Bryan Pata was a tough guy.
That is the description that keeps coming up when you talk to people around the Miami football program. Tough, rough and proud.
Pata didn't have the power of a Vince Wilfork or the uncanny quickness of a Warren Sapp. He was a tweener, a guy seen as not big enough to play inside and not quite nimble enough to play outside. Still, Pata was a battler and in his mind he was as nasty as Wilfork, Sapp or any of the nasty defensive linemen Miami had developed.
He pushed his way into the UM starting lineup as a true freshman defensive end just because he was so relentless the coaches couldn't keep him off the field.
Pata had chosen Miami over Florida, Rutgers and Oklahoma. He arrived at UM raw and rough around the edges, but over the years he had matured. He was described as fiercely proud and someone who never seemed to let any injury slow him down.
As a true freshman, Pata became a starter after Miami lost back-to-back games (unthinkable in those days) and proved to be a reliable steadying presence. He even had a sack in his second start. But at heart he was more of an in-the-trenches kind of guy. Pata emerged as one of the few constants in the Canes defense over the last three seasons. He was tough against the run and high-energy in the locker room.
Teammates say Pata was a charismatic guy who the younger players always looked up to. He definitely had some swagger and he embodied the spirit of the old Canes. Like UM defensive coordinator Randy Shannon likes to preach, Pata helped the younger guys get ready to take their jobs so it could make the program better.
With rising star defensive end Calais Campbell, a sophomore, poised for stardom this year, Pata offered to slide inside and play defensive tackle. He didn't seem too worried that he would now be 30 pounds lighter for the position. He told coaches if that would make the defense better, let's do it. That kind of attitude -- especially from a senior hoping to catch the NFL's eye -- isn't always the norm.
The news of Pata's death comes at a time when people around the Miami program, who had been asking how can things get any worse, got a dose of reality. Suddenly, the wins and losses don't seem to matter so much any more.
For Miami people, it is hard not to be reflective, because for all of the national championships, the program has endured more than its share of tragedies.
Before Pata's death, there was UM safety Al Blades, who was killed in a car crash in 2003. A year earlier, linebacker Chris Campbell had also perished in a car crash. Ten years ago, Robert Woodus, a lineman, died in a plane crash, which came on the heels of the gruesome murder of linebacker Marlin Barnes.
Bruce Feldman is a senior writer with ESPN The Magazine.