Four Appalachian State football players from Charlotte have created an impenetrable force that has nothing to do with the nearly 1,000 pounds of weight between them.
Their strength is their friendship built on eight years of playing football together.
Pat Mills, Matt Ruff, Orry Frye and Dominick Magazu met each other at Providence High School, where they were vying for spots on the varsity football team.
Their football backgrounds varied from very little (Mills had played only one year of middle school football) to extensive (Magazu grew up on the sidelines as his father, Dave, coached at the collegiate level for more than 20 years before taking a job with the Carolina Panthers in 2003).
What they had in common was a love for the game, a willingness to do whatever it took to play, and the mental and physical fortitude that coaches love.
"All those kids are physical, tough kids," said Randy Long, the Providence High School football coach. "They're just a special group of guys that I feel very fortunate to have coached."
Mills, 22, had been a baseball player for years before trying out for football in eighth grade at Crestdale Middle School. He played at defensive end both there and at Providence before coaches moved him to the offensive line his sophomore year. At Appalachian, he plays left guard and is also one of the captains, a position he earned by a team vote.
It's an honor perfectly suited to him, according to ASU's offensive line coach, Bob McClain.
"Pat is an unbelievable leader. If I was going to look up captain of a football team, Pat Mills' picture would be there," said McClain.
Frye, 21, who says he's been on the offensive line "my entire life," started in the Carolina Youth Football League as a second-grader. He played center growing up and was moved to right guard in high school, where he played shoulder-to-shoulder with Matt Ruff at right tackle. The pair swapped positions at Appalachian, but say their long history of working together is a huge benefit.
"For me and Orry, we've played beside each other for eight years, so we know each other's strengths and weaknesses. We play very well together," said Ruff.
McClain agrees. "They're everything you want in offensive linemen. These guys have great work ethic, they're tough and they understand the game."
Ruff, 22, played quarterback as a kid in the Metrolina Youth Football League and at South Charlotte Middle School, but switched to defensive end his freshman year at Providence, before coaches moved him to the offensive line. He says he didn't mind giving up the quarterback job.
"I just love playing football and didn't really care what I played," said Ruff.
Magazu is the only one of this tight knit group that doesn't play on the o-line, but he says that doesn't bother him.
"I don't necessarily feel left out, but I feel really small around them. I'm like the little brother of the group even though I'm older than all of them," he said.
At Providence, Magazu established himself as a receiver and a safety, and earned all-conference, all-Charlotte Observer and all-Mecklenburg County recognition before committing to Boston College.
Dave Magazu had been the offensive line coach at Boston College from 1999-2002, so Dominick knew the coaching staff well and was excited to return to an area where he still had many friends.
But after redshirting his freshman year, Magazu chose to transfer to ASU.
"It was a really hard decision. I liked the program, but it was a little too far from home for me. My family is really close and it was tough to spend so much time away from them," Magazu said. To make the transition, Magazu depended on his friends.
"I called all three of these guys when I was trying to make my decision to ask about the campus, the atmosphere, the coaching staff. I'd never been to App before I moved here, so I depended on them," Magazu said.
When he arrived in Boone, Magazu spent several weeks on the couch in the apartment Mills and Ruff share.
"We are a tight group. We all hang out together," said Mills. "As much as we've been through together, grown up together, the recruiting process, and just life. We talk like brothers."
And just like brothers, they share parents.
"It's always nice to be able to walk out after the game and if we don't see our parents first, one of the other guys' parents will come out and give you a big hug, and it's comforting," Frye said.
Gail Mills, Pat's mom, said she was thrilled when she found out the boys were going to continue their football experience together at Appalachian.
"They are an extension of our family, and I cheer for them as enthusiastically as I do for Patrick, just like they were my own," said Gail. "I realize that the boys' football experience is one they will always remember, but as longtime friends, that they have been able to experience it together is unique."
Mills will graduate this spring, and McClain is already thinking ahead.
"Pat's going to be hard to replace, not just for his playing ability but for his leadership," he said. "These guys are all going to be successful at whatever they do, regardless of what direction they go in. They just have the right mentality."
Mills doesn't plan to leave football, or his friends, behind. He hopes to move into coaching and said that whatever path he takes, he knows that Frye, Ruff and Magazu will be there to support him.
"Not only do we play a game that we love together, but we also share a common love and compassion for each other that has been forged through all that we have been through," said Mills. "We have all grown as men together through our college careers and share a bond that will last a lifetime."