As difficult as it is to imagine, Maryland defensive end Andre Monroe was once considered too big for his sport.
It happened when Monroe was 6 years old and already had played a year of organized football with the Boys & Girls Club in Upper Marlboro. He said he weighed "about 20 pounds" over the limit for his age group, and twice he failed to make the prescribed weight. When he failed a third time, he was held out of two games.
Andre Monroe Sr. recalled how the eldest of his three sons would run for miles in their neighborhood to drop pounds. The family adopted a diet of mostly salads and fruit for more than a month — not the meal plan of a growing boy.
Said Monroe Sr., a Baltimore City police sergeant who supervises the department's helicopter unit: "There were definitely no [McDonald's] Happy Meals."
Eventually, there were. Then the younger Monroe faced a new challenge.
"After my first year, I had to lose so much weight, my parents and myself didn't like what I had to go through to do that, so every year, I just played up," Monroe recalled last week. "I got used to playing against guys who were bigger than me, older than me."
Those early lessons have served Monroe well. The fifth-year senior, who missed part of his redshirt freshman year with a sprained ankle and his entire sophomore year with torn cartilage in his right knee, still is going up against bigger offensive linemen, particularly with Maryland's move to the Big Ten Conference this season.
"One of the biggest things we learned when we played Ohio State [is] when guys are bigger like that, there's no room for error," Monroe said. "You can't mess up. If you mess up, that's your head. I think it made us more efficient in our accuracy in things we were trying to do."
Monroe is looking forward to his next challenge: a clash against No. 8 Michigan State at Byrd Stadium next Saturday. The Spartans' starting offensive linemen average over 6 foot 4 and more than 300 pounds, with 6-6, 303-pound sophomore left tackle Jack Conklin leading the way.
"They really like to get after it," the 5-11 Monroe said with a smile.
Monroe's height likely kept him from receiving better than a two-star rating as a recruit at St. John's College High in Washington, but it hasn't stopped the now 285-pound Monroe from putting together a productive, and potentially record-setting, career for the Terps.
Tied for second in career sacks (22) with former Terps star Shawne Merriman, Monroe needs three more to pass all-time leader Mike Corvino, who played at Maryland from 1979 to 1982. Monroe is third in the Big Ten this season with 7.5 sacks, behind only Ohio State's Joey Bosa (10) and Iowa's Drew Ott (eight).
Merriman and others took notice of Monroe late last season. After being credited with just 3.5 sacks over the team's first nine games, Monroe had three in a nine-tackle performance at Virginia Tech in mid-November. He added two more two weeks later at North Carolina State. Maryland won both games.
In Maryland's past two victories, Monroe has more than held his own.
Three weeks ago, against Iowa left tackle Brandon Scherff, a 6-5, 320-pound senior projected by many to be a high first-round NFL draft pick, Monroe had six tackles and helped the Terps sack Hawkeyes quarterback Jake Rudock four times. Monroe followed with six tackles against Penn State in a 20-19 win, including a thunderous sack of quarterback Christian Hackenberg.
Merriman, now a Big Ten Network analyst, said he sees Monroe as a "consistent, productive player. He's not one of these 6-3, 6-4 guys who passes the eye test. He's just that scrappy guy who's going to go out there and consistently make plays."
Maryland coach Randy Edsall said playing against type works in Monroe's favor.
"When you look at the mold, you say he shouldn't be having the success he's having," Edsall said during his weekly Big Ten coaches teleconference last week. "But he has a great motor, he has a great attitude, and he's got the quickness and strength to go with it. If you don't get on him, he's going to get around you. He can beat you with the speed, but also with the leverage."
That is something Monroe's father taught his namesake early on.
"My dad has done a tremendous job of getting me to understand this at a younger age," Monroe said. "He knew I wasn't going to be the tallest kid. He made me understand that if I wanted to play anywhere in the trenches, it's all about leverage. Whoever has the most leverage can generate the most power."
The elder Monroe, who played wide receiver and cornerback at Virginia State in the mid- to late 1980s, said his son was at times discouraged by his lack of height. But he also recalled how, as a pretty squat 8-year-old, Monroe was a sprinter for a local track team whom some called "The Diesel."
"He actually won the local [Amateur Athletic Union] 100-meter dash," his father said. "He would get angry because he would line up and all the other kids would say, 'We're not going to let that little fat guy beat us.' He could hear it. He would run down the track with everything he had."
Success, then injuries
After showing some flashes as a freshman — he had a sack in his and Edsall's first game at Maryland, a win over Miami — Monroe's career seemed to be derailed by injuries. He received freshman All-American honors despite a badly sprained ankle that caused him to miss several games as a redshirt freshman.
Monroe had a season-ending knee injury as a sophomore, suffered during post-practice conditioning a couple of weeks before the season opener.
"We were just running sprints. I felt a rip," he said. "I finished the drill. There were some benches past the line, and I sat down. I thought I was going to be OK. I got up and I tried to take a step and I collapsed back down. The rest is history."
Monroe said going through rehabilitation tested his faith, to the point where his father thought his son was suffering from depression.
"It was one of the hardest things physically, emotionally, spiritually that I ever had to do in my life," the younger Monroe said. "Now that I made it through, I can say that it takes a strong person to do what they want to do. I know a lot of people where the recovery time is very lengthy and they don't make it through."
Edsall recalled a recent conversation he had with Monroe, who is working on getting an undergraduate degree in African-American studies; he earned his first, in American Studies, this spring. Edsall said Monroe considered the injury "a wake-up call for him to understand there was more to life than football."
Monroe said he took his injury as a chance to re-evaluate his life off the field.
"I took that opportunity to get hurt as a lesson: Maybe I'm doing something wrong off the field. Maybe I need to change my mindset and be a better person," he said. "I have become a better person, which in turn I have [used to] become a better player [than I was] before I got hurt and what I was doing before I got hurt."
Learning from others
Monroe said he is faster than he was before he was injured, and he believes he has the combination of speed, strength and technique to play in the NFL. So does Merriman — perhaps, he said, in a defense such as the Pittsburgh Steelers', which has long featured undersized outside linebacker James Harrison.
"They don't have a big 6-3, 6-4 outside linebacker, like a DeMarcus Ware," Merriman said. "Those guys are able to turn a corner and use their low pad level to get around those big offensive tackles or guards. [Monroe] uses what he has wisely. He'll fit perfectly in that system."
Monroe would like a chance to play in the NFL and prove people wrong again. He has been compared to 265-pound Eric Foster, who went undrafted out of Rutgers and played with the Indianapolis Colts from 2008 through 2011, as well as to 6-1 Aaron Donald, the No. 1 pick of the St. Louis Rams in May's draft.
Monroe has long studied other undersized pass rushers such as Ravens linebacker Elvis Dumervil, San Diego Chargers linebacker Dwight Freeney and Harrison. He wears No. 93 in honor of former Minnesota Vikings great John Randle, who had a 14-year Hall of Fame career after going undrafted.
"I think a lot of people, whether it's in sport or whatever, try to find people who's identical to them and say, 'If that person can do it, I can do it,' " Monroe said, "and of course I do the same thing."