Aug. 9, 2013
By Chad Hartley
Aug. 8, 2010.
Joel Bitonio won’t ever forget the date.
“Three years ago yesterday,” he said. “That was a pretty hard time in my life.”
One moment, Bitonio was in the first week of Wolf Pack training camp and vying for playing time as a redshirt freshman, a rare achievement within the Union. The next, he’s on his way home to Long Beach, Calif., after the stunning news that his father, Mike, had died of a heart attack.
“To lose my dad, I mean, he taught me everything,” Bitonio said. “It was hard. But he had also taught me to live life without regrets and we had always done so much and enjoyed every moment we all had together.
“I went home for a week and even after I came back, I was so worried about my mom and my little brother.
In a way, Bitonio became a bit of a father figure to his brother, Lucas, now 14.
“It’s hard for me to be away from them, especially my brother,” Bitonio said. “I’ve always tried to be there if he needs something, to help him out. He’s going into high school now and he’s doing well. I’m proud of him.”
Football and the Wolf Pack were there to help Bitonio out. He came back to camp after a week and was immersed in the team’s regimented schedule. It made coping with the loss a little easier.
“It takes your mind off of things,” he said. “There is a schedule and a routine and it makes things easier, especially with us in the Union and how close we are. I love playing football. There’s no better feeling in this world than scoring touchdowns and winning games. I just love playing this game.”
And Bitonio is good at it, too. His teammates know it. His coaches know. Opponents know it, too. He played extensively on that 2010 championship team and then, as a sophomore in 2011, he locked down a starting job at tackle and has never let it go. He has 26 consecutive starts, and counting, entering his senior season.
But not everyone knows it. The postseason awards came and went after the 2012 season and Bitonio wasn’t on the All-Mountain West first or second teams. Bitonio did garner Honorable Mention, one of 12 Nevada players who were honored.
“I don’t want to take anything away from anyone else, but he might have been the best player on our team last year,” Pack assistant coach James Spady said. “If you ask the guys on our team, he’s one or two. When you talk about a guy who plays consistently at a high, high level, that’s Joel.”
As one of just two returning starters for the Union and with Jeff Nady (Atlanta) and Chris Barker (Miami) in NFL training camps now, the spotlight is finally, and justly, on Bitonio.
“He’s steady and he does everything right,” head coach Brian Polian said. “He doesn’t get the attention he deserves. He also doesn’t ask for the attention. He’s not a look-at-me guy.”
First-year offensive line coach Ron Hudson is the latest to tutor Bitonio and no other player in the program has received more diverse instruction than the 6-foot-5, 315-pound tackle. Now in his fifth year in the program, Bitonio has had five different position coaches, including Spady, who works with the tight ends and O-line. He’s had Chris Klenakis in 2009, Cameron Norcross in 2010-11, Darren Hiller last year and now, Hudson.
“I actually like all of the change over the years in the sense that I’ve gotten to learn a lot of different techniques and philosophy,” Bitonio said. “I’ve taken something from each of them that I use on a daily basis. But it’s been tough, too, because it’s like you have to prove yourself all over again each year.”
The Union, the moniker given to the offensive line decades ago, is one of the program’s better traditions. Union members take pride in being in the trenches, grinding and working each and every play. In a way, Bitonio has been a key player in keeping that tradition moving forward.
“Maybe I am kind of a bridge in continuing these traditions and fusing the past with the present,” he said. “One thing that I love about Coach Hud is how he has embraced the tradition here. He came in and took the time learn about our history here and he decorated our meeting room with our history.
“I really like the new coaches overall. Coach Polian is full of energy and he takes the time to ask us for our input and what we think. I’m excited for this season.”
For Hudson, Bitonio and center Matt Galas represent 98 percent of the returning offensive line starts on the team.
“He’s a very good player and he’s a very coachable player,” Hudson said. “He’s allowed me to coach him up and he’s assumed a leadership role on this team. When we’re in the meeting room and I’m going over things, he’s helping out in those teachable moments.”
Bitonio is a key piece in maintaining the tradition and production of the offensive line at Nevada.
“I’m a believer in tradition and I believe that offensive lines that have built a tradition deserve to be honored,” Hudson said. “We want to be one of those lines that those who came before us can be proud of here at Nevada.”
Having all of those different coaches may work out well in the long term for Bitonio. An economics major, he’ll graduate in December. And while he is on the radar of NFL scouts, he has long-term ambitions of getting into coaching.
After rattling off all of the offensive line coaches he’s played for at Nevada, Bitonio smiled and said. “I feel like I have a lot of connections.”