by Rick Eymer
Kailee Wong is used to punishing his body. At North Eugene (Ore.) High, he split time between linebacker and fullback, gaining 1,658 yards from his running back position during his season year. "I was just bigger than most guys," said Wong, who carried 235 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. "I carried the ball 49 times one game. Toward the end of a game, guys would literally have to pull me up and straighten my legs because of cramps.
"My body took such punishment that I didn't want to do that in college."
Yet, it didn't quite turn out that way. Recruited by Stanford assistant coach Dave Tipton as a defensive end, Wong was thrown into the fray as a freshman by then-head coach Bill Walsh.
The move was out of necessity. The defense hadn't been getting the job done the year before Wong arrived. It allowed 389 points in a year in which the Cardinal finished 4-7 overall.
It wasn't much better in Wong's freshman year. Stanford finished 3-7-1 and coughed up 359 points. Wong, along with several other freshmen, was penciled in to start his first game. As it turned out, he was hurt and couldn't play, but did start the second game.
"It's good I had that year, but I shouldn't have been out there," Wong said. "Competing at the Pac-10 level is amazing. The position I'm at (defensive end) I'm overmatched by weight and size every game."
Last year under first-year head coach Tyrone Willingham, Wong and the defense showed some improvement by limiting opponents to 311 points. That led to a 7-4 season and a berth in the Liberty Bowl.
"Toward the end of my sophomore year I started playing a lot better," Wong said. "I was developing some explosiveness in my hips, which came from weight training." That also pushed his weight to 260 pounds.
This year, the defense arrived. Stanford allowed 229 points during the season--only two other teams in the Pac-10 allowed fewer and both are headed for bowl games--and just 78 during a four-game win streak that clinched a spot opposite Michigan State in the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas on New Year's Eve. Kickoff is at 11:15 a.m.
"They threw a lot of us out there," Wong said of his early, school-of-hard-knocks introduction to college football. "It's great now that we're finally on track, but at the time it was tough on the team and tough on myself.
"We definitely had the talent, and knew we could do it. Before it was always what if, or almost. Finally, this year we could stop saying stuff like that. We were able to perform."
And Wong, Stanford's lone representative on the Pac-10's first-team all-conference squad, performed well enough to get named team Most Valuable Player, an honor bestowed by his teammates.
"That's pretty neat," said Wong. "It's definitely a compliment from the team to be recognized by your teammates for your play. That's not usually a glamorous position.
"I also feel lot of people on the team should be recognized for doing their job. Without them, I can't do mine. (Pete) Swanson's role is to take on the double team. Because he's able to do that, it frees me up to make a sack. Without him, and others, there's no way my position makes an impact."
The defense has been the most consistent aspect of Stanford's remarkable season. The offense scored a Pac-10 low of 209 points this season, though it came alive in the final part of the year as redshirt freshman quarterback Chad Hutchinson became more confident in directing the offense. Wong, who recorded a team-high 21 tackles for loss and 12 quarterback sacks, was a big part of that.
"The defense had bad press in the past," said Wong. "Last year, Sports Illustrated said the hardest hitter on the Stanford campus was (golfer) Tiger Woods. That's not something we, as a defense, wanted to hear."
The defense certainly made up for it this time around. Still, after losing games to Oregon State (the Beavers' lone conference victory of the year) and No. 2-ranked Arizona State, the Cardinal was faced with a 2-5 record and the prospects of a wasted season.
"It couldn't get any worse, that's for sure," Wong said. "I'm not going to say that right off I thought we could still get to a bowl game because I just wanted to win a game. After that (a 21-20 comeback win over UCLA) I wanted to win the next one. Then it turned into something."
It all came down to the Big Game, in which Stanford trounced Cal, 42-21, and Wong scored his first collegiate touchdown on a 53-yard interception return.
"It was a nice feeling to know we had it in our own hands," said Wong. "Last year we won the Big Game and it didn't matter."
Last year, Stanford finished in fourth place and was overlooked by the Aloha Bowl. The Cardinal was fortunate to get an invitation to the Liberty Bowl, where it dropped a 19-13 decision to East Carolina.
"We wanted to win the game last year, but it was more like we were excited to be there," said Wong. "Most of the team had never heard of East Carolina. This year there's definitely something more going into this game."
The first thing is that the Pac-10 and Big Ten always have been rivals, due to the Rose Bowl. Second, there's Willingham's connection to Michigan State, where he earned a spot on the Spartans' roster as a walk-on quarterback.
"He hasn't said one word about it," Wong said, "but you know he's thinking it. There's some coaching bragging rights going on."
To make sure the team stays focused, Willingham held two practices a day, at least half the days leading up to Stanford's departure for El Paso.
"We call it our pro days," said Wong. "We're here at seven and leave at seven. There's a bigger emphasis on working harder, practicing harder. At least we get to go home for a couple of days (for Christmas)."
While Wong opened some gifts Wednesday, his real present awaits in the Sun Bowl.
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