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The Strongest Muscle: The backstory that built Dave Molk into Michigan's mainstay

By Stephen J. Nesbitt, Daily Sports Editor
Published October 26, 2011

LEMONT, Ill. — With the early strains of The Star-Spangled Banner hanging in the brisk autumn air, Dave Molk glanced over his shoulder. His mother and father were settling into lawn chairs on the grassy hill next to the Lemont High School football field.

Gail Molk looked back, watching her 12-year-old son prepare to play the final game of his seventh-grade season in the Lemont youth football league.

It was the last game Gail would see.

After battling breast cancer for 12 years, the cancer had spread to her brain in the fourth relapse.

Years of off-and-on chemotherapy had sapped her strength and left her bald. She wasn’t wearing a wig that November day at the football field.

“The whole game, all I could do was turn around and look at my mom,” Dave said 10 years later, blinking back tears. “It was so scary. The cancer was fully in effect. That was right near the end of the season, when it was the worst.”

Late in the game, Dave's team rumbled down to the five-yard line.

“Molk,” coach Jeff Christiansen barked. “You’re in at tailback. Go ahead and score.”

For the two-way lineman, this was a first. He lined up four yards behind the quarterback and took the first-down handoff — stuffed. Second down — stuffed.

On third down, Dave knocked straight through the line and fell into the endzone.

Without a second thought, he picked himself up and kept running. He ran through the gate at the back of the endzone, around the cement sidewalk and all the way up the hill. Glassy-eyed, he handed the football to his mother.

“This is for you, Mom.”

Gail never let that football go.

A month later, Dave and his older brother Steve gathered around their mother in the family room as her life left her.

Tom Molk, their father, sat alongside his wife. As a family, they didn’t want Gail to pass away in the hospital. They’d conceded that the cancer had finally won, but they wouldn't let it dictate how she would leave them.

On December 12, 2001 — three days before Dave’s 13th birthday — Gail passed away in the Molk family room, surrounded by her boys and husband.

***

Everyone in Lemont remembers exactly when Dave Molk, now the starting center on the Michigan football team, exploded onto the football scene. It wasn’t a snap, a pancake block or a pregame speech. It was an offseason — during the winter and spring, when the field outside Lemont High School was iced over and nothing but the weight room was open.

Dave entered high school at 5-foot-6 and 180 pounds — “a pudgy little freshman kid,” according to Lemont strength coach John Coneset.

After noticing him on the freshman team, Coneset took Dave under his wing and brought him into Coneset’s world — the weight room.

Dave was hooked.

The following season, Dave started on the Lemont Indians varsity team’s offensive line as a sophomore.

From Lemont to Michigan, his size was questioned every step of the way. He was too small. That’s why Dave loved the weight room. It’s a direct comparison that never lies: you versus me. Dave never lost the battle.

Within two years, he added 100 pounds and was out-lifting Coneset. Dave also grew seven inches, which helped.

“Saying Dave liked the weight room would be an understatement,” Coneset said, glancing around at the rows of equipment. “He loved this place. He was always the last one out of here.”

Dave was always the last one out of the weight room, but that didn't mean he had reached the end of his workout.

Coneset and the other members of the Lemont coaching staff alternated staying past 5 P.M. to lock up the weight room after Dave finished his workout. They would go home for dinner. Dave wouldn’t.

“I’d work out at the high school gym for two-and-a-half hours,” Dave said. “When Coneset would finally say, ‘Dave, I’m getting outta here, you’ve got to leave,’ I got in my car and went to Powerhouse Gym for another hour and a half.”

Thinking back, Dave’s old teammates laugh — he never had any company at Powerhouse.

“No, absolutely not,” former Lemont tight end Sean Brickey said. “Dave was a madman.”

Even his best friends didn’t understand it. Why would the undersized lineman spend all his time in the weight room, where no one even noticed?

The answer isn’t so difficult for Dave. It’s in his blood.

He comes from a family of the biggest, strongest men you can find. His father is 6-foot-5. Steve is 6-foot-4.