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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.

The other half of the equation came from his mother.

“She’s the toughest person I’ve ever met,” Dave said. “She might be a reason I have never let an injury get to me, because she never showed her pain. She dealt with unimaginable pain, so nothing I could have would compare.”

Dave didn’t use the game of football to cope with his mother’s death, but rather to remember her life.

“She showed me just how precious life is,” Dave said. “I realized that I wanted to do everything I could do to get the most out of mine.

“I wanted to make the most of what I have because I knew, saw and experienced how short it can be.”

Today, a photo of Dave sits propped against the window facing out of Coneset’s office, overlooking the weight room. The overlaying text on the photo reads, “Offensive Player of the Game: David Molk — Eastern Michigan.”

Coneset asked Dave for a copy of the photo after Michigan’s win over the Eagles in 2009. Dave had it delivered to the weight room. Michigan’s All-America candidate will send another photo when he reaches the NFL.

That Lemont High School weight room is where Dave Molk was born as a football player.

“Fastest and strongest — that’s why I love the weight room,” Dave said. “That’s where I make my money. That’s where my football career lives: strength and speed. I knew that my size wouldn’t matter if I got to the defender before he got to me.”

***

Dave Molk has always had a mean streak.

He and his brother will stand up to anybody and stare them down. It’s seen both on the football field and at home.

Tom gave his sons boxing gloves at the ages of six and seven. But Tom readily admits that losing their mother likely played a part in the boys’ aggression.

“Steve expelled his anger in a place that was considered unauthorized,” Tom said. “Dave had another place to expel his anger, and that was on the football field.”

Seated on a workout bench in the Lemont weight room, Tom pauses, shifts his gaze and laughs.

“When he put the helmet on, it flips a switch for him and he becomes somebody that nobody can like,” he continued.

That switch was first flipped in elementary school, when Dave started playing football. He was too delicate. He was getting picked on by the team bully.

“Dave, you have to stop being nice,” Tom told him at the time. “When you put that helmet on, you’re a gladiator. Play like it.”

Dave did just that. The next time the bully spit in his facemask, Dave took him down, faster than any pancake block he’s ever thrown.

Everyone learned a lesson that day. The bully never came back to Dave. Tom realized his son’s raw power. Dave learned that he loved to hit.

That passion is what has kept him in the game of football from the youth leagues to Michigan and beyond. His Lemont teammates joke that, if it weren't for the sideways smile he cracks after every big hit, sometimes no one can tell if Dave enjoys the game of football.

“Dave was never aggressive off the football field,” said former Lemont cornerback Ryan Buttney. “But he’s on a mission on the field.”

Dave is always searching for a chance to showcase his strength. He loves nothing more than hearing that he’s facing a nose guard on Saturday touted as one of the best in the nation.

“He loves that, because he just wants to smatter him,” Tom said. “He wanted to knock him on his ass, ‘Welcome to college football.’ ”

Before every game at Michigan, Dave welcomes one of his teammates to college football by head-butting another offensive lineman — hard. He claims he gave redshirt junior lineman Ricky Barnum a concussion last season.

True freshman lineman Jack Miller has been the victim this season.

“I like Jack,” Dave said. “He doesn’t like it. He always says it’s OK if he knows it’s coming. Usually, when I come back from the coin toss, I’ll just kind of run up to him and grab him, and slam my head into him.”

That tenacity, before games and at the line of scrimmage, is why Dave was already on his third helmet of the season by the Big Ten opener.

“Dave told me he compresses his facemask so much that it pulls out of the sides and cracks the back of his helmet,” former Lemont offensive lineman Nick Palermo said. “I just looked at him. ‘You just told me you crack helmets.’ ”

***

Tom Molk flung the door open, entered the Lemont weight room and bolted up a flight of stairs to find Dave.

“Hey, Dave, you got an offer,” Tom said, pausing to catch his breath.

Tom had just hung up after a phone call from a Northwestern coach in Evanston. Northwestern — just 40 miles away from Lemont — had extended to Dave his first offer to play college football.

Dave turned to his father. He knew he wasn't done playing football.

“Don’t worry, Dad, there will be more,” Dave said.

It was the first breakthrough in a long, rollercoaster recruiting journey for Dave. Until that point, he and the coaches had been forced to plead with schools to take a look at his tape.

But the tape was pretty convincing.

“I can still remember when Dave and Coach Coneset were putting together highlight film,” Lemont head coach Eric Michaelson said. “It was like the Ten Commandments, it was taking so much time.

“Finally (Coneset) said, ‘Hey, come here.’ Whoa. I’d be following the play and then all of the sudden you see Dave just beatin’ the dog stuffing out of a kid.”

Before Northwestern offered, Dave didn't start to getting any attention from college programs until he accepted an invitation to a recruiting combine in Iowa City. His Scout.com recruiting profile listed size as his only disadvantage.

“That was the only thing anyone ever said to me,” Dave said.

“Dave doesn’t have a problem with his size,” Tom added. “It’s just the media that has a problem with his size. Everyone else has a size problem.”

At 6-foot-2, 265 pounds, few expected Dave to survive at an elite college program. But the same recruiting profile also listed Dave’s “nasty streak” as a positive.

In Iowa City, the size issue took a backseat while the nasty streak did the talking. And one defensive tackle in particular paid the price in one-on-one drills.

“This kid, he was just running a train on everyone that was at that combine,” Dave said.

So instead of following the regular rotation, Dave stepped out and picked his opponent — the biggest, strongest lineman there.

“Hey, give me the kid with the dreads,” Dave said.

Man to man: you versus me. Dave plowed right through him.

“The next time he came up, he was obviously pissed that I beat him,” Dave said. “He goes, ‘Hey, I want the boy with the fade.’ And I beat him again.”

Size really didn’t matter. Dave could play. As Dave expected, the offers started rolling in from across the country.

The father-son duo traveled to 19 universities during the recruiting process. Make no mistake, this much attention on a football player was unusual for a middling football town like Lemont.

Interestingly enough, Dave was looking for a strength and conditioning coach more than anything. He found one he liked in Mike Barwis at West Virginia.

“His sales pitch is the best in the country, and I heard them all,” Dave said. “One of the things that he did in the recruiting visit was he ran up to this big yoga ball and jumps on it. He just stood there and talked to me and my dad for 10 minutes, standing on the ball.

“I saw what he did and figured, if he does what he does, he can make me do what he does.”

But West Virginia was dealt one swift stroke of bad fortune. While the Molks were in the car en route to Morgantown, W. Va., Dave got a call from Michigan — his final offer.

Ann Arbor became the last of 19 stops on the recruiting trail. Michigan fifth-year senior defensive end Ryan Van Bergen — Molk’s roommate — still teases Molk about his visit.

“Dave Molk is the one guy in the history of all official visits to request to go to the weight room on his visit to lift,” Van Bergen said, laughing. “How meat-headed is that?”

The moment he got back into the car to head home, Dave told his father he was going to become a Wolverine, selecting Michigan over front-runners Wisconsin and Iowa.

Tom felt the fit, too. It just took one step onto the Michigan Stadium turf. He admits that he shed a few tears that day at Michigan.

Dave remembers his father saying, “If Gail would have seen you walk into that empty stadium at Michigan …”

***

In seventh grade, when Dave Molk glanced over his shoulder in the opening strains of The Star-Spangled Banner, he saw something he never wanted to forget.

He saw his mother and father settling into lawn chairs on the hill. She was bracing herself against the cold wind. Her hair was gone. What he saw was just fine. It was Mom.

He relives that memory, that scene, every football Saturday.

“It’s kind of something I’ve never told anyone before,” Dave said, stopping to clear his throat.

“But at a certain point in the national anthem, I turned around, looked up and saw her. And at that same point every game I’ve ever played, I look up into the flag and say, ‘I love you, Mom.’

“And every time I start to tear up and then I get really pissed off. That’s part of the reason I head-butt Jack so hard.”

The toughest center in the nation promised to never use his mother’s death as a crutch. But he’s taken her with him from the Lemont High School football field to the Big House and every stadium in between.

He won’t let himself forget her. She was the side of Dave Molk that rarely shows itself, the side that almost nobody knows.

“I got my heart from her, no doubt about it,” Dave said.

It’s been nearly 10 years since Dave’s mother passed away. Dave hasn’t scored another touchdown — he doesn’t want to. His one and only touchdown was for her. The ball he gave her still sits on display in the Molk home.

“It’s always hard, for any kid doing anything — it doesn’t have to be football,” Dave said. “She didn’t see me graduate high school. She didn’t see me come to Michigan. She’s not going to see me graduate college. She’s not going to see me play in college.

“There’s a lot of stuff that she’s not going to see. But I know in some way, shape or form, she saw them.”

His mother has been gone for a decade of his life, but Dave knows she hasn’t missed a snap.