Graham Pocic impetuously piled his football belongings in his parents' room, a childhood fit that now makes the Illinois offensive lineman smile.
Gary and Kim Pocic wanted their son to wait to play organized football until high school to preserve his body and pushed him toward soccer, basketball and baseball. Graham, in third or fourth grade, said he would give up football altogether if they didn't allow him to join a team.
"I was definitely begging my parents to play," said Pocic, though his quiet nature prevented his mother from realizing his passion until much later.
The parents relented when Graham was in junior high. A decade later and down to his final six regular-season college games, starting Saturday at Michigan, the Lemont graduate is trying to keep that drive to compete alive on the Illini offensive line.
"Keeping everyone working and making sure everyone's not dwelling in the past but getting focused on what's coming up," Pocic said. "[The season] is disappointing. Our backs are against the wall definitely, but we still have a lot of season left."
After returning for his third year as Illinois' starting center instead of entering the NFL draft in the spring, Pocic joins Hugh Thornton as the seniors on an offensive line that has done much shuffling while trying to find the right fit. Both practiced fully early in the week after missing recent games with knee injuries, absences that magnified the Illini's growing pains.
The Illinois rushing attack has produced 126.5 yards per game, last in the Big Ten, and coach Tim Beckman pointed to the need for improved pass protection after Wisconsin had four sacks Saturday. The Illini (2-4, 0-2) have allowed a conference-worst 20 sacks.
"I see him handling it very quietly," Kim Pocic said. "He's taking a lot on his shoulders. I don't know how to help him with that. I think he feels like a leader and feels like he needs to handle the situation."
Pocic, a reserved, outdoorsy type who taught Thornton how to fish, is not the kind of veteran to impart wisdom on anyone who will listen. He's not one to crack a joke to keep the mood light.
But offensive lineman Luke Butkus and Beckman said the 6-foot-7, 310-pounder, who also has started at right tackle this season, bears influence.
"When you sit down in the office and meet him for the first time, you can tell the respect that is given to him because of the way he handles himself," Beckman said. "Not just a good football player, but a great person."
According to Gary Pocic, that mark shows in Graham's relationship with younger brother Ethan, also an offensive lineman who will finish his career at Lemont before moving on to LSU. Graham's trips home result in aggressive competitions in wrestling, basketball, video games and weight lifting.
"Ethan doesn't back down from him either," Gary said. "That's what made Ethan tough. Graham wouldn't let him be a baby about anything."
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Michigan Stadium
Line: Michigan by 24 1/2