Two little-known local linemen who have toiled in the trenches for the past four seasons, quietly doing the dreaded dirty work that so often goes unnoticed _ especially when your team is consistently losing week after week, year after year.
But the Golden Flashes have suddenly stopped the bleeding thanks in major part to a group of resilient young men who paid their dues and then some.
True warriors, like Brian Hallett and Aaron Mayer.
Hallett, a former multi-sport star at Norton High School, and Mayer, a prep football standout at Woodridge, both rejected other tempting offers in order to join what was a poor excuse for a college football program when they first arrived at Kent State.
And neither player regrets that decision in the least, especially now that they've helped the Flashes finally turn the proverbial corner.
"They can definitely say they're leaving this program better than they found it, and that's something to be proud of," said head coach Dean Pees, whose Kent State squad (5-5) can finish the year with a winning record for the first time since 1987 by defeating Miami Saturday at Dix Stadium. "I feel real good for those guys, because I know what they've been through. They stuck it out through some tremendously difficult times."
The trials and tribulations actually began before Hallett and Mayer even set foot on campus.
Hallett, a 6-foot-4, 295-pound offensive lineman, was offered a scholarship by Pittsburgh after his junior year of high school. But that offer was revoked when the team changed coaches, even though Hallett was rated the third-best offensive lineman in the entire state of Ohio following his senior year.
"It was disappointing at the time," Hallett admitted. "Then after I committed to Kent State I got an offer from Northwestern, but I wasn't interested. Sure I thought about going to (a more well-known program). But things just didn't pan out."
Mayer, a 6-2, 275-pound defensive tackle, drew interest from several non-Division I schools after earning all-state honors as a senior for the Bulldogs. But he chose to walk on at Kent State instead.
"I always dreamed of playing Division I football, and I was just happy that someone gave me an opportunity," said Mayer. "I knew I had the ability to play at this level, and I just wanted a chance to prove it."
Mayer proved himself quickly to Pees, who rewarded him with a scholarship after taking over the Flashes in 1998.
"He worked so hard and did everything we asked," said Pees. "I certainly felt he deserved a scholarship."
While linemen seldom see much action at the collegiate level as underclassmen, both Hallett and Mayer were thrown to the wolves almost immediately. Hallett stepped into the starting lineup as a true freshman midway through the year while Mayer played in all 11 games as a redshirt frosh in 1998, when both players were forced to battle much more experienced and mature opponents.
"What sticks in my mind is my first collegiate game, when we played in front of 85,000 people at Georgia," said Mayer. "I found out quickly what Division I football was all about. It was tough, but honestly I thought it would be a lot tougher than it was."
Hallett couldn't agree more.
"I loved playing as a freshman," he said. "I remember going out there and pancaking linebackers and thinking wow, this is great. If I'm doing this to a senior now, think of what's going to happen when I'm a senior."
Just as he envisioned, Hallett has developed into one of the Mid-American Conference's most dominating linemen. He's the Flashes' strongest player (480-pound bench press), he's versatile and athletic enough to play any position up front, and he's incredibly durable.
Kent State's 2001 tri-captain has started 35 straight games, missing just one half of one game due to an ankle injury.
"I started as a freshman after the senior playing in front of me got hurt, so I guess the injury swings have gone my way," said Hallett. "I wrestled in high school and that increased my flexibility, which has helped a lot. But I've also been very lucky."
With a little more good fortune, Hallett could be playing football on Sundays next year.
"Pro scouts are interested in Brian, and I think someone will give him a look," said Pees. "His only drawback is probably his height. But even if pro football doesn't work out, Brian has plenty to fall back on."
Hallett is one of the country's top performers in the shot put, and has two years of eligibility left in track and field at Kent State. He also carries a 3.77 grade-point average as an industrial technology major, and is a candidate for academic All-American honors.
"Brian's been a leader in everything he's done from high school on," said Pees. "He's a great football player and a model citizen. We're going to miss him."
Mayer, like Hallett, starred as an offensive lineman in high school. But Pees, seeking to shore up a depleted defensive line, moved Mayer to the other side of the ball in '98.
"I thought I was a lot better offensive lineman, but the coaches made the decision," said Mayer. "I was a walk-on, so I didn't care where they put me. I just shut up and played."
Mayer played his way into the rotation as a freshman, and never left. He's been a key cog in a previously porous Kent State defensive unit that has steadily progressed during the past four seasons.
"Aaron isn't flashy. He's just real solid," said Pees. "He's come a long way as a walk-on, and he's a person to be admired both on and off the field. He's a real good leader in a quiet way."
Mayer quietly goes about his business every Saturday, taking on blockers and filling gaps up front so his teammates can make plays. His statistics aren't eye-popping, but that's by design.
"As a defensive lineman in our system, you have to swallow your pride," said Mayer. "Everyone wants to make the sacks and the big plays, but in reality not everyone can. I think the biggest difference in our defense this year is that everyone has accepted their role, because they realize if we all do our job the rest will take care of itself."
Mayer is also taking care of business in the classroom. He'll graduate with a degree in technology education this coming May, and plans to teach and coach at the high school level.
"I don't want to coach college football," said Mayer. "I've seen all the hours our coaches put in. I don't want any part of that."
While the spotlight shines once again on the quarterbacks, Hallett and Mayer will secretly slug it out with their interior foes one last time Saturday at Dix Stadium. And they plan to go out swinging.
"I'm getting more antsy every day," said Mayer. "I'm trying not to think about it too much, but we know what's at stake. We haven't had a winning season here in a long, long time. This is huge."
Before this year Hallett and Mayer had tasted victory just three times in 30 outings at Kent State, which makes the surprising success they've enjoyed in 2001 seem even sweeter.
"It feels great," said Hallett. "We were so close to winning so many games before, especially last year, but we just couldn't catch any breaks. But once we won a couple games, we started to believe in ourselves. Coach Pees has always said that was our biggest problem. We just didn't believe."
Fielding a winning team at Kent State is finally believable, which makes all the tough times worth taking for Hallett, Mayer and their unheralded teammates in the trenches.
"It's been quite a ride, but it's been fun," said Mayer. "I have no regrets."
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