Terps' Eli reins in his pulse rate

Getting a grip on nerves in practice, defensive end comes on strong for team

College Football

October 31, 2003|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- Kevin Eli has a granite jaw and arms of steel. He's 6 feet 4, 265 pounds of muscle, and he's built like a tank. If you see him coming, best step aside.

Looking at him, you'd never know that three months ago, his nervous energy might have rivaled Woody Allen's. He would get so worked up and full of self-doubt before football practices, his heart literally would skip a few beats.

But it's true. Eli, a junior defensive end in the middle of a breakout season, is more than willing to explain how, at the start of this year, he was a nervous wreck. Not before games, mind you. In games, he was fine. It was practice that had him beating himself up every day.

"I just wanted to go out there and play my best and I would really get down on myself if I didn't," Eli said. "I would have so much anxiety because I didn't want to mess up at all. I just wanted to be perfect."

The funny thing was, Maryland's coaches weren't even asking Eli to be a star. Not yet, anyway. They were hoping he'd emerge next year as an impact player and fulfill some of the promise he showed in high school, when he was highly recruited out of Deptford, N.J.

When coach Ralph Friedgen arrived three years ago, Eli was one of the weakest players in the program for someone his size. Because he was a three-sport star in high school, he never felt like he had the time to lift weights.

"When I got here, I was weak," Eli said. "I really didn't even know how to lift."

He didn't see the field his freshman year and, as a sophomore, was still biding his time on the scout team. After he spent all of this past summer lifting weights, Terps defensive line coach Dave Sollazzo was hoping Eli could simply become a capable reserve behind senior Scott Smith.

"Coming in, I thought I was just going to play a backup role," Eli said. "I just wanted to work hard enough just to win that role and win the coaches over."

Doubts, however, started to creep into his mind when he realized people were counting on him. What if I'm not good enough? What if I let my teammates down? What's going to happen if I get out there and screw up?

By the time preseason practices rolled around, Eli's nerves were nearly fried.

"Kevin's kind of like I am," said Friedgen. "I told him I suffer from the same problems. We're both really anxious."

One day, during two-a-day practices in August, Eli's heart started racing during a drill. He couldn't get it back to its normal rhythm and, after a while, he couldn't catch his breath. It scared him.

"It was something I've never felt before," Eli said. "I could hear my heart pounding. I was like, man, I've got to get this checked out."

Problem was, doctors weren't exactly sure what was wrong with Eli. He checked into the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore and stayed two nights while undergoing a battery of tests. His mother, grandmother and sister drove down from New Jersey to keep him company. Late at night, in the hospital, he wondered if maybe his career was over.

In fact, it was just about to take off.

Doctors couldn't find anything wrong, so they released him. In Maryland's season-opener against Northern Illinois, Eli had a key sack in the first half, and then had another sack in the closing minutes that might have won the game if it hadn't been waved off because of an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty on another Terp. Eli's heart was fine.

"In practice, I beat myself up so much, so when I get in the game and I make a play, it's just an incredible feeling," Eli said. "I just want to go and do it again."

Things, though, were just getting interesting for Eli. Smith was lost for the season in week three because of a herniated disc, and the Terps turned to Eli to be their starter.

Again, Eli's heart started racing out of control. More tests -- including an EKG and a cardiac MRI -- showed that nothing was wrong. Doctors simply believed Eli's heart was responding to the enormous amount of pressure he was putting on himself.

"He's told me before that he'll go out for a game and he's totally relaxed and pumped," said nose tackle C.J. Feldheim, one of Eli's roommates. "But in practice, it was an anxiety issue. He wanted to be out there so bad, he just put so much pressure on himself to make plays.

"When you hear [he might have a heart problem], it's weird because you don't think about stuff like that. You think about the violent injuries in football, but not someone's heart."

The next game, Eli made his first career start against West Virginia and put any health questions to rest for good. He had three tackles for a loss, including two sacks in a 34-7 win over the Mountaineers.

Since then, he's played as well as anyone on Maryland's defense. He's tied with Randy Starks for the team lead with 10 tackles for a loss, and his five sacks rank him fifth in the ACC. At practice these days, he is relaxed and confident.

"To be honest, I am a little surprised [at how well he's played]," Sollazzo said. "Because he really hadn't had his chance. But I always knew he had great character and great pride. And when you've got a guy like that, and they get a chance, they usually step up. He did that. He backed it up."

Said Eli: "It doesn't surprise me, but putting up the numbers that I am this year really makes me excited. It's really got me pushing harder in practice because I know I can get much better than what I am right now."

Next for Terps

Matchup:North Carolina (1-7, 0-4) vs. Maryland (5-3, 2-2)

Site:Byrd Stadium, College Park

When:Tomorrow, noon

TV/Radio:Comcast SportsNet/WBAL (1090 AM)

Line:Maryland by 17

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