Nebraska's Rimington gains national fame at oft-overlooked center position

By , Sports writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In football, he who hikes is invisible, or nearly so. After the snap the center generally just becomes a needle in a haystack of flying bodies. At Nebraska, though, things are a bit different, since Dave Rimington is a haystack in his own right.

He stands 6 ft. 3 in. and tips the scales somewhere in the vicinity of 290 lbs. That puts him in the Incredible Hulk department even by major college football standards. But size alone doesn't account for all the accolades Rimington has received.

A consensus All-America for two straight seasons, he swept the Outland and Vince Lombardi awards this year as the nation's top lineman, and finished fifth in balloting for the Heisman Trophy, which has never gone to an interior lineman.

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The Gibraltar-like economics major was also a shining example in the classroom, where his 3.2-grade point average earned him recognition as a top scholar-athlete by the National Football Foundation. Only one other player on a ranked team was similarly honored.

Rimington was whisked to the foundation's recent New York luncheon after a 17 -hour commute from Hawaii, where Nebraska completed its 12-game regular season. (College rules allow a 12th game, when it's played in Alaska or Hawaii.) With final exams coming up, the beefy senior had wanted to do some studying on the long flight, but instead fell asleep.

Missing what he called one of the most important weeks of the school year would be tough, but if there's one thing he's learned to do at Nebraska, besides blocking, it's how to cram. ''I've never had very good study habits,'' he said. ''I don't have that much time.''

This season has been especially hectic. It began in mid-summer with a whirlwind, All-America tour and will end in mid January. ''With the Orange Bowl and a couple of all-star games (the Hula and Japan Bowls) I'll end up playing a 15-game season,'' said Rimington, indicating it's been more physically, than mentally tiring. He's always enjoyed traveling and meeting people, though, and there's been plenty of that.

His latest destination is Miami, where third-ranked Nebraska takes on 13 th-ranked Louisiana State the evening of Jan. 1. The Cornhuskers have played in the Orange Bowl twice before during Rimington's career, in addition to making Cotton and Sun Bowl appearances. (Injured his freshman year, Dave has spent five years using up his college eligibility.)

From firsthand experience, Rimington knows these post-season assignments aren't the flings some imagine them to be. ''They're not as much fun as the fans think,'' he said.

''They figure the players are just out joy-riding, having a good time, when actually you're in your hotel getting ready for practice. Bowls are supposed to be a reward for a good season. But unless you win, everything winds up seeming kind of fruitless.''

He remembers the empty feeling of losing to Clemson a year ago and wants to avoid a repeat of that in the upcoming Orange Bowl. On paper, Nebraska appears much the stronger team, with the nation's top offensive unit in rushing, scoring , and total yardage.

The players who've compiled the big numbers are quarterback Turner Gill and running backs Mike Rozier and Roger Craig. Still, one suspects Rimington is the real key to this Big Red Machine.

He was voted the Big Eight Player of the Year and the conference's Offensive Player of the Year in 1981.

This acclaim says tons, but perhaps even more revealing is the informal conference poll conducted late last season. Asked which player on a rival club they'd choose to build a team around, three of seven Big Eight coaches named Rimington.

Says the massive Cornhusker co-captain, ''Hardly anyone thinks of a lineman for that kind of award, so that really helped people notice me.''

He entered the current season as one of the most heralded linemen ever. The NCAA made him the cover boy on its annual record book, pro scouts sang his praises, and TV cameramen were assigned to isolate on his every move in game action.

There was little question he could have moved right into some National Football League lineup. And like Herschel Walker, he contemplated ways of turning pro before graduation. If nothing else, doing so would have eased the financial pinch he and his wife, Lisa, sometimes feel. A marketing major, she works as a waitress to earn the couple's modest income.

Before the season began, though, he determined not to rest on his laurels or daydream about a pro contract.

''I displayed my first Outland award for about three months, then put it away ,'' he explained. ''I didn't want to let winning it once hold me back, so I stuck it in a closet, and started all over again.''

It takes a powerful blocker to uproot a noseguard lined up inches off the ball, and Dave is about as strong as they come. Since coming to college, the Omaha product has added about 50 pounds with a prodigious appetite for both steak and weight training, which is his hobby.

If he had his druthers, Rimington would prefer to play defense, yet feels he isn't fast or lean enough to fit the job description. The Cornhusker backs couldn't agree more. After all, what ballcarrier wouldn't want Dave sticking his 20-inch neck out for him?

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