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Hall of Fame honor ensures Arizona’s Waldrop will be properly remembered

Defensive tackle Rob Waldrop was the anchor of the Desert Swarm defenses in 1992 and 1993.
Photo by Otto Greule Jr., Getty Images Sport

The College Football Hall of Fame got it right.

Former Arizona Wildcats defensive end Tedy Bruschi should get into the Hall — and soon — but the better choice was his teammate, defensive tackle Rob Waldrop.

Waldrop didn’t enjoy the same kind of NFL fame as Bruschi; he didn’t stay in the public spotlight; he didn’t celebrate his sacks with the same kind of verve; as a player, he used to run away from interview opportunities.

But the selection committee properly calibrated its way-back machine and saw what everybody else saw from 1990 to 1993 — a thoroughly dominating defensive tackle who posted 45 tackles for loss, including 22.5 sacks, for what became one of the best defenses in college football history.

The College Football Hall of Fame announced Tuesday morning that Waldrop — a two-time All-American and the 1993 winner of the Football Writers Association of America’s Defensive Player of the Year award — is one of 14 former players who will be inducted next summer.

“I have heard the argument that it was the Arizona defense that let him shine,” said one of Waldrop’s former teammates, Heath Bray. “Let me tell you, him shining allowed the Arizona defense to be what it was.”

Added Bray: “I played middle linebacker for a third of a season, lined up behind him. I tell you what, you didn’t have to worry about guards and centers coming up on you because they were all trying to block him. And if they blocked him with one guy, guess what? That’s a sack.”

Waldrop and Bruschi were the biggest names on Arizona’s famed Desert Swarm defenses of the early 1990s. With one from the outside and one from the inside, they collapsed the pocket and gobbled up quarterbacks.

But where did it all start?

With the man in the middle.

“What he did in college speaks for itself,” said former Arizona linebacker Brant Boyer. “I’m convinced there would not have been a Desert Swarm defense without Rob Waldrop. We had a lot of great players on that team, but it started and ended with that guy.”

That guy is now in law enforcement in Southern California. With his work schedule, he was sleeping in until Tuesday afternoon, not even aware that the announcement was in the morning.

When he looked at his phone, the first message of congratulations was from his old coach — Dick Tomey.

“My reaction was that it’s pretty awesome. It really is,” Waldrop told TucsonCitizen.com, giving his only interview with Tucson media. “After this many years, to still be recognized and to be inducted with that group that’s going in, it’s special.”

Waldrop was special, his teammates say, because he was dedicated and single-minded in his approach. Bray called him one of the most intelligent football players — one of the most intelligent men — he’s even known. And, well, it helped that Waldrop was bull-strong with uncommon quickness for an interior lineman.

He was a mid-level recruit out of Scottsdale’s Horizon High School, but he ended up ahead of the curve in terms of understanding nutrition, as well as strength and conditioning — for that, Waldrop credits former UA strength coaches Dan Wirth and Darryl Eto.

“He was the only one who took nutrition seriously back then,” said former Arizona offensive lineman Eric Johnson. “He was very meticulous about what he ate. He never partied. He was a robot.”

He just went about his business. He wasn’t flamboyant. He used his Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year award as a doorstop in his apartment. He was unflappable during games, with an innate sense of calm.

Rob Waldrop usually discarded offensive linemen with ease. Photo by Otto Gruele, Getty Images Sport

One time, after a Waldrop sack, Bray remembers “jumping all over him, slapping him in the helmet, and he was like, ‘Dude, cut it out. Chill out.’”

Added Bray: “That’s just the way he approached things. We’d see him laying out in the sun, and I’d say, ‘You need to lay out in the sun because you are one damn cold-blooded reptile.’”

No doubt, Waldrop had his way of doing things. He knew what worked. He knew his body. That was one reason why things didn’t work out with the Kansas City Chiefs after he was a fifth-round pick in the 1994 draft.

The Chiefs, naturally, wanted things done a certain way — their way. Waldrop had his way. And football never defined him. It was important; he was dedicated; but after playing in only three games as a rookie, he was content to go to the Canadian Football League, saying he didn’t like being treated “like cattle.”

He was an all-star in the CFL but then retired in his prime, at age 27, turning down $100,000 a year to play in Canada. He then rejected offers to go to NFL camps. All because he felt it was time to start a career in law enforcement.

“He was driven,” Tomey once told me, “but he was not driven by status.”

Said Waldrop: “I didn’t play as long as other people did. I’m all right with that. I’m happy with what happened. It’s two separate things. There’s pro and then there’s college.”

In college, in the Pac-10 over the past two decades, there haven’t been many better than Waldrop at defensive tackle. The list starts with Washington’s Steve Emtman and Waldrop … and then whoever.

“I had a really good college career, and I was on a defense that was one of the best in the history of the game,” Waldrop said, mentioning linemates such as Jim Hoffman, Jimmie Hopkins and Ty Parten, among others.

“It wasn’t all me. The most special thing is being part of that defense. I don’t think people will ever forget those years of defense.

“Certainly, I know Tedy Bruschi is going to be in the Hall of Fame. Any time people talk about the Desert Swarm, people are going to talk about the two of us, but that kind of negates what that the other nine guys did.

“I was proud to be on that defense and to play with the guys who were on that team.”

That sounds like Waldrop. As a player, he never sought the individual spotlight.

“He didn’t have enemies,” Bray said. “He didn’t polarize people from a personality standpoint. He was so even keel.”

And now he’s getting his just reward, properly remembered, even if his fame quickly faded after his college days. For about a decade, on the website for the Bronko Nagurski Award (that 1993 Football Writers honor), he was listed as “Rob Waldorf.”

Waldrop thanked Arizona athletic department officials Frankie Acosta and James Francis for helping promote his candidacy for the Hall, as well as the Southern Arizona Chapter of the National Football Foundation & College Football Hall of Fame.

Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne contacted Waldrop on Tuesday, promising that there will be some sort of recognition for Waldrop during a home game this season. Waldrop is the third Arizona player to be in the College Football Hall of Fame, joining linebacker Ricky Hunley and safety Chuck Cecil.

And, Waldrop, the guy who always liked winning awards but not the attention that came with it, said he looks back now with a deeper sense of appreciation. And he looks forward to the December awards dinner and the summer 2012 induction ceremonies.

“It really is kind of special,” he said. “It feels like the conclusion, the ending of all that stuff from college. I won those awards, and I’m retired and done, and this really is the icing on top of the cake. It’s a nice ending to all of it.”

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