Nov. 18, 2010
Michael Boxall is one of those strong, silent types often portrayed by Hollywood.
Not Cary Grant exactly. More like the Terminator.
UCSB's marquee center back is as relentless and imposing on a soccer field as he is unexpressive.
The Gauchos will turn their senior co-captain loose on the University of Denver tonight at Harder Stadium when they open the NCAA Tournament with a 7 p.m. match.
"He's actually a pretty quiet dude," sophomore forward Sam Garza said. "But on the field, he's such a rough player. You'd think that he'd be kind of a jerk when he's off the field, but he's really very humble and a good guy. I love Michael.
"But nobody dares to pull any pranks on him."
Boxall, a 6-foot-2 and 200-pound senior, actually relishes the jocularity he found in UCSB's locker room when he arrived from Auckland, New Zealand four years ago.
"The guys monkey around and play pranks all the time, and those are the greatest moments," he said. "You like just fooling around with each other and all the stuff that goes on. Those moments mean the most to me.
"But I'm usually not one of the victims. Nobody wants to get a taste of what revenge feels like."
Garza, the Gauchos' leading goal scorer, learned not to mess with the big, fast Kiwi during training sessions when he transferred to UCSB from Denver this fall.
"He's so strong and powerful, honestly, if you go for a 50-50 ball shoulder-to-shoulder with him, you might as well back off," he said. "You're not going to win that ball. I've never seen Boxall lose one of those.
"He's a hard worker, and he's also just an animal in practice. You won't find one guy who likes to go against him in practice. He's always on your back, always pushing you. But playing against him has made me a better player."
And Boxall has made UCSB (13-4-3) a better team, winning the coaches' vote as the Big West Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
"Certain games this year, I just thought that he was as good a center back as we've ever had here," coach Tim Vom Steeg said. "He's been that good.
"We would love him to play with - what's the word? - more emotion. He is a very quiet player by nature. He just does not say a lot, but kind of lets his play do his talking. And when he's not playing well, he'll respond by just going through someone and killing him."
Edson Buddle, a finalist for this year's Major League Soccer MVP Award, took a turn in the Boxall ring when the Los Angeles Galaxy played the Gauchos in a training match two years ago.
"Boxall absolutely manhandled him," Vom Steeg recalled. "Buddle couldn't get around him or dribble past him. I remember saying, 'He's just abusing one of the top players in the MLS!' "
Boxall played for New Zealand during the U20 World Cup in 2007 as well as for its Olympic team at the Beijing Games in 2008. He helped the Kiwis earn a tie against the host team before 60,000 screaming Chinese.
"That's probably what UCLA felt like this season when they came here to play us before 15,000," he mused.
But Terminator IV is a vastly improved model from the one that showed up at Harder Stadium the year after UCSB's 2006 NCAA championship.
"When you play center back, you're sometimes going to have the ball at your feet," Vom Steeg said. "It requires you to be the quarterback of the attack and play the ball into the midfield, or the long ball to your forwards.
"That's the part of his game that's really developed over the last four years, and it's what he now takes more pride in than anything else. It's turned him into a player that we feel can play at the next level."
Boxall started out in rugby but decided to follow one of his best friends into soccer at about age 11.
Some Gaucho opponents would say that he's still playing rugby.
"I do get a lot of satisfaction out of putting another guy onto the ground," he said. "Sometimes, we get caught up in the moment and are maybe a little overaggressive, but you just have to move on to the next play."
He wasn't allowed to do that after receiving a red card against Cal State Fullerton on Oct. 6.
"When you're walking off the field like that, you feel kind of embarrassed and ashamed that you let your team down, forcing them to play a man down for the remainder of the game," Boxall said. "And sitting out that next game against Cal Poly - that hurts. I don't know how to even describe how it feels to watch a game that you know you should be part of.
"But our squad is so deep - Tim Pontius stepped in and it didn't even look like they missed me out there."
His favorite movie is actually one about American football: "Any Given Sunday."
"It took me awhile to understand the sport, but watching that movie gave me an idea," he said. "I love the hard-hitting action of American football, it's the closest thing to rugby that I get to see around here. I watch it week-in and week-out.
"It's just the stops and starts of the game that frustrate me."
Boxall is even learning how to become more like one of those loud Americans.
"In practice, out of nowhere he'll suddenly yell these random things at the top of his lungs - louder than he really needs to," Garza said. "Everybody thinks it's funny, because he'll yell in his accent, and it'll be kind of hard to understand."
But when they hear "I'll be back," they know he means it.
Mark Patton's column appears on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail: email@example.com