When he was a boy in Crystal Lake, Ill., Bryan Bulaga got an earful about Robert Gallery.
That was before any Iowa coach tried to persuade prep All-American Bulaga to join the Hawkeyes and maybe follow Gallery’s huge footsteps as a dominant offensive lineman.
It was from a classmate who was perhaps Gallery’s biggest fan outside of Iowa.
“One of my best friends in high school, Pat Noonan, his cousin is Robert Gallery,” Bulaga said. “I was always hearing him talk about Robert.
“Finally, one time, I happened to turn the TV on to the Outback Bowl and kind of watched him. I found out he was the best tackle in the country. I was like, wow, OK.”
Soon enough, recruiters from Iowa and many other schools descended upon the Chicago suburb. You know who won that recruiting tussle.
Now, Bulaga is literally Iowa’s Next Big Thing. He is a Gallery-esque 6-foot-6 and 312 pounds, a preseason first-team All-America offensive tackle according to The Sporting News. In his first season at left tackle as a second-year collegian, Big Ten coaches voted him second-team all-conference.
But Bulaga doesn’t welcome comparisons to Gallery, which is understandable. The really good ones like to be the First Someone, not the Second Someone Else. Plus, he holds Gallery to a standard that takes a lot more than preseason projections to attain.
“He set the table here,” Bulaga said. “He’s one of the best ever. I think that’s asking a lot of a person to fill his shoes.
“The way I look at it, it’s taking a different approach, kind of creating my own deal, being a different guy than he was. Because I don’t think anyone’s going to compare to what he was here.”
Bulaga may prove himself wrong. Many are saying he will be a first-round NFL draft pick in 2010 if he makes himself eligible after this, his junior year.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz: “(If) he had a choice of probably being, I’m just guessing, a 20 to 30 pick (next) year, or staying in, moving up into a top five spot . . . There are a lot of financial benefits if you’re one of the top five guys. There’s a real trend. NFL people seem to like taking good, solid linemen in those top five spots.”
Ferentz would love it if Bulaga were the bully of the Big Ten block this fall but can’t be blamed for quietly hoping his NFL friends don’t shove his tackle too high up their draft charts.
Just about every NFL prospect tells us all they care about is this season in college.
They’re not thinking about the pros. They’re usually fibbing to us, or themselves.
But with Bulaga it sounds believable. He says he’s the recipient of hype from last season, a person of Polish heritage who needs more polish.
His mother is from the north side of Chicago. His dad is from the south side. “They’re both Sox fans,” Bulaga injected into the conversation with the force of a pancake block. He’s a big White Sox guy himself, you see.
The parents are Polish. Their son has one small Polish word tattooed on each arm.
On one arm is “sila.” It means strength.
“Being mentally strong, and physically,” Bulaga said. “I think you’ve got to be both to be successful in this game.”
On his other arm is “pycha.” It means pride.
“Having pride in what I do, pride in my family, pride for anything I’m really a part of,” he said.
As tattoos go, you could do a lot worse.
Friday, offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe stated the obvious when he said “The line is what we hang our hat on at Iowa, offensively.”
Bulaga is that line’s anchor. It’s a big reason you don’t hear anyone forecasting mediocrity for the 2009 Hawkeyes.