Nov. 1, 1999
by Brian Beaky
Life in the wedge is not for the faint of heart.
It takes a special kind of player to step into the special-teams role of wedge-maker, where your primary duty is to run at full-speed with the sole purpose of colliding head-on with opposing tacklers, blowing open holes for returners to run through. If you do your job well, no one ever knows your name, while Joe Jarzynka or Paul Arnold reap the benefits of your effort. If you make a mistake, though, the result could be a season-ending injury to your return man, or at least a vicious hit.
"It's pretty intense," says Husky senior and wedge-maker extraordinaire Anthony Mizin. "You're running as fast as you can, and you can see the other guys running towards you. It comes down to whoever has the most guts."
Mizin and his fellow wedge-makers won the battle of guts early in the season, springing freshman Paul Arnold for a touchdown that capped a school-record 100-yard kickoff return. Following the game, Arnold praised his blockers, giving the wedge-makers the attention they deserve, but rarely receive.
If recent history is any example, the Huskies' wedge-makers will have to become used to the glare of the spotlight. After going 17 years with out a kickoff return for a touchdown, Washington has accomplished the feat in each of the last four years, coinciding exactly with the six-foot, four-inch, 260-pound Mizin's four years on the special teams unit.
Mizin arrived on campus in the fall of 1995 as part of one of the most decorated freshman classes in Husky history, one that has already seen three of its members advance to the NFL, and has two others who will likely be selected in the 2000 NFL Draft. Mizin was a celebrated recruit, an all-everything tight end who was expected to continue the legacy of the position at Washington, which has done for tight ends in the NFL what Penn State has done for linebackers, placing six Husky tight ends on NFL rosters since 1995 alone.
Unfortunately for Mizin, many of those future pros remained on the Husky roster upon his arrival, leaving the freshman buried on the depth chart for the first time in his career.
"It wasn't that bad. I knew coming in that we had unbelievable tight ends ahead of me," Mizin says. "Ernie Conwell when I first arrived, then Cam Cleeland, Jeremy Brigham, and Reggie Davis, all of whom are in the pros now. Just learning the things they do on the field and how they handled themselves during a game helped me the most."
While Mizin red-shirted in 1995, Cleeland took him under his wing, teaching him the tricks of the trade. Both former punters in high school, the two would often stage punting competitions when they had a free moment after practice. Mizin played in all 11 games of the 1996 season, failing to catch a pass but gaining the experience essential to success on the football field. With the graduation of Conwell and Cam Kissel, Mizin moved up to third on the depth chart and felt ready to take on the mantle of success passed down by Conwell, Mark Bruener, Eric Bjornson and the other legendary Husky tight ends. He would only play in one game in 1997.
"That was pretty tough," he says. "I thought I was ready to play, but it didn't come to pass. That bummed me out for a bit, but I tried to take it in stride. In the offseason, I started working my butt off to prove to the coaches that I was ready to play."
Whatever Mizin did, it worked. In 1998, he returned to form, playing in all 11 games and pulling down the first reception of his career, a 14-yard grab in a heartbreaking 31-28 loss to Arizona.
"The first thing that went through my mind was, 'finally!'" he says. "I dropped my first pass of the year at Arizona State, and I really wanted to get the first one out of the way."
Mizin would go on to grab another pass in the Huskies' Oahu Bowl loss to Air Force and finished the 1998 season with a legitimate shot at taking over the number-one role come spring drills. Also competing for the top spot were junior John Westra, and red-shirt freshman Jerramy Stevens, a battle the six-foot, seven-inch, 250-pound Stevens eventually won.
Still, Mizin has not let himself be disappointed, and has flourished in his alternating role as an h-back - which he explains is a tight end in motion before the snap - and a traditional tight end. Already, the senior has doubled his career receptions total, pulling down a crucial catch in Washington's dramatic 31-24 victory over Colorado earlier this year.
"Even if you're a backup, you have to prepare the same as the starter because you never know what will happen," Mizin says. "You need to be on your game and ready to go at any point. You have to know everything just the same as the starter and just wait for your turn." Waiting is not something one does in the wedge, where Mizin shines weekly regardless of his status on the offense.
"I just try to set the wedge, run as fast as I can, and try to hit someone so that we can spring one for the guys in back to take it to the house," Mizin says. "We just hunt down anybody that comes our way."
In addition to opponents on special teams, Mizin enjoys hunting prey of the non-football variety as well, something he does routinely with his father and their friends in the vicinity of Aberdeen, the small Washington town in which Mizin made a name for himself as a standout prep football and basketball player at Aberdeen High School.
Mizin hopes that he will be able to return to the woods - as he has each year since he was nine - after his college football career comes to end this winter, but he knows that no matter where he goes, he will forever be a part of Husky football history.
"I'll probably miss most the camaraderie of being with my teammates," he says. "Whether it be after a big win or a gut-wrenching loss, being with these guys is an unreal feeling, knowing that we're all striving for the same goal."
The wedge is scary place, but Anthony Mizin is calm. The hunt is on.