By Bruce Wood
Nobody in the stands cheers for offensive linemen.
OK, that's not true. Make that nobody except former offensive linemen, family members and girlfriends. It's just not a sexy position.
When a bruising running back dodges a defender and then bowls over a would-be tackler, the fans erupt. When a sleek wide receiver rises high to make an acrobatic grab and takes off for the end zone he has cheers ringing in his ears.
The big guys? On a 60-yard touchdown run they hear only the echoes as they plod unnoticed down the field following the play.
A fifth-year senior who hit the 280-pound mark as a sophomore at Brooks School in Massachusetts, Dartmouth tri-captain Pat Lahey has been an offensive lineman laboring in virtual anonymity for a long time. Barring something extremely rare happening, he won't be scoring a touchdown against Harvard on Homecoming and he has to hope he won't be making any tackles. He won't hear cheers directed at him, but he should.
Lahey's story is one of perseverance and heart and team.
As a junior at Brooks he was a two-way lineman for a 1-7 team. A year later the Brooks prefect - prep school language for class president - anchored the line on an 0-8 team.
Lahey went on to letter as a freshman the next fall at Dartmouth, this time on an 0-10 team.
"That was tough because you put so much work into it," he said. "But I really do enjoy playing the game. It's definitely been a release and a very healthy thing in my life. Although we weren't winning, I knew that it was going to eventually pick up because of the people around me and the people Coach Teevens was bringing in."
With two wins Lahey's sophomore year in Hanover, he ran his personal four-season record to 3-33.
Although he finally played on a winning team when Dartmouth went 6-4 in his junior season Lahey was looking forward to bookending his college career by playing on a legitimate title contender in his senior year.
He never had the chance.
Instead of chasing a championship with the same classmates he'd suffered through that first winless season with, he could only watch from the press box, sidelined by two bilateral hip surgeries he underwent during the summer.
"That was terrible," he said of the lost year. "It was one of the worst experiences I have ever had as a football player. It was really tough. It was the first time since I was 10 years old that I wasn't suited up in shoulder pads during the fall."
The pain started during his junior spring and that grew into a limp an examination revealed he had impingements in both hips, the result of the femur in his hip socket rubbing against cartilage. To be able to play again he had no choice but to undergo a surgery where the hip would be dislocated and the head of the femur shaved down to make the pieces slide together better and maneuver smoothly. Make that hips, plural, and femurs, plural.
Although the surgery in the summer of 2011 was a success, he missed the entire season rehabbing before petitioning for a medical redshirt season this fall.
"What really got me through last year was my teammates," Lahey said. "Guys saying it would all work out and that the next year would be my time.
"Even guys in my grade that were seniors said to me that I was so lucky that I would be able to come back. That really put it in perspective that this game is a privilege to play, and it does have a concrete end at a certain time. To have a chance to come back when all my peers were going to be out in the working world was kind of a light at the end of a long tunnel."
Pat Lahey on the offensive line:
"We are the biggest, slowest guys on the field and we have to react to a really fast-moving defense. To be able to do that you have to know pre-snap alignments and be able to make a lot of adjustments on the fly. Unless you really know the game you don't get that sort of insight. I think it kind of surprises a lot of people because most people think it is just five guys who try to protect the quarterback and act like bouncers at a nightclub. But it is way beyond that.
"Offensive line is a position where you can work as a unit with four other guys and really get a lot of things done as a group. It's not an individual thing. I think it is the ultimate kind of team sport within the sport."
Keith Clark is glad to have him back.
"He is just an exceptional person," the Dartmouth offensive line coach said. "He loves playing football. Not many kids in this league would do what he did, have surgeries like that and hang around to play another year."
To be able to return this fall Lahey stayed on campus and interned last winter in the Dartmouth Peak Performance office while working hard to be ready for spring ball. He credits strength coach Dave Jenkerson as well as football trainer Mike Derosier and his staff for helping make him almost like new.
"Some days when it is really dreary the left hip is kind of creaking a little bit," Lahey admitted, "but it's great to be back out there."
At the end of spring practice, Lahey's teammates voted him as a team captain along with Garrett Waggoner and Bronson Green. That was no surprise at all to former teammate Tim McManus, who knows what it feels like to miss a season due to injury and return for a fifth year.
"Pat was one year behind me and when I got back for my sophomore year I think he knew more people than I did on campus," McManus said with a laugh.
"That's the truth. Everybody knew him. He's very well respected by the team and on campus.
"He is a tremendous leader, someone who leads by example. He has had some ups and downs with the injuries, and that can wear on you, but he showed his true colors working through the adversity."
Lahey has started all six games this fall, although as a result of the increasing talent level in classes that have come after him he found himself rotating more and more to the sidelines last week at Columbia.
"He knows he is not the most gifted athlete we have out there," said Clark. "He'll tell you that. He gets through on grit and hard work and knowing what we are doing. It's not always pretty but he's one of those guys that makes it happen on every given play he's in there."
Earlier this season Lahey was chosen as one of 147 semifinalists for the National Football Foundation & College Hall of Fame's William V. Campbell trophy recognizing the nation's best scholar-athlete. He's a sociology major with a 3.37 grade point average who served as house manager for his fraternity the past two years, directing $15,000 worth of renovations. He also has volunteered for Dartmouth's Project Right Choice program benefiting charitable foundations.
Lahey, who walked with his class at graduation last spring, will finish up at Dartmouth after the fall and already has a job offer with a reinsurance company in Boston where he did an internship. While that would help him get started paying off his student loans, he's still investigating a way to stick around the game he loves.
"I have aspirations to be an athletic director at a prep school and coach football," he said. "I'm going through the process right now of looking at a few places."
Whether he ends up in the corporate world or blowing a whistle on fall afternoons, Lahey will fit right in according to Teevens.
"He is a consummate team player," the coach said after last week's game. "He is unselfish. (Sean) Ronan went in for him and did a nice job, and there Pat is on the sidelines cheering and pushing and encouraging. He has been a very productive and positive captain for us. He's an enthusiastic guy who is respected by everybody on the team.
"I am really very pleased with him and happy for him that he came back. You love the guy. He is a Dartmouth guy. He loves the school. He loves his teammates. He loves everything about the place and it shows."
And that's something to cheer for.
A veteran writer and observer of Dartmouth athletics, Bruce Wood launched a web site in 2005, www.biggreenalert.com, specializing in Big Green football news coverage.