, a nursing home administrator, knew she would have to protect him. He was so much larger than the other children that he was scared to play with them. Greg's coordination in his formative years was such that he couldn't even be trusted to carry sodas to the refrigerator.