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Big men on campus ... literally

East Lake's philosophy has helped it produce top-caliber offensive linemen.


© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000

EAST LAKE -- They roam through the hallways, and people make room. It's easy to see why. Not many men consume so much space.

Such is the life for the offensive linemen at East Lake. They are the big men on campus and they are, well, big.

But it is not just their size that makes them overshadow their teammates. It is their status. They are celebrities.

More than any other line in Pinellas County, this one is the object of coaches' and recruiters' affection.

Here's the proof.

When Matt Meinrod, 6 feet 5, 265 pounds, orally committed to Florida State in August, he became the third offensive lineman for the Eagles to commit to a Division I school in as many years. Nick Romeo, 6-2, 290, and Brad Leyanaar, 6-6, 260, signed with Syracuse in 1999 and 2000, respectively.

"I don't know what makes us produce good offensive linemen," East Lake coach Tom Keeler said. "Maybe it's in the water here."

Actually, there's more to it than that. It starts with the Eagles' philosophy. Keeler has built his team from the inside out, and he has a great appreciation for those in the trenches.

"First of all, we run the ball here," Keeler said. "But we also take care and value our offensive linemen. We treat them with the same regard as our quarterbacks and running backs."

Usually, offensive linemen are lucky if the quarterback or running backs buy them lunch or mention their great blocking to the press. Not at East Lake.

"We award our kids," Keeler said. "If a running back runs for more than 100 yards or the team runs for more than 200, 300 or 400 yards, we give our praise and support. It's a value system to where the linemen are treated the same. Oh, and here's something else, you'll never see a running back complain to a lineman."

Added Meinrod: "We love to pick up the newspaper the next day and see how our team did rushing. That makes me and the rest of the linemen feel proud."

While Keeler has done his part to build up the mentally of his linemen, the players do their part to build themselves physically. The weight room is where they spend most of their spare time. Romeo was a two-time state champion in weightlifting, and the Eagles have three players who can bench press more than 400 pounds. This year's unit averages 243 pounds, and that doesn't include tight end Bobby Williamson, who is 6-3, 240.

"We might have five guys who can get 400 pounds by the end of the season," Keeler said. "We give the guys until they graduate to try and get it. I think we're spoiled with the dedication to getting stronger. It's crazy. Before, the goal always was to bench press 300 pounds. Now 400 is the benchmark."

But it's not all brawn. These guys have brains, too. Romeo was the Times Scholar-Athlete in 1999, and most graduate with at least a 3.0 grade-point average. "They're all intelligent, and that makes our job so much easier," Keeler said. "They pick up things quickly, and they're physically and mentally ready to go."

Tonight, the line faces its biggest challenge of the season as East Lake plays host to Hillsborough in a game that most likely will decide the district champion.

"I'm looking forward to it," Meinrod said. "Those are the best I play. We're ready to get after them again."

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