ORONO, Maine — Chris Howley must have been an imposing presence on the soccer field.
He was always among the biggest kids in his class, but since there was no youth football in Runnemeade, N.J., he played soccer and baseball like many of his friends.
Howley had always been interested in football and was a fan of the nearby Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League. There was one problem.
“I wanted to play football when I was younger, but I was so big I would have had to play on the unlimited [no weight limit] team,” Howley explained.
Once he enrolled at Triton Regional High School, his size became a great asset.
“I was always one of the bigger guys,” Howley said. “Once I got to high school, I finally started seeing guys my size.”
Four years later, Howley earned a scholarship to the University of Maine, where he has been a four-year starter on the offensive line.
The 6-foot-3-inch, 285-pounder will line up at right guard Saturday afternoon when coach Jack Cosgrove’s Black Bears visit Smithfield, R.I., for a 1 p.m. nonleague game against Bryant University.
Howley has been a mainstay on the UMaine offensive front. Last season, he helped protect quarterback Warren Smith as he became the program’s all-time single-season passing leader with 3,122 yards. The unit also paved the way for a 1,093-yard rushing season by tailback Pushaun Brown.
“He’s very technically-skilled, technique conscious,” Cosgrove said.
“He has toughness, resiliency; he’s smart,” he added. “He’s a competitor.”
Howley earned All-Colonial Athletic Association first-team honors last season after gaining third-team recognition as a sophomore in 2010. He really enjoys being able to throw his weight around as a member of the offensive line.
“I think what I like about it is, it’s a physical position,” Howley said. “Every play, you’re in contact with someone.”
He was a two-time all-conference performer and an all-state choice as a senior in 2007 at Triton, where he played for coach Pete Goetz. Howley played on both offense and defense.
As it turned out, Howley’s size again became an issue during his college recruitment.
“A lot of schools said I was too small, I wasn’t big enough to play offensive line [at the Division I level],” he said.
He was recruited by UMaine, which sent assistant coach Kevin Bourgoin to south Jersey. The Black Bears liked what they saw.
UMaine had a connection at Triton, where former Black Bears football captain Joe Robinson (1992-95) was the wrestling coach and an assistant football coach.
Cosgrove and his staff weren’t as concerned about Howley being a bit undersized at “only” 6-3 and under 300 pounds.
“On paper, there are credentials — height, weight, speed, vertical jump — that you’re searching for in recruiting,” Cosgrove said. “We’ve had a way here of not really relying on the credentials.“
UMaine isn’t afraid to bring in players who might be an inch too short, or a bit slower than another guy.
“We provide that young man an opportunity that he’d flourished in and I think that would be true of Chris’ situation here with us,” Cosgrove added.
Worried about his ability to measure up, Howley admitted he overdid things prior to his arrival at UMaine. He showed up at 315 pounds, which was too much.
“It’s a faster game, more than a bigger game,” he offered.
Howley has had the good fortune at UMaine of working alongside some other talented linemen. He has been lined up next to classmate Garet Williamson, the center, for the duration of his career.
Howley credits his coaches, including Goetz, Robinson and former Black Bears offensive line coach Frank Giufre, with helping mould him into the player he is today.
“They were real big influences on me,” Howley said.
Another key element is his experience as a high school wrestler. He was recruited by Robinson, although it was an idea he resisted at first.
“I didn’t want to [wrestle], but I fell in love with it,” Howley said. “It definitely helps with things such as hand-fighting, footwork, knowing how to use my body, leverage and stuff.”
He admitted some bad habits, like grabbing onto opponents, can be difficult to break.
Howley has started 34 of the 35 games in which he has played since 2009. He has demonstrated tremendous durability.
He benefits from the camaraderie and cohesiveness of playing alongside his fellow linemen, a group that also includes senior Josh Spearin of Limington, Jeff Gakos and Joe Hook.
“I think they have a lot of unit chemistry,” Cosgrove said. “They have a real good working relationship.”
Howley is majoring in secondary education with a concentration in history. He plans to teach and, hopefully, coach football.
“Goetz was one of my history teachers and Robinson was the gym-health teacher,” Howley said. “[I was inspired] seeing how they made a difference and how the kids look up to them.”
Howley also hopes to teach his opponents a few lessons on the field as the Black Bears try to return to the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs.