Dave Wohlabaugh can walk on water. Really, it's a pretty neat trick, especially for a guy who stands 6-foot-3 and weighs nearly 300 pounds.
Here's how it works: He pushes a button on the back wall of his enormous house, and a cover automatically rolls along the surface of the in-ground pool dominating his spacious backyard.
Basically, the cover locks into place and creates a water-bed effect strong enough for an offensive lineman -- so, therefore, virtually anyone -- to walk across without falling through. It must have something to do with science, like when the teacher takes a half-full glass of water, covers it with a 3-by-5 card and flips it over without spilling a drop.
"Pretty cool, huh?" Wohlabaugh asked with a smile.
Yeah, very cool.
So are the four fountains on one side of the pool. And the stamped concrete patio leading to his 5,100-square-foot house in Richfield, an aptly named suburb of Cleveland dotted with expensive homes and quiet neighborhoods.
He and his wife, Virginia, have two sons, 4-year-old Evan and year-old Jack. They have a long driveway, a fence surrounding the yard and a dog. Is that not the definition of the American dream?
Nobody expected this, certainly not Wohlabaugh, an unheralded player from Frontier Central who rode the bench for two years at Syracuse and was convinced he would be cut by the New England Patriots before ever reaching training camp. He now is in the first year of a seven-year contract worth $26.3 million, including a $5 million signing bonus, to play center for the Cleveland Browns.
"When I showed up at Syracuse, I weighed 250 pounds," said Wohlabaugh, who now weighs 292. "If you would have told me I would play in the NFL for five years, I would have laughed. Really, I would have laughed. Honestly, I never thought I'd play past college."
And that's what makes his situation, as he said, pretty cool.
He's a good, hard-working person. People appreciate watching someone with those qualities do well. What's even better is that, for all his riches, he carries himself like a man without a dime in his pocket. He is no more flashy today than he was as a chubby 8-year-old playing Little Loop football in Hamburg.
"When he comes home, he's still a pizza and wings guy," said his mother, Debbie. "Maxi's pizza. He'll always be that way. That's the boy in him."
They say kids are a reflection of their parents, and perhaps that's why Wohlabaugh is so humble and his own sons will be the same. His father, Larry, still puts in long days at Delphi Harrison in Lockport. His mother works in the bakery at Tops.
Dave has enough money for a 10 Porsches, yet he drives a pickup truck. You get the sense Virginia would have the same warm personality whether they had $1 or a $100 million. His value might have changed but his values never did. Do not think for a split-second that he measures success by the size of his wallet.
"I'm pretty tight (with money) by nature," Wohlabaugh said. "I like to buy nice things, but when I get a credit card bill, no matter how high or low it is, it aches in my stomach. We don't spend a lot of money. We did some things that we wanted to do for other people that were nice, and then we got our affairs in order."
He bought himself the dream house, mostly because it provided stability for his family. One reason he signed with Cleveland is because it's similar to Buffalo, with friendly people and not much commotion. Richfield has good schools. His oldest brother, Larry, lives 20 minutes away in Akron. He's a few hours from home, so his parents and his other brother, Mike, can easily visit. Most importantly, he's settled.
He bought his parents a house in Hamburg, about two miles from where he grew up, because he was in a position to take care of them after they took care of him. He bought his in-laws a car. The pool cover, which seems like extravagant spending, actually is a safety device so his kids don't fall in. The fountains were installed, well, OK, because he thought they would be pretty cool, too.
"We're very comfortable financially," he said. "But I'll be totally honest. It's not just a cliche and it's not me saying the right thing. When I approach work, I don't approach it any different now than I did my rookie year."
Heck, the guy was making the NFL minimum for his first three years in the league with the Patriots. Former Pats and current Jets coach Bill Parcells regularly called Wohlabaugh a fat pig and threatened to cut him on the spot after he came into his first training camp slightly out of shape.
So how did all this success happen? The answer is simple: He had an opportunity, never stopped plugging and survived. Parcells taught him how to be a player, and his parents taught him how to be a man. He is eternally grateful to both.
"I was in the right place at the right time," he said with a straight face. "New England drafted me and made me the player I am now. They taught you the hard way fast. It was all timing."
The funny thing is you believe him.
But let's not forget that he turned in one of the more impressive workouts in the NFL Combine before the 1995 draft. He's a better athlete than most people, including himself, give him credit for. It also helped that he was strong enough mentally to withstand Parcells' wrath after Parcells traded up a few spots in the fourth round to take him and promptly cursed him seemingly forever.
The truth is Wohlabaugh was scared into thinking he would experience the same fate as Joe Burch. Who's Joe Burch? That's precisely the point. Joe Burch was taken by the Patriots in the third round the year before and promptly released after coming into training camp out of shape.
"I heard that name I don't know how many times," said. "He'd be screaming, 'Joe Burch, Joe Burch. Don't be another Joe Burch or I'll cut you.' For the speed of the game and the conditioning, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
"Bill would tell you straight out, 'I'll smack you right in the mouth.' You never said anything to him because that's how it was. A lot of guys playing now never had that. They go through college, where they were The Man, and they come in and don't have a real disciplined coach. It's kind of like they're cruising along on a class trip."
Wohlabaugh never cruised, mainly because it's simply not his nature. He redshirted his freshman year at Syracuse and watched from the sidelines for two others. He played guard his junior year and center as a senior. He was named the team's Blue-Collar Lineman his last season.
He didn't even dress for the first five games of his rookie year. He started in Week Six and has started every season over the five years since. He played in one Super Bowl along the way and watched his stock soar over the last four years.
"I was a late bloomer," Wohlabaugh said. "As a kid, I was athletic, but I wasn't the best athlete. At Syracuse, there were guys who were way more advanced than me. Things just worked out well for me."
He supposedly was the Patriots' top priority after last season, but Cleveland made such an impressive offer soon after the start of free agency that New England never had a chance to negotiate.
"It's like any sport, it's what's up the middle that counts," said Browns coach Chris Palmer, an assistant under Parcells in New England. "If you have a good pitcher in baseball, a good shortstop and second baseman, you're going to be pretty good. He's solid. . . . He's a good player, a good person, a good family guy and football is important to him. You couldn't ask for anything better."
Wohlabaugh still hasn't received much attention in Cleveland, in part, because the local media thinks he's boring. He admittedly goes out of his way to be boring. It might explain why there has not been a single story written about him in the local newspapers since he signed.
If they only knew Wohlabaugh is the quiet, unassuming sort who, behind the friendly face, possesses a burning desire to win. He's not afraid to challenge his assistant coaches about blocking schemes or his teammates about performance, and his input is well received.
Quarterback Ty Detmer said Wohlabaugh's persona is deceiving because he, like Parcells, can strike fear into those around him. It's difficult to imagine him losing his temper. Then again, when he was 7, he once became so enraged over his broken bicycle that he picked it up and threw it down the street -- for a mile.
"Don't let him fool you," Detmer said. "It's nothing real serious, but he has snapped on just about everybody here."
Perhaps the reason Wohlabaugh is so frantic about his craft is that he has a healthy fear that his job is in jeopardy, a lingering trait since his early days with Parcells. The difference now is that he is being paid a handsome salary, and with that comes expectations for major production.
"You know what? You're never secure," he said. "Now, there's more pressure on you to perform. When you're a rookie, you're a pleasant surprise. Now, you're getting paid a lot of money and people want to know why you're not walking on water."
Walking on water? Now that would be a neat trick.