ATLANTA — WHEN GEORGIA TECH offensive tackle Mike Mooney sits on a couch, he takes up half of it. When he stands, the room seems to get smaller.
"I've always been big," said the 6-foot-7, 318-pound Mooney, a native of Mount Airy and a graduate of South Carroll High School. "I didn't just spurt up at some point. I've just always been bigger than everyone else. I don't mind. It has gotten me here -- and I love it here, playing football."
His family loves the fact that he's here; his mother and father will miss only one game this season.
Georgia Tech loves the fact that he's here, too; he represents the new breed of lineman: bigger and better.
Actually, though, he's a scaled-down model of the player who arrived on campus in 1987. "He weighed about 380 pounds and we couldn't even find a scale that would hold him," recalled coach Bobby Ross, who has guided the Yellow Jackets to the No. 4 ranking.
Mooney found out quickly that he would have trouble keeping a low profile. In 1988, after Tech had gone 3-8 in his freshman season, Mooney was involved in a nasty incident at a local pizza parlor. Around here, it is referred to as The Pizza Parlor Brawl.
Teammate Kevin Salisbury, a 6-4, 245-pound linebacker, broke a woman's nose with a punch that night. He pleaded no contest to battery and was suspended for three games.
Mooney and friend and fellow linemate Jim Lavin, 6-5, 275, reportedly joined in and pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.
It is history, but it keeps coming up in conversations, in newspaper and magazine stories. As big as Mooney is, he could squelch new inquiries with a look. But sitting, relaxed on his half of the sofa, Mooney accepts the question as if it were inevitable.
"I made a mistake that night," he said. "Being out that late was one of them. But none of the stories were right. They made it sound like we were all in this big fight. I didn't hit anyone and neither did Jim Lavin."
Mooney and Lavin were briefly suspended by the university but didn't miss any games. Since then, Mooney has had conversations with the dean of students and several professors concerning how to handle himself in public.
"I wouldn't call it counseling," he said. "But they helped me to understand that being a student-athlete sometimes puts you in positions where you cannot win. I think I could have run out of that bar that night and not won."
Ross said Mooney is a "big, happy, likable guy" who got involved in an incident that typified the situation at Georgia Tech at that time.
"I'd get calls at home at night, from people saying my football players were causing trouble," said Ross. "When I asked them to meet me in my office to identify them, they wouldn't. One time the troublemakers turned out to be a couple shot putters from the track team. But people had this idea about the football team."
The football team no longer has that reputation, and Mooney said he has come to terms with the perception people have of him.
"The guys on the team, the coaches, my family, the people who care about me know what happened," he said. "I wouldn't hit a girl. But I know it is going to come up and be mentioned, and I can deal with that."
Tomorrow, he and his Georgia Tech teammates will have to deal with Wake Forest. If they do that successfully, the Yellow Jackets will be 9-0-1 and winners of their first Atlantic Coast Conference championship.
That is no small accomplishment, but on a scale of 1-to-10, Mooney might rate it only a 5, given what he has seen, been through and learned at Tech the last three years.
"I can't begin to tell you how big a difference it was coming from Carroll County to a city like Atlanta," Mooney said. "I had been to Baltimore a couple of times, but that wasn't like coming to a big city in a college atmosphere. It was a big change, and I didn't know anyone."
When he arrived, he planned to just be himself, which he described as spontaneous.
"I could be wild in Carroll County, out in the country, and no one cared or noticed," he said. "In high school, I was comfortable with myself. But when I came down here, I didn't understand how much people watch you -- the media, the fans. I've learned to calm down."
He also has learned to deal with adversity. There was The Pizza Parlor Brawl and the losing. Coach Ross wasn't yet a big man on campus.
"It was a tough situation," Mooney said. "There were the upper classes and the lower classes. Some guys in the upper classes openly opposed Coach Ross and there sure wasn't any team togetherness."
That has changed. Ross is a law-and-order coach who takes a strong, hands-on approach. The results haven't hurt his popularity.
"The closeness on this team now is unbelievable," Mooney said. "It's like a high school thing. We do a lot of things together -- go to basketball games as a group, run together for training in the summer. And when I walk across campus, there is a more positive feeling from other students.
"It has really been a drastic change. Just think, to go from no one knowing where Georgia Tech was, to being one of the top teams in the country."
Mooney is symbolic of the change.
"When I recruited Mike, he was a big, overweight kid with amazing feet," said Ross of the football player who once was a part of a high school doubles team that won the Carroll County championship. "His football is very important to him and in the classroom he does what he has to do."
Ross believes Mooney can mature into a dominant offensive player if he continues to watch his weight and improves his upper-body strength. Mooney already is close to being all-conference, according to Ross.
"I don't need a lot of awards," Mooney said. "I want to graduate, because that's important to me. If you're some place for five years, you've got to get something out of it. I want my degree. And I want to play well. As long as my teammates know I play well, that's all I need."