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Chuck Osborne, ‘unsung hero’ of Arizona’s Desert Swarm, dies at 38

Chuck Osborne

Chuck Osborne had 21 career sacks for Arizona from 1992 to 1995. Photo by Eugene Garcia, Getty Images Sport

The pain was evident in Dick Tomey’s voice.

Less than an hour earlier, the former Arizona Wildcats head coach had received the terrible news. He was still trying to sort through all the memories, to find the right words, to begin to make sense of how Chuck Osborne — one of the blocks of granite that made up the Desert Swarm defenses of the 1990s — could be dead at 38.

He found the words.

“He was an unsung hero in that group, but the guys in that group will tell you he was every bit as big a part of that as anybody else,” Tomey said.

“I just know he was a heck of a player when the Wildcats defensive line was a dominant defensive line. He was special player. He was a special person. He was special.”

Stunned by the news, late-night calls flew among the Arizona football family Tuesday night. Players shared condolences and grief on Facebook.

Details about Osborne’s death were scarce. They knew this: He was found by his roommate in his La Jolla, Calif., home on Tuesday.

The details could wait. What did they matter? They had lost a brother. He was gone. One of Osborne’s former teammates, Richard Dice, was headed to the house of Osborne’s mother to help comfort her as best he could.

“He was beloved,” said Heath Bray, who was Osborne’s teammate in 1992 and on the UA coaching staff for Osborne’s final two seasons, in 1994 and 1995.

“Most people don’t really understand how dominant he was and how important he was to the Desert Swarm teams. He was so strong. He was the single strongest player I played with.

“He was as good a football player as I played with ever, including (Rob) Waldrop and (Tedy) Bruschi. He was that good.”

Osborne, a defensive tackle, wasn’t flashy. He didn’t have to be, playing for four years on a line that included Bruschi, the master of the sack and the sack dance. Osborne was more likely to growl than strut, an attack dog for some of the best defenses in college football history.

“He was a caveman,” said former UA offensive lineman Eric Johnson, in a most flattering football way.

“He had an insane motor. He had only one speed and he was going to bring it every down. He didn’t understand the difference between walk-through and game day, and that is what made him successful.”

Osborne led the Wildcats with 11 sacks in 1994 — no small feat on a team that included Bruschi. Osborne, who played in the interior with Waldrop and Ty Parten and Jim Hoffman and Joe Salave’a through his career, finished with 21 sacks, the 10th-best total in school history.

He sacked Stanford quarterback Steve Stenstrom four times in a 1994 game, but his most memorable play came in his final game — 1995 at Arizona State.

Arizona rallied from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit that day, tying the game when Osborne sacked Jake Plummer, knocking the ball loose. Salave’a scooped it up and returned it 8 yards for a touchdown. The Cats went on to win 31-28.

“You talk about the guys who personified hard-nosed tough guys, he was one of those guys,” Bray said of Osborne.

“If there was one human being on the planet I had to go into hand-to-hand combat with on my side, I can’t think of anyone I would pick ahead of him.”

Charles Wayne Osborne seemed destined to be a football player on the day he was born, Nov. 2, 1973. When Kathleen Osborne gave birth to Chuck at 13 pounds, 7 1/2 ounces, and 24 inches, doctors at USC medical center told her he was the biggest baby they had ever delivered.

A doctor even commented that Chuck one day “better play for USC.”

Well, Larry Smith tried.

Chuck Osborne

Chuck Osborne with the Oakland Raiders in 1999. Photo by Otto Greule Jr./Allsport

Smith, the former Arizona coach who had gone to USC after the 1986 season, recruited Osborne for four years and spent 90 minutes on the phone with him, making one last pitch, on the eve of the 1992 Signing Day.

Osborne, from Canyon High in Canyon Country, Calif., was firm. No thanks. Born to be a Trojan, he became one of the highest-rated recruits of the Tomey era.

Twenty years ago, Tomey said Osborne was the “hardest-playing high school player I saw in all of last year” … and then Osborne spent the next four seasons at Arizona being that same guy. He was first-team All-Pac-10 in 1995.

“He had an energy about him, a motor that was equal to anybody’s,” Tomey said.

Osborne, who might have been a bit undersized by NFL standards during his college career, was a seventh-round pick of the St. Louis Rams in 1996. He played in 15 games as a rookie but was released before the start of the next season.

He played for Amsterdam in the World League in 1997, finishing second in the league with eight sacks.

That earned him a second shot in the NFL, making the Oakland Raiders roster in 1998 for first-year coach Jon Gruden.

“From all accounts, Chuck was like a pit bull, a fighter in the World League,” Gruden was quoted as saying by Javier Morales of the Arizona Daily Star in 1998. “He definitely separated himself from others with his tenacity and work habits. Signing him was like signing somebody in the early rounds of the draft.”

Osborne spent two seasons with Oakland before being traded to Green Bay in August 2000. The Packers released him during the season, and he signed in December with New England, reuniting briefly with Bruschi. Osborne did not play with the Packers or Patriots, but did appear in 37 career games in the NFL.

In January of this year, Osborne’s wife, Heather, died unexpectedly at 34 (they did not have children). Just 10 days ago, Osborne referenced her passing in posting an encouraging note on the Facebook page of former Arizona player Donnie Salum (1988-89), who is going through a health crisis. Doctors have found tumors on his skull and spine.

Wrote Osborne: “Hang in there brother! It has been a tough year for both of us! Just be the trooper that you are and attack this head on! I have been praying for you.”

The Arizona football family now prays for Osborne’s loved ones.

“When you coach for a long time, you have a lot of young people you connect with for life. You love these guys,” Tomey said.

“I know Chuck’s passing will resonate through the Wildcat football community. It just tears your guts out.”

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