Alex Paulina stayed awake until 1 a.m. many of nights with his father, Dave, watching old game tapes of former Pitt offensive linemen Russ Grimm and Bill Fralic.
The tenacity and anger the two displayed in the NFL for a combined 18 years has been the envy of Paulina for as long as he can remember.
A senior right tackle for Canon-McMillan, Paulina is following in their footsteps. The 6-4, 310-pound mauling lineman, who plays a style of football that would make Grimm and Fralic proud, committed to Pitt in January.
“It’s the old-timers who show us when you play physical and you play angry, that’s how you get better results,” Paulina said. “Rather than coming out and trying to finesse it, it’s those guys who show you that you knock some heads and you’re good to go.”
After missing all but three games as a junior, Paulina is flashing the brilliance that had college coaches flocking to the Big Macs’ football games in 2011. In Canon-McMillan’s final preseason scrimmage Friday night against South Fayette, Paulina plowed over multiple defenders; often finishing his blocks until the opposing player’s back was on the ground.
He sprung Canon-McMillan for several successful run plays and was showing the violent, aggressive nature needed for the position at the NCAA Division I level.
Paulina is anything but fearsome off the field. He rarely doesn’t have a smile on his face and plans on majoring in mechanical engineering with a minor in robotics. Paulina said he hopes to help wounded veterans by developing prosthetics.
While his mother says that Alex is always one to help, his persona when the pads are on his hulking shoulders is far from kind.
It’s a quote from Grimm that has molded Paulina into the player he is today – one who has his hands on a defender from the snap of the ball until the whistle is blown. When Grimm was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, one sentence of his acceptance speech became ingrained in Paulina’s memory: “There’s no greater feeling than being able to move a man from point A to point B against his will.”
“I will remember that quote until the day I die,” Paulina said. “If I had to be a quarterback or a wide receiver, I’d kill myself. There’s nothing better than being in the trenches with the blood, sweat and everything. I love the grinding and chunking for those yards.”
A two-way starter on the line, Paulina was an All-Southeastern Conference selection as a freshman and picked up a scholarship offer from Virginia Tech. Panthers head coach Paul Chryst, who is known for developing large, vicious linemen, followed suit.
It was a collision from playing the position that caused him to miss most of his junior season. Paulina suffered a concussion in preseason workouts and tried to return for Canon-McMillan’s opener against Penn Hills.
He felt dizzy at halftime and sat out the next five weeks.
“I can’t remember a thing from that game,” Paulina said. “I couldn’t tell you what happened.”
Watching the Big Macs go 1-8 did not deter him. Paulina dropped to 275 pounds to wrestle and quickly raised his weight to 310 – 30 pounds heavier than Fralic and Grimm during their playing days. Canon-McMillan head coach Ron Coder, who was an NFL lineman for six years, commended Paulina for his hard work in returning to his former self.
“He really is doing a nice job for us,” Coder said. “He’s up a little bit in weight and he’s throwing that weight around. It’s nice to see him dominating guys like that.”
Looking to avoid another disappointing season, Coder brought in new offensive coordinator, Terry George, a spread passing game and offensive line coach Keith Huebner, a Baldwin grad and former lineman at Akron.
Huebner has been marveled by Paulina’s fierce play on the line and attention to detail. The former all-state selection goes through drills with Paulina and the student is usually ahead of the script. The new offense has required more pull blocking and protecting the blind side of left-handed starting quarterback Jordan Smith.
Paulina passes the test with each devastating block. The regularity of him putting opponents on the ground has led Huebner to call the Big Macs’ line, “The Canon-McMillan House of Pancakes.” After Paulina gave Lions defensive linemen a brutal workout for five offensive drives Friday night, Huebner smiled with pleasure.
“We always talk about pancakes, pancakes, pancakes. He was serving a heavy dose today,” Huebner said. “I’ve been told that in years past, (the linemen) haven’t been real physical up front and I think he’s really setting that tempo and trying to get that physical nastiness to be part of this team.”
Paulina grew up rooting for Pitt in a time when linemen such as Grimm and Mark May were long gone, but he dreamed of wearing the navy and gold on Saturday afternoons. His connection to the university was magnified with Chryst’s hire.
Pitt offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph graduated from Belle Vernon High School with Alex’s mother. Paulina’s visit to campus was a thrill ride. Between joking around with Chryst and long talks with Panthers offensive line coach Jim Hueber – who has mentored three first team All-Americans – Paulina felt at home.
“I got here and I dreamed of the day I could play football on a Saturday night or afternoon,” Paulina said. “It’s surreal being able to get there and knowing Coach Chryst and Coach Hueber have such a love for offensive linemen. I know I’ll be put to good use there.”