It was the great philosopher Kermit the Frog who said, “It’s not easy being green.” He should try being big. He should try being 6-feet tall in grade school. Or 300 pounds in high school. He should try sitting in a kitchen chair, only to have the chair snap in two.
He should try getting weighed on an industrial shipping scale. Or going to the all-you-can-eat places and seeing the owners gulp. He should try shopping for 17EEE shoes, orwalking through life as “Ohmigod, did you see that?”
He should try being Greg Skrepenak, 6-feet-8 and — after a severe diet
— a svelte 320 pounds. Yo, Kermit. Being green is a breeze.
“All my life people have thought I’m not normal,” says Skrepenak, a major part of Michigan’s celebrated offensive line that faces No. 1 Florida State on Saturday. “They think my size makes me different. But I’m not. I’m no different than an average person. I think. I bleed. I have emotions. I cry.”
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Gentle Giant. Growing up . . . and up
What did you expect? For Skrepenak, football is less a passion than a given. When you tower over the kids in your class, when you accidentally push one and see him fly across the lawn, when every adult who crosses your path seems to say, “Hmm, I bet you’re gonna play football,” well, sooner or later, it sinks in. In a town like Wilkes-Barre, the same rugged Pennsylvania soil that gave us Andre Reed and Rocket Ismail and, farther west, Joe Namath and Dan Marino and Joe Montana, well, not to play football — at Skrepenak’s size
— would almost be sacrilegious. So it was that a young Greg, 9 years old, signed up for his first league and arrived with his helmet, all excited, ready to find his destiny. And the opposing coach took one look at him and said, “He can’t play with these kids. He’ll kill them.”
Skrepenak was barred from his very first game.
“I cried my eyes out,” he says.
In the years that followed, his mother would carry his birth certificate in her purse, just to prove to people that her son really was as young as the others. Didn’t matter. He soon towered over his teachers. As a teenager, he shopped at Big & Tall stores. When it came to sports, he was constantly plucked from his peers and dropped in with older kids. By junior high he was practicing with the varsity, and upon making the varsity he was the biggest guy on the team. His jolting growth left him awkward for a while, bumping into things, tripping, dropping, as if the boy inside didn’t know what to do with all this muscle — or this strength.
“One time we were playing, and I drove up into this other lineman and he just went flying backwards and landed flat,” Skrepenak says. “He wasn’t moving. He just kind of moaned. I thought I killed him.”
He shudders. “I couldn’t have lived with myself. I mean, God, if I had really hurt him. . . .”
A weighty issue
You talk to Skrepenak, it is hard to imagine he would hurt anyone; the deep but innocent voice, the quick smile. He looks like Gerry Cooney. He walks like Frank Bruno. Everything about him seems to suggest a large fellow who stoops over to talk to a child and immediately the child thinks “friend.”
Of course, things change when you put on a helmet. Take the first play of the Michigan-Notre Dame game two weeks ago, when Skrepenak basically drove his man into the grass and mowed him. “That one play set the tone for all of us,” says teammate Dave Diebolt, the tight end, who also shares a house with the big guy. “It was like, man, Skrep’s really serious.”
“I was so tired of Notre Dame,” Skrepenak says. “I just wanted to win that game so bad. I felt mean.”
And that has been a problem in the past. Like many a big man before him, Skrepenak found that outsiders expected his meanness to match his weight. Coaches especially. They kept yelling, “More aggressive! More aggressive!” — that is, when they weren’t yelling, “Less pizza! Less pizza!” Skrepenak’s weight, like his aggressiveness, has been an issue for years. He once ballooned as high as 370 pounds, mostly on late-night Italian food and boxes of cookies. During the Bo Schembechler era, Skrepenak was taken to a shipping company and weighed on an industrial scale. Some feel that this was done to embarrass the weight off. “He never said anything to the coaches, but, deep down, I think Skrep was really bothered by that,” Diebolt says. “It was like, why are you taking me out in front of all these people and doing this to me? What did I do wrong?”
The answer is, nothing. He was playing well. He has played well for years. He has started 38 straight games for Michigan. How bad could he be? “That’s my point,” he says, waving those huge hands. “If I’m doing the job OK, leave me alone about my weight.”
Man vs. Cube
Ah, but when you have all that flesh, people can’t help trying to mold it. They have always been reshaping Greg Skrepenak, the coaches trying to make him meaner, the trainers trying to make him lighter, the other students trying to make him fit their stereotype.
And outwardly, the Gentle Giant with the legs like tree trunks goes along with just about anything. When a TV reporter asked to be held upside down while he did his report, Skrepenak shrugged and held the guy upside down. When another TV station wanted him to growl like a madman, Skrepenak shrugged and growled like a madman. When people ask to see his hands, he holds them up like souvenirs. When people ask, “Can you fit in my car?” he smiles and says,
“Sure. I’ve fit in smaller ones than that.”
Of course, now and then, off the field, he likes to throw his weight around — but only against inanimate objects. “I’ve broken beds, chairs, you name it,” he says, sighing. “My girlfriend has a hair salon, and I sat down in one of her chairs. Now it’s a recliner.
“It’s gotten so that if the chair isn’t a La-Z-Boy, or at least real sturdy, I’d just as soon stand up. It’s embarrassing when you break a chair. Not only that, you can really kill yourself.”
And then there was The Night of the Cube. This, he admits, is a little weird. Skrepenak and a few friends were coming home. They walked past the Cube, the giant steel sculpture that sits near the student union, a modern art black box nearly 20 feet tall and wide enough to dwarf even Skrepenak. “I don’t know what got into him,” Diebolt recalls, “but he decided he was going to block the Cube. He said, ‘I’m gonna try and knock it over.’ He set himself and rammed up into it. It didn’t move. The next day, though, he had a big scar on his shoulder. It was kind of nuts, if you ask me.”
Skrepenak laughs at the memory. “It was kind of nuts. But I just felt like trying.”
Which is more than he can say about his coach’s less nutty request: lose the fat. “I want you down to 320,” Gary Moeller told Skrepenak last season.
“No ifs, ands or buts.” The big guy shrugged — OK, maybe it was more than a shrug — but he did it. He cut out the pizzas before bedtime. He concentrated on (ugh) vegetables and fruits. He got down to 320.
“I know it wasn’t easy for Greg and he didn’t exactly love doing it,” Moeller says now, “but the important thing is, he did it. He’s lighter, he’s faster, and I haven’t noticed any drop-off in his strength.”
The Gentle Giant
But whatever they do to Skrepenak’s exterior, beneath all the flesh beats the heart of a kid, and that heart, somehow, remains impervious to cynicism or anger or revenge. Example: Skrepenak and Rocket Ismail come from the same hometown, and the year Ismail beat Michigan almost single-handedly — and went on to become the most over-hyped name in college football — it would have been easy for Skrepenak to turn jealous. After all, this kid is even stealing the glory in his hometown — and he’s so small, and sleek and fast.
Instead, this is what Skrepenak says: “If someone had to beat Michigan, I’m glad it was a guy from Wilkes-Barre.”
The Gentle Giant.
“A lot of people have said bad things about me,”‘ he explains, “called me fatso, or an overrated fat guy or whatever. But I don’t want to sink to their level. I’m a religious person and I figure they’ll get theirs in the end. . .
“Are there times when I wish I was just Joe Average, maybe 6-foot tall, 180 pounds? Yeah, sure there are. Even if it meant giving up football, I think sometimes I would do it. Football is just a game. It’s not my life. It’s not who I am. I think I’m smart enough to get by in life if football ended tomorrow. And the people who love me are gonna love me even if I don’t play the game.”
But football will not end tomorrow. Tomorrow Skrepenak will slam himself into a Florida State lineman and open holes and pancake opponents. And next April he will no doubt be a high draft choice in the NFL and make a nice load of money, and finally be rewarded for all those years of being too big. Before all that happens, however, a message from the man himself to all those people who whisper behind his back:
“Us big people are just like you. We have emotions. We feel things. So don’t talk behind our backs; come up and talk to us like regular people. We’re not going to kill you or anything.”
It’s not easy being big. The Gentle Giant has spoken.
Now. Let’s hear from those frogs . . .