How trips to a Chinese buffet helped these football players mesh on the field

The North Carolina Central offensive line go through drills on the first day of practice. The Eagles only return one starter up front, so this summer they spent their time bonding off the field.
The North Carolina Central offensive line go through drills on the first day of practice. The Eagles only return one starter up front, so this summer they spent their time bonding off the field.

With his 2010 Nissan Altima filled to the max with football players, N.C. Central sophomore offensive lineman Nick Leverett could barely make it out of the driveway before he heard metal from the car scraping the ground. That’s what 1,400 pounds of bodies will do to a ride.

Week after week this summer, usually on Wednesdays when they didn’t have workouts, N.C. Central’s 14 offensive linemen – who weigh about 260 pounds or more each and call themselves the Hot Boys, would pile into the cars of left tackle Leverett, redshirt junior center Steven Perry or junior right tackle Marley Conley, and make their way to Hibachi Grill & Supreme Buffet, ready to eat and bond.

When they weren’t lifting weights, watching film or in class this summer, the Hot Boys were always together. Sometimes they hung out at the apartment shared by Perry and Leverett, playing video games or watching television. Other times, they went to the movies. Perry’s favorite was “Guardians of the Galaxy 2”; Leverett, a big 2Pac fan, preferred “All Eyez On Me.” Whatever it was didn’t matter, as long as they were together, having fun and developing that bond.

More than any other position on the field, it is important that the members of the offensive line click. The line is made up of five players who have to play as one in order to succeed. Those players have to communicate on the field every play and sometimes need to know exactly what the man next to him is thinking without having to say a word. Last year’s seniors – Carl Jones, Tarrance Wells, Ty Gatson and Jamaal Symmonett – had been around each other so long that communicating on the field was second nature.

Leverett, who’s 6-4, 290 pounds and the only returning starter, was the only rookie in that group last season.Last year, whenever he would pop up at Jones’ apartment, Wells and Symmonett would already be there. They were always together, so Leverett knew that’s what it would take this summer for this new group. So once a week the new group of linemen would pile into three cars and venture out, and most of those trips involved food.

“We used to have a competition at Hibachi of who could stack the most plates by the time we were done,” Leverett said of eating this summer at the buffet there. “I really won most of the time, it was between me and Perry.”

Leverett’s tower of plates would sometimes reach seven high. When he and the older guys were done, it was up to the freshmen to take care of the dirty dishes. It’s the same way when they eat on campus in the cafeteria – the freshmen offensive linemen take up the plates. Leverett had to do it when he was a “young pup,” a term offensive line coach Jason Onyebuagu uses to describe younger members of his group, so he is just paying the tradition forward.

The older players would make suggestions on where to eat or what movie to see. Perry, a 5-11, 265-pound junior, is the oldest of the bunch. But that doesn’t mean that what he says goes. He might throw out a suggestion, but it’s not a dictatorship. Once the older guys discussed it, a final selection was made.

Perry, who will start at center, has been more vocal this summer. Onyebuagu required that of Perry this season since he will be in the middle of it all, reading defenses and relaying calls to the other linemen.

Perry, who’s from Durham and played at Riverside High, guesses he only played about 30 snaps from scrimmage last season. Jones, a two-time All-American who has since graduated, never missed a game and rarely came out. Of all the new starters Onyebuagu said Perry has come the furthest from spring football to now.

“We had some questions going into camp if he could handle it and lead, but he has done an exceptional job until this point,” Onyebuagu said. “I want to keep seeing him growing because he can do some great things.”

Onyebuagu hasn’t yet settled on who will join Leverett, Perry and Conley in the starting five, but he hinted that there is a group he favors. Not that it matters, this summer it was about getting all the guys together, from the veterans to the rookies. There isn’t a senior in the bunch, and the core of the group – Leverett, Conley (6-5, 280), sophomore Twishawn Glenn (6-3, 275), redshirt sophomore Stewart Boyd (6-1, 290) – all came in together.

“Other than my brother back home,” Conley said, “these are like my real brothers.”

And just like family, being around each other so much can sometimes cause headaches. There were times over the summer where they got tired of each other. Leverett joked that most of his issues came from the freshmen, who “thought they knew everything.” But they never stopped the group for taking their weekly pilgrimage to Hibachi Grill & Supreme Buffet, where they were greeted by the wait staff, which once said “the big guys are back for more.”

“Just like regular siblings you always have your issues,” Perry said. “If you’re around somebody enough you’re going to get under each others skin, it just comes with the territory.”

Jonas Pope IV: 919-419-7001, @JEPopeIV

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