Even though they’re often the largest players on the field at any given time, offensive linemen tend to go overlooked.
It really is a peculiar dynamic, especially considering without a steadfast O-line, no football team at any level would be able to enjoy success. After all, it’s the linemen who give the quarterback the necessary time to survey the field from the pocket before finding an open receiver, as well as creating gaps for running backs to burst through. But football, like most sports, is a numbers game, so it’s easy to focus on the players who put up the most points and forget about those that make possible those sexy offenses that fans everywhere know and love.
John Lavelle understands this, and he really is fine with it.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 280-pound Mayfair resident is readying for his much-anticipated senior year as the starting left guard for Division III Delaware Valley College. He’s a 2009 graduate of Father Judge, where he played varsity football for the Crusaders in his junior and senior years for teams that won a combined 18 games in those two seasons. And while he knows he plays a position that doesn’t rack up any statistics and isn’t the focus of casual football fans, Lavelle knows all the hard work he puts in on the field and in the weight room is worth it, mainly because it has helped him earn the respect of those who really matter: his coaches and teammates.
“Even without the stats, you still have your teammates,” Lavelle said by phone Sunday, two days after celebrating his 21st birthday. “When you get into the end zone after a long drive down the field, the quarterback or running back is the first one to give the linemen celebratory hugs and handshakes. Knowing your team is patting you on the back and supporting you…that’s a sign of respect, and it’s the only stat I need.”
It takes a certain personality to be able to succeed as an offensive lineman. Viewed as the bigger, heavier “grunts” that aren’t fast enough to play another position, linemen are required to put their own bodies on the line every play so that the quarterback doesn’t end up buried on his back in the dirt. Some might call it a thankless job, but those in the know maintain that this couldn’t be further from the truth.
“People who really watch football games, the people who see what goes on in practice and how hard those guys work know that it’s not a thankless job,” said Judge football coach Tom Coyle, who watched Lavelle blossom into a first-team All-Catholic lineman selection in his two varsity seasons. “They have the respect of everyone on the team because they’re involved in combat in the trenches every play, and that’s where games are won and lost.”
As Lavelle put it, “We’re out there bruising, and when I line up for a play and put my hand in the dirt, it’s one of the greatest feelings in the world. I love every second I’m out there on the field, in practice and in games.”
He got his start in football around first grade, playing for Calvary Athletic Association under coach Mike Bremser. As a 6-year-old playing on a team full of 8-year-olds, Bremser put Lavelle at linebacker and fullback because of the youngster’s willingness to block for his teammates. Lavelle wouldn’t begin playing on the offensive line until he got to St. Matthew CYO as a seventh-grader, but his first coach always knew his block-happy fullback would one day transition into a fantastic lineman.
Bremser was right.
“By the time he was eight, Johnny didn’t even want the football in his hands anymore,” Bremser said. “Anytime we’d run a sweep he’d knock three kids down, and then he’d look over at the sideline and smile at us. He’s still like that to this day.”
After St. Matt’s, Lavelle played for the freshman team at Judge, but his season was cut short when he tore the meniscus in his knee. He started on the JV team the following year and dressed for two varsity games before exploding onto the scene as a junior. His success on the field, as well as his team’s success in the win column, led to an opportunity to continue his career at Delaware Valley in Doylestown.
“John is just a guy that loves to go to work every day,” Coyle said. “He had perfect attendance at Judge, so he was used to working hard every single day he was here. He relishes the opportunity of physical confrontation on the field.”
Although the transition from the high school to collegiate level was a little rough at first, Lavelle’s play on the field never showed it. He earned Middle Athletic Conference (MAC) Rookie of the Year honors at left guard as a freshman, and was named a first team All MAC selection the following two seasons.
As a junior, Lavelle was the only returning starter on the Delaware Valley offensive line. Rather than buckling under the pressure, he relished the opportunity to take on more responsibility as a leader. As a result, he earned a spot on the D3football.com All-East Region first team and was also named third-team All-American. The Aggies flourished as well, posting a 10-0 regular season record and making their third straight trip to the second round of the Division III playoffs.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve leaned on John for a few extra yards,” said former George Washington quarterback Aaron Wilmer, now the signal-caller for the Aggies. “The work he puts in sets him apart, and he deserves all of the accolades. His is a dirty business, but he just loves to knock the crap out of people. We’re all real thankful for what he does for us.”
As he enters his senior season, the accolades and attention keep coming for Lavelle. The Aggies’ season doesn’t begin until Sept. 1, but Lavelle has already been named a preseason All-American selection by D3football.com, Beyond Sports College Network and Lindy’s. The four-time defending MAC champs are expected to be a national championship contender, and are ranked ninth in USA Today’s Division III preseason poll.
“Senior year is going to be fun, but it’s going to be different, too,” Lavelle said. “I’m less focused on individual awards and more on that national championship, because that’s the biggest award there is. I’ll be all business out there giving 110 percent every play.”
Lavelle, a business administration major who is working as an intern for Gemini Bakery Equipment Co. in Bustleton, hopes to keep playing football for as long as he has the opportunity. However, he also realizes the coming season could be his last.
“Football is everything to me,” he said. “It’s absolutely been my life. I don’t want to think of my life without football, but it’s life and you have to move on at some point.”
When it is all over, Bremser said Lavelle will be welcomed back to Calvary with open arms, where he will one day be enshrined as one of the more accomplished athletes to come through the program.
“He’s played an integral role on every team he’s been a part of, from Calvary all the way up through college,” Bremser said. “I’ve been coaching for thirty-five years, and kids like John don’t come along very often. I can’t tell you how proud I am of him, to see the level he’s elevated his game to.”
And even if this is the final football season for Lavelle, he’ll leave it all out there on the field the same way he always has. When he’s finished playing, he looks forward to coming back home to the Northeast and reminiscing with all of his former teammates and coaches for years to come.
“Football plays such a big role in the neighborhoods of the Northeast, and I’m just happy I stuck with it and can be a part of that fraternity forever,” he said. “You stay close to guys from the neighborhood because you always want to remember those times.
“It’s going to be awesome to go back to Judge and St. Matt’s twenty years from now and still be able to talk to guys about when we won the city title in eighth grade, or how we came so close to winning a championship my senior year at Judge. We already do that now, and people look at us like we have three heads, because they have no idea how we can remember things so vividly. But for me, football is like life, and you always remember the things that prepare you for your life down the line.” ••EndFragment