SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The name, such a burden as a youngster, ended up being a gift.
“It just seemed like when I was a kid, everybody I grew up around was named ‘John Smith’ or ‘Steve’ or something, so I was always getting teased and made fun of because my name was so different,” said Oregon center Hroniss Grasu, an All-Pac 12 selection. “Now, it’s something I take a lot of pride in, mainly because of my parents.”
The son of Greek and Romanian immigrants, Grasu’s family settled in Los Angeles in the early 1980s and, no matter how much their parents tried to turn their two sons into soccer players, the draw of American football took hold of Grasu and his older brother, Nico, and never let go.
Nico went on to kick at Washington State. Hroniss became a star at Crespi High School in Encino, Calif., redshirted at Oregon in 2010 and started all 14 games last season as a redshirt freshman and was a second-team freshman All-American as the Ducks won the Rose Bowl.
Hroniss — named after his uncle, Hrochu — bulked up to 6-foot-3 and 294 pounds in the offseason and has been one of the best centers in the nation this season as No. 5 Oregon went 11-1 and earned a trip to the Fiesta Bowl, where they’ll face No. 7 Kansas State (11-1) on Thursday.
“My brother and I are first-generation Americans, so we weren’t even allowed to play football growing up, because for my family it was all about soccer and basketball,” Grasu said. “But my parents finally came around and started to let us play. Since my brother was a kicker, when I started playing football I thought that was what I was going to play but I realized pretty quickly that I was too big to be a kicker.
“My place was on the offensive line.”
The connection between Grasu and Oregon freshman quarterback Marcus Mariota, also an All-Pac 12 pick, has been a key to the Ducks’ success on offense this season.
Oregon, which runs a spread offense, averages 50.8 points and 550.1 yards of offense per game.
“That bond between us is what makes this offense go,” Mariota said. “No matter what, (Grasu) is the guy that points out stuff and makes sure we are both on the same page. It all goes through him ... he’s done a good job of being this kind of steady force for us.”
And where Mariota may be reluctant to be a leader and a voice in the locker room because he’s in his first year as a starter, Grasu has flourished.
“(Grasu) was almost passive last year as a freshman, where he’s going through some things because he’s a freshman and he doesn’t think it’s his place to take the lead,” Oregon offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich said. “But this year, whether it’s in the weight room or at practice he’s been a more vocal guy, a leader. Without exception, what he says to his teammates is important. It matters and it’s right.”
Grasu said the preparation for Kansas State’s defense the last two weeks has been intense.
“We look at every game like a Super Bowl ... that’s how we got ready for this game,” Grasu said. “(Kansas State’s) front seven is very fast, very talented. What they do isn’t anything too complicated. It’s simple. But what they do, they do very well. They’ve won a lot of games.”
With Grasu, Mariota and a bevy of young, talented and experienced players coming back next season, a win over the Wildcats could propel the Ducks to a Top 5 ranking headed into next season.
“I love playing in this offense,” Grasu said. “The guys I get to play with ... it’s like watching a video game in real life with some of the stuff they do.”