Nov. 6, 2007
by Darren Shimp
The stench of a hard afternoon football practice emanates through the halls as seniors Rocky Hanni and Matt Alfred continue preparations to add to an impressive string of starts as offensive linemen at Eastern Washington University.
With 42 starts apiece dating back to the 2004 season, they have poured their hearts and souls into anchoring an offensive line that has helped EWU produce much over the past four seasons. Besides three winning seasons and 25 victories, they have been a part of two Big Sky Conference Championships and a pair of playoff appearances that included a victory over the top-seeded and No. 1 ranked team in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
With Eastern 6-3 overall and still in the hunt for a FCS Playoff berth in 2007, they are hoping to add a bit more to their legacies before their careers are finished.
Looking back at their successful Eagle careers, the seniors had a lot to say regarding former quarterback and Walter Payton Award winner Erik Meyer, National Football League starting lineman Michael Roos, current Eastern quarerback Matt Nichols and their futures in football.
Their careers at Eastern had similar beginnings as both graduated in 2003 from high schools in the Puget Sound area. Alfred is from from Gig Harbor, Wash., and Hanni is from Sumner, Wash., and both were redshirted in the 2003 season at EWU. Both worked their way into the lineup early in the 2004 campaign, which produced some of their greatest memories at Eastern.
The two have accumulated many honors during their tenure in Cheney, including All-America accolades (2004 by Hanni and 2005 by Alfred), three All-Big Sky Conference selections for each and three Big Sky All-Academic accolades won by Alfred. In addition, Hanni was the first offensive linemen in Big Sky Conference history to be recognized as a the league's Newcomer of the Year in 2004.
However, the memories they will remember most were the team accomplishments.
"For me, the one that really sticks out is winning our first championship," explained Alfred. "We won it with a double overtime win against Montana State. That was huge. I remember that like it was last week."
He remembers a few others, including EWU's 35-31 playoff win at Southern Illinois in 2004 and a 34-20 victory at Montana the following season.
"That same season, we played at Southern Illinois, who had been ranked No. 1 and beat them. Then in 2005, beating Montana in their house, just silencing all those people, that was great. Those are the ones that really stick out."
Hanni agreed. "Those three games that Matt talked about were three games that will stick in my mind for the rest of my life. Those were amazing games. Erik Meyer, after that Southern Illinois game, came up to me and gave me the biggest hug."
Alfred has started 42 consecutive games and Hanni, who missed two games in 2004 because of a concussion, has started 38 straight. Getting into the lineup and maintaining their health to stay there was never easy for them They received motivation and advice from players and coaches past, for whom they attribute their success.
"Just getting that many starts is really kind of amazing," said Hanni. "It wasn't that I was a great player by any means, I had older guys help me along like Michael Roos, a huge name that helped me immensely and taught me a lot. As far as staying healthy on the offensive line, it doesn't matter if you're healthy or not, you're going to play."
Alfred conveyed a similar message. Roos last played for Eastern in 2004, and ended his career with a string of 35-straight starts. He has since started 41-straight regular season games for the Tennessee Titans in the NFL.
"Luckily we had some good players around us like Mike Roos and Paul Terrell who had played a lot of football," said Alfred. "Paul helped me out quite a bit, and I know Mike helped Rocky out quite a bit."
The transitions through their careers have also included protecting two quarterbacks with unique styles -- Meyer and Nichols. The seniors spoke on the contrasts between the two.
"You can't replace Erik Meyer," said Hanni. "He was a great athlete. I think of Erik as more of a `run and gun' kind of guy. Matt has learned to stay in the pocket. He's a legit pocket quarterback that can roll out. I think Matt can be just as good, if not better than Erik. He's putting up great numbers as a sophomore."
"I think the thing that made Erik such a great quarterback was that he had the physical tools to be great, but he also had it up in his head," said Alfred. "He was an amazing leader and guys just rallied around him. He had the ability to adjust on the fly. Whether it was a defense shifting or some other form of adversity, he could just shift the protection, make a couple checks on routes and go make a play. Matt has all the potential to be right there with Erik, if not surpass him."
These two men exhibit the class and pride which makes the landscape of Eastern Washington football a bright one. Their personal accomplishments were set aside for team goals, which have produced a winning attitude in the program.
As their EWU tenures wind down, the offensive linemen are not treating this like their last stop in their football careers. Instead, bigger ventures possibly exist down the road.
"I'm going to take football as far as I can, do everything I can to try to play in the NFL," said Alfred. "If that doesn't work out then the CFL (Canadian Football League), or who knows, maybe one of the arena leagues. I am keeping all my options open. I just know I love this game and I'm not ready to give it up. I just want to try as hard as I can and see where it can take me."
"I think everyone's dream is to obviously play a professional sport," said Hanni. "If anyone were to pass up a shot, I think that's kind of silly. I'm going to try, and if it's not there, no big deal. I'm not banking on it by any means, but if I can, great, if I can't, great as well."