Who says you can't do big things from a small school?
Even at the height of the Greater Boston League's football dominance across the state in the 90's and early 2000's, you'd never put Arlington High and the term "powerhouse" in the same sentence. Yet Liam Ezekiel not only carved out a legacy to match two generations before him, but earned a scholarship to the University of West Virginia as a fullback. He quickly transferred back home to the now-defunct Northeastern University program, where he started nearly every game at middle linebacker and was a three-time All-American.
After going uncalled in the 2005 NFL Draft, he managed to fight his way onto the Buffalo Bills roster, making the final cut and staying there for two seasons before embarking on a career in the Arena Football League and United Football League. He most recently played with the Sacramento Mountain Lions of the UFL last fall.
Ezekiel is unsure about plans for this upcoming season, but has kept doors open. In the meantime, he's helping out this summer with Football University, instructing linebackers at camps around the Northeast. He caught up with ESPNBoston.com after one of these camps to discuss his playing days.
Q: When did you first start playing football?
A: “When I was 10. I played Pop Warner, and then I was too big. I was always playing with kids two or three years older than I was, and then I exceeded the weight limit, and I played a lot of hockey too, so for a couple of years all I did was play hockey, no football. I wanna say when I was prob 12-13 no play football at all. I went to CM [Catholic Memorial] in seventh and eighth grade, eighth grade I was on the freshman team, then at Arlington High I started all four years of varsity at Arlington kinda. As a freshman play against 18-year-olds on the varsity, it helped that I was used to playing older competition."
Q: You hear sometimes in other sports about how skating helps a player’s running stride. Did that help you at all in football?
A: “I don’t know, skating is all about being able to move your legs laterally to create forward motion, and I’ve always had great lateral movement. At the [NFL] combine I ran a 4.3 shuttle, which is as fast as most NFL corners run. It helps have to have a low center of gravity when you skate, and you have to have a lot of power to move laterally on the ice, so could it help me at linebacker? Yeah, probably.”
Q: Who were the players you followed growing up?
A: “My favorite player was Dick Butkus. I was always an old school type of player. I loved the Giants, I loved watching Lawrence Taylor play. I loved the Lions for some reason too, watching Stephen Boyd and Chris Spielman at linebacker. Don Blackmon played for the Patriots, and then I played for him in Buffalo, so that was kinda cool.”
Q: Looking back at it, what was that like the first time you saw Don Blackmon as a coach?
A: “I didn’t recognize him at first (laughs). When I was a kid, he was in pads, and then he’s my coach yelling at me all the time. He’s just my coach, so it wasn’t a big deal. I’ll tell you my favorite experience looking back…leaving [the University of] West Virginia for a small school like Northeastern, where the most you’ll ever play in front of is 7-8,000; we played at Navy, which I think was 40,000…but that first experience in the NFL, as a rookie, before preseason even started, we go to Green Bay to practice for two days then a night scrimmage at Lambeau Field. The two days of practice were awesome, riding the bikes with the kids, people see you on TV. I intercepted Brett Favre, Aaron Rodgers twice – and he just won a Super Bowl, so that’s pretty cool. We’re scrimmaging at Lambeau and it’s sold out, 90,000 people. I’m going from Northeastern to playing against Brett Favre in front of 90,000 people.”
Q: The Greater Boston League’s tradition was pretty thick during your high school days. How was the tradition at Arlington High at the time?
A: “There wasn’t really any when I was there, to be honest with you. Nobody really cared about football. My grandfather and stepfather played for Arlington, on some great teams. My stepfather was on the Super Bowl team in , my grandfather’s teams were always one of the best, too. I almost went to Xaverian, because I wanted to go to a good football school. But after going to CM in seventh and eighth grade, I was sick of the hour drive to school every morning. That’s kinda the reason I ended up there. My freshman year we weren’t very good, sophomore year didn’t do well, but my junior year was a good year.
“We ended up playing Everett that season and if we won, we won the GBL. We ended up losing, 7-3 or something like that. It was a good season, but we were never anything like Everett. Peabody, Waltham, they were always good, we just didn’t have the kids. In Arlington, kids don’t play football, they grow up wanting to play hockey, baseball, soccer, it’s tough because kids are raised in other sports. Myself and four or five other kids took it seriously and were good. It’s difficult because myself and other kids worked hard, but that’s how it is with Mass kids. Kids that want to play football but they’re not at a good school, they have a tough time because they’re not surrounded by kids that want the same thing. It’s always easy when a big group of guys want the same goal, instead of just yourself and two or three guys wanting it. You find kids out of Massachusetts high schools do very well in college and the pros, because they’re so used to doing it by themselves. They get to a place where everyone wants to do it, it’s that much easier.”
Q: What were the games like playing Everett High?
A: “I played against Diamond Ferri [former Syracuse and Arizona Cardinals running back]. I always liked it because it was the atmosphere that I wanted to play in. I wanted to play in Everett Memorial Stadium, because the fans are crazy. My junior year, they had a doll with my number on it hanging [from a noose] when I got out of the locker room. I actually like it, it makes me play better, like ‘OK, this is the kind of place I wanna play at’. I’d rather play away games than home games at Arlington.”
Q: Best high school game?
A: “That Everett game I had 22 tackles, that was my junior year in ’99. Then my senior year, Thanksgiving we had to be playing Somerville back in they day, now I think they play Arlington Catholic. But it was my last high school game ever, I think I had two sacks, 20 tackles, and 230 yards rushing. It was my last game ever, I wanted to play well before I went off to college. We won. I’m a middle linebacker, so I get my head busted in all the time, and then I’m out there on the wedge on kickoff return, so I have a tough time remembering scores (laughs).”
Q: You played for coach Joe Hanley. What life lessons did you learn from your coach that you still hold with you?
A: “He was just a good guy, a family man. I’d say the stuff I learned from him was more off the field than on the field. He always took care of his family, kept them close. That’s something I always try to do in life. I learned more from him with off the field stuff than on-field. He was just a good person.”
Q: Coming out of a non-traditional power in the Northeast, how’d you get exposed to a school like West Virginia?
A: “I went to camps when I was in high school. I camped out at Wyoming, because my grandfather played at Wyoming. I went out there two years in a row, and I camped at Purdue and went to BC camp. I would also send out highlight tapes, game tapes, to all the schools in the Big East. And then there’s word of mouth, then scouts would come out to my football games, then my basketball games…I think mainly they’d watch a kid play basketball to see if he’s got good feet, athleticism, agility, jumping ability, how he stays in front of the ballhandler – especially for a linebacker – and lateral movement.”
Q: You were originally set on playing at West Virginia. How did you end up at Northeastern?
A: “I wasn’t sure. I took official visits, went to Wyoming where my grandfather played, and they wanted me to go start at linebacker. West Virginia, it was Rich Rodriguez’s first year, he wanted me to play H-back, do some blocking, a lot of catching out of the backfield. I love blocking, catching the ball and scoring. I went to UConn and went to Purdue, those four were the only visits I took. In the end I signed with West Virginia – mainly, I wanted to play BC, I was pissed they didn’t offer me. I went down for camp my freshman year, I was there for day and said, ‘Man, I don’t know if I can do this for four years. Morgantown’s a great college town, party town, but it’s in the middle of nowhere. I grew up in the city, I went to Arlington High School. I love Boston, and I wanted to be around Boston, you know so I don’t know if I want to be here for four years, and I had second thoughts about playing offense. I talked to coach Rodriguez and said, ‘I gotta get outta here’. He said, ‘I understand, why don’t you take some time to think about it. A week later, I said hey coach, I don’t know.
“He was pissed off. He wouldn’t sign my release form. Even though when you transfer down to level 1-AA you usually don’t sit out at all, if coach doesn’t sign your release you have to sit out for the entire year. I had family members calling, he wouldn’t do it. Finally after the first two games of the season, he signed the release form, we play Delaware the third game and we wo – we’d never beat them.
“I remember the game well. First play of the game, the starting middle linebacker pulls his hamstring, Joe Gazzola from Bishop Feehan – he ended up dying tragically in college, he was one of my best friends, and my roommate in training camp. He got hurt, I step in, and we beat Delaware for the first time in school history. I had 18 tackles, two sacks, four tackles for loss, shoulda had a pick for a touchdown but I dropped it. I ran out to the flat, the quarterback didn’t even see me. It was one of those catches you coulda walked into the end zone with. It hit every one of my fingers and I just dropped it.”
Q: You mention about being close with Joe Gazzola. How often do you think about him?
A: “He died on Valentine’s Day. He was my friend. I think about him every day still. He was the funniest guy. He got me through a lot of tough practices. At Northeastern, we don’t have an indoor facility, so a lot of times we’d be out there in snow and ice, and he’d be telling jokes or singing Elton John songs. A lot of times when stuff gets overwhelming and I stop taking stuff seriously, I remember he’d find light in everything, telling jokes, lightening the mood up.”
Q: What was the biggest adjustment you had to make from high school to college?
A: “It was just learning. I didn’t feel like, when adjusting they talk about the speed differential, I adapted well to the speed. I was the strongest player on the team in college, I benched 515 pounds, so that was never an issue. At the [NFL] combine I did 225 pounds [on the bench] 36 times, I tied Vince Wilfork, so strength and speed weren’t an issue. It was just getting used to the mental aspect. In high school we’d run three coverages on defense, and a couple blitzes. College, we had 15 coverages, each with five or six checks off of that coverage, motions, shifts, depending on the down and distance, I’d take care of audibles. We ran a 3-4, and then you’d have nickel packages, dime packages. We had 25 man blitzes, 30 zone blitzes. So, the body of plays just really was the major adjustment.”
Q: You went undrafted, but can you recall when you first got the call to join a roster?
A: “It was odd. I was projected to go in the third to fifth rounds, so watching the draft was terrible (laughs). I was at my mom’s house, I remember no one calling me. It was discouraging, I was a little upset, but I just figured I’d get the opportunity in camp to make a team. My agent called and said ‘How do you feel about Buffalo. My girlfriend, who I’m going to be marrying, is from Orchard Park, five minutes from the stadium. So when I went up for OTA’s, minicamp, I’d stay at her parents’ house. I didn’t have to stay in a hotel, I could use a car and not have a van or hotel shuttle like other rookies.”
Q: What’s it like in the show?
A: “It was a lot of pressure. Guys are always looking over your shoulder, making sure you’re doing your studying, making sure you get your rest – you can’t be out partying – always working out hard and always studying. Rookies get in trouble when they get there and say ‘I made it’. That’s not making it. You’ve got to put the work in, and it’s 10 times that in the NFL. It’s all mental. If you’re fast enough, big enough, that’s why you’re there – everybody’s fast, big and strong at that level. It’s about being able to slow the game down, study the conditions and study the playbook.
“It was great, man. I’m the type of guy that gets real amped up for games. I have no problem getting amped up for those games, let me tell you that. Some places are so loud, if you were standing a foot from me I couldn’t hear that. Your whole body shakes. It’s exhilarating.”
Q: What do you miss the most?
A: “The locker room. Really any team I’ve play for, college, NFL, Arena, UFL, just to be around the guys. You don’t really grow up paying attention to it, but the practical jokes, people getting on you, busting balls, that’s the stuff you miss the most. All the personalities, the guys, you got 50 brothers…the NFL’s a little different, because the guys make money, but they’re still themselves. For the most part everyone hangs out together. I just miss most of the other guys hanging out, off the field, that stuff I miss the most.”
Q: What will you be doing in fall?
A: “I have no idea what I’ll be doing in the fall. I’ve been interviewing for sales jobs, medical device equipment, that’s interesting to me. We had a great team doctor in college, I got to sit in on some surgery. And I also love coaching, that’s what I love bout FBU, helping kids become better players. If something came up as far as coaching, I’d definitely consider doing it. It’s something I love to do, really whatever comes up, I’ll see where it falls. It’s not an easy transition, going from the game you love to now having to get a real job in the real world. It’s not like most guys, you may be in the service industry then the mortgage industry. I’m not just changing jobs, I’m changing a whole life. All I did since I was 12 was play football, so it’s not just a job change. It’s a whole life change. It’s something that takes time. It’s not easy.”
Q: What kind of advice do you have for kids coming up looking to do what you’ve done?
A: “It’s, whatever you’re willing to put in, that’s what you get out of it. The harder you work, the luckier you get. That’s what I learned from all those papers, all those taking notes – the harder you work, the luckier you get. It’s, while everyone else is at the movies or the beach, sometimes I gotta go running. You really have to put the effort in, not be distracted and not get caught up in something you shouldn’t get caught up in. A lot of times, mistakes can really hurt you.”