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Oct. 28, 2010
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, N.C. – Anthony Mihota spends a lot of his life in the trenches, but in his rare down time from football he knows how to escape.
“Usually I’ll go outside with my sketchpad and just draw what I see,” he said. “People ask me to draw things for them all the time.”
Mihota, the starting center at Virginia, is an art major. Eventually he would like to work for Pixar, the animation film studio that is a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Corporation.
Mihota is used to the surprised reaction he receives when people who know him as a football player discover his other passion in life.
“You have to know how to turn on the switch and turn off the switch,” he explained. “On the football field you’ve got to be a different person; that’s what it takes to play at this level. Off the field, there’s more to life than just football.”
Don’t doubt his commitment to the game, however. Mihota, a fourth-year junior from Fredericksburg, Va., has persevered through a change from defensive lineman to the offensive line and three years of relative inactivity. While he is still working to master his position, he has become a solid component of the Cavaliers’ offensive line.
Mihota inherited the starting spot when two-year starter Jack Shields decided not to use his final season of eligibility. Going into spring practice, Mihota knew the starting job was his and made sure he wouldn’t lose it.
“He had to work on all those things that centers have to do – being able to move left and right, snap whether it’s quarterback under (center) or the shotgun,” said Mike London, Virginia’s first-year head coach. “He embraced the role and he’s improving as we go along.”
When he was being recruited, Mihota told several schools he wasn’t interested in playing offense. He had made the varsity as a freshman in high school and as a senior was recognized as one of the top defensive tackles in the state. That’s where he thought he would play when he signed with Virginia.
“I worked out that whole summer as a defensive lineman and as soon as we got to (preseason) camp they gave me an offensive playbook,” Mihota said. “I was very shocked. But they said that center would be a good fit for me.
“They liked my athleticism and my mobility and everything. They said I would transition well to offense because they like to get the center out in space, a guy who can move with active feet.”
An old football saying goes that centers are made and not born, so there was a lot for Mihota to learn, starting with snapping the ball.
“Your main objective is to make sure the quarterback gets the ball and the play can start, whether it’s in the shotgun or he’s under center,” he said. “That was probably the main obstacle, the hardest thing to overcome. Then, after the snap, I had to worry about my assignments.
“I wish there was a secret (to snapping). I did a lot of practicing on my own, just trying to get as many snaps in as a I could and to feel comfortable. I tried so many different things, like snapping into a tire I had set up behind me, or snapping in front of a mirror so I could see where the ball was going.”
It took awhile for Mihota to become comfortable at the new position. He spent a redshirt year and then two sometimes frustrating seasons when he rarely got a chance to play as the backup to Shields. But he kept working on the technique and now, as the starter, snapping has become so natural to him that his main concerns are his assignments, his footwork and making the blocking calls.
Although he has adapted to his new position, Mihota hasn’t forgotten his roots, and he tries to use those to his advantage. He has a good idea what a defender’s moves might be and how he can stop them.
“I’m definitely an offensive center now, but I’m never going to forget my background as a defensive lineman,” he said. “That helps me, because I would like to think that I know how defensive linemen think and how they’re going to play. Sometimes I know what they’re going to do before the play even happens.”
At 6-4, 285 pounds, Mihota takes on defensive linemen who top 300 pounds and quicker middle linebackers in the 240-250 range.
“I love going against guys who are about 305 pounds,” he said. “Those guys are usually not that quick and I feel like I’m strong enough to move them on the interior.
“When it comes to linebackers, that (involves) being more athletic and using the extra 35 pounds that I have on them to my advantage. When it comes down to it, you’ve got to be an athlete.”
Athleticism runs in his family. His father, John Mihota, was an offensive guard at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania and was second-team Academic All-America in 1977. His mother, Valerie, played basketball at California University of Pennsylvania, where in 1986 she set a single-game rebounding record of 27 that still stands.
Two younger brothers are also football players. The family makes the short trip to Charlottesville for all home games and to many road games. This Saturday they will watch Mihota and his teammates play at home against nationally ranked Miami. It’s a daunting task for the Cavaliers, who are 0-3 in the ACC’s Coastal Division and 3-4 overall.
“They’re big, strong guys,” Mihota said. “The defensive ends are athletic and they’ve got two big guys in the interior and they’re very talented. It’s going to be tough, but I think we’ve got a good game plan for them this week.”
Mihota has another season of eligibility and said he will continue to put his strong work ethic to use to keep improving.
“It’s going to be interesting,” he said. “I’ll have an entire season under my belt to look back on and learn from. I’ll probably be more fluid in what I have to do. Maybe the game will slow down for me and I’ll be able to break things down better than I am already.”
Like most players who pull on a college uniform, Mihota would like to play pro football. He’s also a realist – one day his football career will end and he will begin the rest of his life. That’s when he can immerse himself in art, an interest he said he picked up from his mother.
“I’ve loved drawing and anything that had to do with art growing up,” he said. “When I got here I didn’t declare (his major) until after my second year because I wanted to explore other options.
“When it came down to it, I had a feeling what I wanted to do and that was in the art field. So I want to go into animation or cartooning or maybe graphic design.”
Mihota has always drawn cartoons and caricatures and comics, usually in his spare time but occasionally in classes and meetings. His inspiration comes from the storylines and animation in Disney films, which is why he would love to work for Pixar. That studio has produced such films as “Finding Nemo,” “Cars” and “WALL-E,” just to name a few.
Although Virginia doesn’t offer a major or a concentration in animation, some of his classes have touched on it. He said he has “dabbled with it” and has applied for a summer internship with the school’s department that produces the Cavman animations for the stadium’s big scoreboard.
So how do the people around Virginia’s football program perceive Mihota?
“It’s interesting,” London said. “Here you’ve got a guy, an interior lineman, a tough, gruff, get-after-it kind of guy. But very artistic, Andy Warhol-ish. He can draw, paint, do animation, so he’s very talented from that standpoint. He’s very good at what he does and he enjoys doing it.”
His teammates don’t say much about Mihota’s interest in art, but they have asked him to draw things and occasionally he will surprise them. Like the time in preseason camp between practices when players started fooling around making things with the tape used to wrap ankles.
“I made a pterodactyl out of tape,” he said with a chuckle. “It was pretty big, about three feet, pretty impressive, so they enjoyed that a lot. It’s all about being creative.”
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference. E-mail Bill Hass
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