Last Friday, while his teammates were preparing for the final walk-through before their home opener against Kentucky State, senior left guard Chris Price wanted to have some fun.
Seeing the kickers practicing 30-yard field goals, Price walked up to them with every bit the swagger of a first-grader toting a Happy Meal.
He stepped up and took his turn. As the ball split the uprights perfectly, Price danced around, raising his arms and flashing his contagious smile.
The 5-foot-11, 295-pound mountain of a man – whose kicking is as odd as his teddy bear-like appearance and personality – is on the verge of completing the journey from the depths of academic ineligibility to becoming one of the top offensive linemen in I-AA football.
After redshirting the 1998 season because his ACT score fell below the minimum standard, Price has rocketed to the top of the charts.
“We knew right away he was a good football player,” said head coach Jack Harbaugh, who never saw Price play in high school.
Harbaugh’s son, Jim, was primarily involved in Price’s recruitment. Since he got his chance, Price has picked up All-America honors like he picks up defensive linemen.
Along with his talent, Price – with a gap in his front teeth that somehow makes him seem warmer – is also one of the most popular players on the team.
“He’s fun to be around. He’s one of those kids who’s always smiling,” said Lightner, who doubles as offensive line coach and co-offensive coordinator. “You can correct him and yell at him, and he still just keeps coming, keeps smiling.”
While playing at Warren Central High School in Indianapolis, Price wasn’t sure college was the right fit for him. But when he learned Jim Harbaugh – then the Indianapolis Colts’ quarterback – was watching one of his games, he cracked his ever-present smile, and decided to bring it here.
“I really didn’t even know about Western Kentucky,” Price said. “And then he went to my game and called me a week later.”
It’s been five years since then, and Price is still on the Hill, anchoring a talented offensive line. He has quietly risen as a leader of the team, one of four captains this season.
“He received an overwhelming number of votes from his teammates, so I think that speaks for the trust and respect they have for him,” Harbaugh said.
And with conference play opening this Saturday against Western Illinois, Price is a valuable commodity. Trying to succeed in the Gateway Conference without a potent running game is like having peanut butter without jelly – it just doesn’t work.
“He’s one of the premier offensive linemen in I-AA football,” Harbaugh said. “I’m very, very glad that he’s on our side.”
After missing the Southeast Missouri game in 1999, Price has started 33 straight for the Toppers. During that streak, Price has become a critical component of Western’s ground-heavy offense.
“If you watch him on tape, he’s got a different gear than everybody else,” Lightner said. “He’s got great feet. He’s one of the strongest kids on the team, if not the strongest, and just capable of totally dominating a football game.”
Price said he squatted 500 pounds seven times and bench pressed 315 pounds 11 times during winter lifting.
And he has almost perfect technique. Out of 729 plays last season, Price allowed only one sack and had just two penalties whistled against him.
Price credits much of his success to Lightner.
“In his first half a semester here, he taught me more than I learned in the previous two years,” Price said.
But some things can’t be taught.
Growing up as the big guy among his friends, Price said he had a choice: get faster or fall behind.
“I always hung with little skinny guys, and we always were out there playing football at the park on Sundays and basketball during the week. So for me to maintain with them, I had to get a lot faster,” Price said.
He did. And his speed and ability have seen him rapidly improve. But his time on the Hill is dwindling just as quickly.
Price graduated in May with a degree in management and computer information systems. He’s taking nine hours of graduate classes this semester in order to play football.
Then it’s the NFL draft in April. And Lightner, among others, thinks Price has a shot at making it.
“He has to be totally dominant at this level, but I think he has a chance to play at the next level, maybe as a center,” said Lightner, who played for Nebraska and the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.”He’s a little on the short side, as far as what they’re looking for. But it’s kind of all about productivity, and he’s a kid that’s going to be highly productive this year I hope . You just don’t see a kid at any level with his feet.”
Maybe they’ll make him a kicker.
Price and the No. 21 Toppers (1-1) take on Western Illinois at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Smith Stadium. The game will be televised on Fox Sports Net.
Reach Keith Farner at [email protected]