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'Brick' played hard for 'Bows


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POSTED: Saturday, July 11, 2009

“;Hey Arnett. There's somebody you've got to meet.”;

Former University of Hawaii quarterback Josh Skinner was sitting at the end of a bench outside the locker room, removing his football gear piece by piece, before heading in for the evening. Sitting next to him was the new kid in town. Eyes lit up like Mike Singletary's. Uniform covered in dirt and sweat.

“;This is Jeff Ulbrich.”;

A couple of weeks before, Skinner pulled me aside after a voluntary workout to give me the heads up on the midterm transfer from Gavilan Junior College in Gilroy, Calif. Isn't that the garlic capital of the world? Skinner had no idea. But what he did know early on was UL-BRICK was a player.

“;You should see this guy in the weight room,”; Skinner said, a touch of awe in his voice. “;He bangs his head against the weights before he lifts. HARD.”;

Ulbrich politely raised his hand to shake mine — hard enough — before quietly introducing himself. Like a sniper. Polite. No smile. Just an upward gaze of intensity and acknowledgment. Even now, the thrill of hitting someone in practice was fresh on his face.

That face was one Chad Morton wouldn't soon forget. Despite the 62-7 shellacking Southern California put on Hawaii that September day in 1999, the Trojans tailback knew one thing for sure — the man from Morgan Hill, Calif., would make a living on Sunday.

“;Every time I carried the ball, I was looking for No. 44,”; Morton would say. “;He can play the game.”;

On one particular play early on, Ulbrich held on to Morton a second longer after the tackle, “;Just to let him know I was going to be there every time he touched the football.”; His reaction? “;He just laughed.”;

That start of the 1999 season was no laughing matter. After a disheartening 1998, one in which the Rainbows lost every game, new head coach June Jones had guaranteed a trip to the promised land.

Ulbrich bought into that formula — HARD. Even after the season-opening defeat at the hands of Carson Palmer and his powerful Trojans, belief was in his system. This was a man who blew out his knee midway through 1998, only to suit up and play a quarter in the season-ending game with Tom Brady's Michigan Wolverines.

“;I wanted Michigan,”; Ulbrich said in the deafening silence of that locker room — the last time Fred vonAppen would call Aloha Stadium home. Ulbrich would later have surgery once the swelling went down and somehow make it back in time for the Trojans just nine months later. The fact he played in both games is testament enough.

UH assistant coach George Lumpkin put it this way: “;I've coached a lot of linebackers in my time here, and he's as good as any I've been around. He can run. He can hit. And he plays with such intensity, you can't help but be caught up in what he does.”;

What he did that year was break the UH team record for season tackles with 169. The Sunday after he set the mark, which still stands today, I called to let him know it was official. As usual, I got the message machine, but halfway through telling him the record was his, Ulbrich broke in and said, “;I know, man. I'm so excited.”;

To understand Ulbrich fully, you have to travel back to his early collegiate days at San Jose State. After things didn't work out with the Spartans, Ulbrich left football to work in a sheet-metal factory, content to walk this path if necessary. He was so good at it, Ulbrich took that knowledge and applied it to refurbishing motorcycles, an off-the-field passion that's as strong today as his love for football and mixed martial arts.

Lifelong friends convinced him he made a wrong turn and not to keep going, so he left the factory life to enroll in junior college, where he eventually caught the eye of UH offensive coordinator Guy Benjamin.

A former 49er, Benjamin convinced Ulbrich — who must feel like destiny's child after spending a year with so many San Francisco connections — that the place to be was Hawaii. Even his second season with the Rainbows was a simple twist of fate, as Dylan would say. UH defensive coordinator Greg McMackin would later be an assistant in San Francisco, reconnecting with Ulbrich after that amazing run in 1999 that culminated with an Oahu Bowl win over Oregon State.

Four months later, the man who bled Bay Area was drafted in the third round by the San Francisco 49ers. He was the 86th pick overall. His mom was once a cheerleader for the 49ers. It was a dream come true in every sense of the word.

“;They were my favorite team growing up,”; Ulbrich said. “;My rookie year, it took me a while to feel I was a part of it.”;

That first camp in Stockton, Calif., Ulbrich came over at the end of a morning workout and said, “;Can you believe this? I'm out here with Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Ken Norton Jr. I still can't believe it.”; That first year, Ulbrich played in four games and had three tackles. In his second season, he started all 14 games he played and finished with 92 tackles, the beginning of a special relationship not often found in the NFL.

It's hard to believe Ulbrich is still competing, what with the injuries, the difficulty of the position, the love of the game so strong that he not only plays on special teams, but thrives. Due $2.3 million this season, Ulbrich went in and took a voluntary pay cut to $950,000 to improve his chances of avoiding The Turk.

Never believing he was a sure thing or seeking a blockbuster deal have led him successfully — so far — through the NFL mine fields. He is the only man on defense still around from when Steve Mariucci was the head coach a decade ago.

Now, coaching Ulbrich falls to Singletary, a former middle linebacker himself with enough intensity to light a fire under the former UH standout and keep him a part of the program a little while longer. If the man they call “;Brick”; avoids the bring-your-playbook call, he will be among those on the 49ers' exclusive 10-year wall. He's not celebrating just yet. The man who takes them one training camp at a time knows he's no certain bet.

But he believes — HARD. And everyone who knows him believes in him as well.

———

Sports editor Paul Arnett was the Star-Bulletin's UH football beat writer from 1990 to 2000. We unveil No. 19 tomorrow. See starbulletin.com for more on “;The Centurions.”;

               

     

 

'Bows (and Warriors) in the Pros

        Former UH football players who are currently on NFL rosters
       

» Ikaika Alama-Francis, 3rd year, Detroit Lions

       

» Davone Bess, 2nd year, Miami Dolphins

       

» Colt Brennan, 2nd year, Washington Redskins

       

» Jameel Dowling, 1st year, Arizona Cardinals

       

» Jason Elam, 17th year, Atlanta Falcons

       

» Kynan Forney, 9th year, San Diego Chargers

       

» CJ Hawthorne, 2nd year, Buffalo Bills

       

» Wayne Hunter, 6th year, New York Jets

       

» Jake Ingram, 1st year, New England Patriots

       

» Josh Leonard, 1st year, Houston Texans

       

» Vince Manuwai, 6th year, Jacksonville Jaguars

       

» Mat McBriar, 6th year, Dallas Cowboys

       

» Ryan Mouton, 1st year, Tennessee Titans

       

» Mel Purcell, 2nd year, Cleveland Browns

       

» Isaac Sopoaga, 6th year, San Francisco 49ers

       

» Samson Satele, 3rd year, Oakland Raiders

       

» Pisa Tinoisamoa, 7th year, Chicago Bears

       

» Jeff Ulbrich, 10th year, San Francisco 49ers

       

» David Veikune, 1st year, Cleveland Browns

       

Note: Travis LaBoy played for the Cardinals last season but was released in May and is expected to miss the 2009 season after having ankle surgery.