Withycombe takes to new role as line's veteran


At 6 feet 5, 300 pounds, with six seasons of professional experience, Mike Withycombe fits nicely on the Baltimore Football Club's huge offensive line. His wit and sense of humor also have helped him blend in with a group that features its share of characters.

"He's kind of a screwball like the rest of us linemen," left tackle Shar Pourdanesh said of Withycombe, his new sidekick at left guard.

"Every year at camp, the rookies have to get up and sing for us. Usually, rookies are real nervous and they mess up," Pourdanesh said. "But he [Withycombe] starts singing this love song and rubbing [defensive tackle] Robert Presbury's shoulders. We knew he was OK after that."

Withycombe is no ordinary rookie, beginning with his age, 30. When he won his starting job, Withycombe became the Baltimore line's elder statesman.

"It's the first time I've ever been the oldest guy on the line. Now, I'm the grizzled, 30-year-old vet," Withycombe said.

His pro career began in 1988, when the New York Jets selected him in the fifth round of the NFL draft, after Withycombe had been a two-time All-Pacific Athletic Conference lineman at Fresno State.

He played sparingly at guard for two years in New York, then spent parts of the 1991 season in Pittsburgh and San Diego, before having his best year in 1992, when he played in 14 games for the Cincinnati Bengals, starting twice at center. The next year, San Diego signed Withycombe in midseason. Last year, he was waived at the end of the Cleveland Browns' training camp, and thought seriously about quitting football. Then, Baltimore called.

By coming to the BFC, Withycombe was reunited with Baltimore coach Don Matthews. Four years ago, Withycombe played in the World League for the Matthews-coached Orlando Thunder. The team selected him first in its draft, and Withycombe went on to become an All-League lineman.

"Mike is one of the best athletes for an offensive lineman that I've ever been around. Plus, he can play all three positions," Matthews said. "We hope his experience will help us with some of our line calls. This is his football career now, and this will be good for him."

"It's a lot different here than in the NFL," Withycombe said. "Here, it's not all about money. It's refreshing to see guys without super-big egos who just want to play. And with Don, as long as you're playing hard, he lets you be your own guy.

"In the NFL, offensive linemen are on the bottom of the totem pole. You have to be perfect on every assignment. Make a mistake, you get screamed at. It feels like a machine there. You can't even wear headbands. You don't see much of the players' personalities anymore."

Personality is something Withycombe does not lack. His teammates describe him as an "entertainer," someone who can re-create a scene from a movie with accurate dialogue and voice impressions.

It's just the actor coming out in Withycombe. At Fresno State, where he earned degrees in theater and criminology, Withycombe acted in Shakespeare's "As You Like It," a comedy that was set to a Western theme.

"I played Charles the wrestler. We spoke in Old English, but with a Western twang," said Withycombe.

"At first, everybody looked at me like the jock. Everybody was distant. As we did the play, they got to know me a lot better. All of the sudden, I'm being invited to parties. Once I step off the field, I'm nothing like I am here. I'm very loose and nonviolent."

Withycombe isn't short on hobbies. While growing up in a military family -- his father is a U.S. Navy technician -- he spent five years in Japan, where he developed a fondness for the martial arts, which he applies to his trade ("When you're pass blocking, it's all hand fighting, really"). He also collects knives and enjoys competitive shooting.

With his size and experience, Withycombe stood out quickly among the 43 rookies who reported early to this year's camp. Occasionally, he would pull aside a true rookie lineman and counsel him on technique or encourage him after blowing an assignment. When the veterans reported, Withycombe moved into the starting lineup.

"I think of him as a really intelligent player and a likable guy," center Nick Subis said. "We were a little leery of him at first, because he was a new guy. But he grew on us. He's part of the team now."

NOTES: Grant Carter will be activated for tomorrow's home opener against San Antonio, and will start at strong-side defensive end. . . . Fullback Peter Tuipulotu, who sat out the season opener with a pulled hamstring, will return. . . . Courtney Griffin will start in Karl Anthony's place at cornerback, and the backup defensive back spot will be filled by Gary Wilkerson, signed earlier this week.

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