Dec. 18, 2010
by Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE - Erik Kohler has to be tough.
Heck, he's 6-feet-5 and weighs 306 pounds. He made his first two college starts for the Huskies this season as a true freshman at left guard -- and not against Happyville State and Easy U., either. They were against Nebraska, Washington's opponent Dec. 30 in a Holiday Bowl rematch, and USC.
But just how chew-nails tough is this teenager from Camarillo, Calif.?
He made those first starts against those two hallowed college programs, plus made his UW debut early in the Week 2 game against Syracuse on Sept. 11, while unknowingly having mononucleosis.
The virus is well known for zapping people to the point many often lack the energy to do much more than roll over.
"How about that, huh?" Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian marveled.
What everyone thought was a common virus turned out to be much more upon further review weeks later.
"The thing with what happened is, with mono it just makes you feel like you have the flu. So for two weeks I thought I had the flu. Didn't have much appetite, had flu symptoms," Kohler said. "But when I started to get these stomach aches, then decided to take a different look at it. That's when they saw my spleen was swollen. And that's when they decided I had mono.
"That's the big thing with mono (if it goes on undetected). If your spleen bursts, it can kill you."
Friday night, as he walked through the cold dark from the just-ended, full-pads practice at the Dempsey Indoor facility towards the locker room inside Hec Edmundson Pavilion, Kohler just laughed. He sees the absurdity of playing through mono.
"Usually when people get mono, it just stops you. And I was able to play with it," he said, shrugging his mammoth shoulders. "It's just a funny thought when I think back."
He missed two weeks, then returned as a reserve at Arizona on Oct. 23. He was back starting, at right tackle, Oct. 30 against Stanford. Three games later, at California, he was back starting at left guard. That's also where he started on Dec. 4 at Washington State, the Apple Cup win that has UW in its first bowl since 2002.
This wacky college football debut for Washington's expected, eventual left tackle and four-year starter is not the only time Kohler has had a weird medical twist, yet played on. At Oaks Christian High School in Southern California, he and others once thought he had a concussion. The top-rated California lineman recruit was about to miss a playoff game, until doctors found a sinus infection instead.
This time, the mono didn't flatten him, though it did flabby him. He lost just five pounds, but lost much more in muscle tone and overall fatigue.
Yet more than that, Kohler battled the mental grind of having his football career temporarily halted just as it was taking off.
"It was definitely one of the harder points in my life. But at the time, it was definitely a growing point for me," Kohler said, sounding older than he is. "That's what life's all about. Life's not going to go perfectly. Life's not going to just give you everything you want. You've got to learn how to mentally handle situations like that."
If you had told him this time last year, when he was still in high school, that he become a true freshman starter on the third-place team in the Pac-10, Kohler would have looked at you ... well, like you had just played two big-time college football games with mono.
"My goal was just to make the traveling team," he said.
"I had to grow up. I had to grow up fast. Once (line) Coach (Dan Cozzetto) told me, `Look, I'm going to play you,' I just had to get in a different mindset. I wasn't a high school player any more.
"The biggest transition is just the mentality."
Blending in with new teammates hasn't been as difficult. They hit it off with the new kid almost instantaneously.
That was because Kohler showed up at summer training camp with a mullet that would have made Duran Duran or MacGyver proud. Thirty years ago. It made him the most popular lineman in camp.
"We loved it," senior right tackle Cody Habben and senior center-guard Greg Christine said in unison of the hockey-like hairdo. "He just didn't like it."
Kohler, who soon cut his hair short to spare the laughs, went to Oaks Christian in Westlake Village, Calif. The 10-year-old high school roughly halfway between Los Angeles and Oxnard has an enrollment of about 750. He played on a team ranked among the top 10 in the nation, with teammates such as the sons of Joe Montana - that would be Nick, now a redshirting freshman quarterback for the Huskies - plus the sons of Will Smith and Wayne Gretzky.
Yet to Kohler, all that is small stuff compared to starting and then making a bowl game in his first year at Washington. It's so big for him, his grandparents are flying in from Oklahoma to see their boy in the Holiday Bowl. Dozens or friends and family will also make the roughly three-hour drive south from home to San Diego.
"It's absolutely amazing, to be able to say that I am going to a bowl game as a true freshman," Kohler said. "I mean, I'm going to be able to tell my grandkids."
He thanks the exacting Cozzetto for what he's already achieved. Heartily thanks him.
Cozzetto is a 29-year coaching veteran who's been with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, at Arizona State, Idaho, Oregon State and Cal.
Ask Kohler to quantify all he has learned from his line coach, and the kid sounds like you've just asked about Yoda.
"I think it's almost impossible to quantify," Kohler said. "Coach Cozzetto's just one of the best out there. He's been around so long. He knows so much. He's got so much to teach.
"And I'm only a true freshman! I've got three more years of Coach Cozzetto. It's just absolutely astounding what I have learned. He's definitely been the reason I am where I am today. I can't thank him enough for the amount of coaching that he's been able to give me. I'm so excited to learn as much as he's going to give me these next three years."
The feeling is mutual.
"He's going to be a great football player," Cozzetto said. "I really believe he'll be dominant."