ORONO, Maine — Tyler Eastman grew up in Old Town being the biggest kid in his class.
He still holds that distinction as a member of the University of Maine football team.
Eastman is putting his 6-foot-6, 321-pound frame to good use again this season as the starting left tackle for the Black Bears.
“Let’s face it, the greatest gift Tyler ever received in life is his size,” said UMaine coach Jack Cosgrove. “His ability to be a knee-bender at his size is probably the next gift, because it allowed him to embrace a game that is made for him.”
This fall, the guy the offensive linemen call “mammal” hopes to finish an abbreviated Division I career by helping lead the Bears to another successful season. That quest begins with Thursday’s 7 p.m. season opener against St. Cloud State at Alfond Stadium.
Last season he started all 13 games on an offensive line that helped UMaine rush for 187.5 yards per game, third best in the Colonial Athletic Association.
“We expected to do good, but I think we did better than what a lot of other people expected us to do,” Eastman said.
He was a bit of a sleeper, playing for three coaches in four years in a struggling Old Town High program, but continued to develop his skills.
“I’ve always had personal success, but I’ve never been on a team that’s had success until now,” said Eastman, who also was a state champion shot-putter and discus thrower.
Eastman had been on UMaine’s radar screen for a long time as he was a regular at its summer camps.
“It’s one of those unique stories about a kid that lives right down the street, came to our camp and went through a high school career where not many people noticed him,” Cosgrove said.
As a youngster, Eastman spent a lot of time on the UMaine campus. He often attended two camps each for football, basketball and baseball.
Cosgrove knew there would eventually be an opportunity for Eastman at UMaine. His worst fear was that another program would find out about him.
It has been a test of patience and commitment for Eastman at UMaine.
He had hoped to begin his college career in 2005. However, Eastman was declared academically ineligible by the NCAA because of a transcript issue.
The NCAA subsequently reversed its ruling that November, but by that time the season was almost over and Eastman was enrolled in classes at Bangor Community College in an effort to become eligible.
“It speaks to a challenge he had to meet and of the importance of the game to him,” Cosgrove said. “It showed us a tremendous amount, really made us feel good about the kid being committed, dedicated.”
Eastman was aggressive in maintaining contact with the UMaine coaching staff.
“I must have sent him [Cosgrove] a hundred e-mails telling him don’t forget about me,” Eastman said.
Despite missing a year of football, Eastman was a backup tackle and saw action in the last nine games of the 2006 season.
His progress was halted during the spring of 2007 when he suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee that required surgery and caused him to miss the fall campaign.
Eastman healed up, went through rehabilitation and spent the season on the sidelines and behind the scenes.
“It was frustrating at times, but I was at all the practices still, all the meetings,” he said.
Eastman made his debut as a starter last September at Iowa and hasn’t looked back.
The soft-spoken Eastman, a child development and family relations major, prides himself in being an offensive lineman. Assistant coach Frank Giufre handles the group.
“He moves really well for a big guy,” Giufre said. “He does a good job of being able to sink his hips, play low, play with leverage.”
Giufre also is pleased with Eastman’s willingness to be a good leader and role model on the field and in film sessions.
“When you’re a kid, you don’t really say, ‘I want to go to college and play offensive line,’” Eastman said. “It definitely takes a special person to be able to play this position and the people on this team know that it’s an important part.”
Taking nothing for granted, Eastman holds out hope that he might have an opportunity to play pro football.
“Make no mistake about it, his gift will get him an opportunity to be evaluated to play this game further,” Cosgrove said.
“It’s nice to see local guys in and around this program achieving.”