The life of an offensive lineman features minimal glory and constant pain, much of which goes unseen by those who fill seats in college football stadiums on fall Saturdays.
That physical toll — in his shoulders, in his knees — accompanied Dexter Charles throughout much of his Washington Huskies career which came to an end Monday when the school announced the fifth-year senior from Camano Island and Stanwood High School had been forced into retirement by a lingering knee injury.
The 6-foot-5, 313-pound guard started 30 games in three seasons for the Huskies — nine last year, 10 in 2013 and 11 as a redshirt freshman in 2012 — and entered training camp this year as the team’s only returning full-time starter on the offensive line.
He played through multiple shoulder injuries and surgeries, and was held out of spring practices each of the past two years while recovering. But the pain in his knee apparently came to be intolerable, and so Charles’ collegiate career is over. He did not immediately return a text message seeking comment.
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“We were certainly prepared for it. I don’t know if he was,” Huskies coach Chris Petersen said. “It’s interesting sometimes how these (injuries) go. Sometimes guys have multiple surgeries and you can kind of get them through ’em. Sometimes guys have one surgery and the knee just doesn’t hold up. So he’s been struggling with that knee for quite awhile now.
“It’s a hard day. It’s a hard day for him. It’s a hard day for us. He’s really a football guy. This thing is really, really important to him. So when that (end) comes faster than you think it’s going to, that can be a hard day.”
Chris Strausser, the Huskies’ offensive line coach, said Charles looked “really good” during the first three or four days of UW camp. Then, he said, the knee “started to swell up a little bit. Once that happened, it was hard for him to go at the same tempo.”
Strausser also spoke a sobering truth about the game’s most physically demanding position: “Really, a guy that’s a junior or senior offensive lineman, they’ve got knee issues.”
Charles is the third UW offensive lineman to retire for medical reasons in the past 3 1/2 years. Colin Porter had to give up football in April 2012 because of arthritic shoulders, and Erik Kohler called it quits late in the 2013 season after a series of knee and foot injuries.
“It’s a tough position,” Petersen said. “Those guys are pounding on each other a lot. Those knees in general, I don’t know if they’re really made for football. So you’ve got to have a little luck going on there. I’ve seen some pretty significant knee injuries and guys have been fine. And then you have some that are kind of slight and it just throws the knee off and the patella tendon’s not tracking right and those types of things, and it’s just a constant battle.”
With Charles gone, fourth-year junior Jake Eldrenkamp, who had worked mostly at left tackle, moved inside Monday to play left guard (Strausser did say that Eldrenkamp rolled his ankle on the final play of practice, though).
Coleman Shelton, who started seven games at right tackle as a redshirt freshman last season, worked at left tackle with the No. 1 offense. Aside from Shelton, the only players on UW’s first-team offensive line Monday were Siosifa Tufunga, a five-game starter in 2014 who will likely start at center this season, and right guard Shane Brostek, who started two games as a true freshman in 2012 but sat out last year while redshirting.
Matt James, a redshirt freshman, has been working as the first team right tackle, but there’s no set lineup yet. Charles’ departure only complicates things.
“I think we always approach it like we’re scrambling, or behind,” Strausser said. “Would I like to have a starting five right now? Yes. But I still think it’s good for the group to have some competition at this point.”
They’re just bummed their most experienced player won’t be a part of it.
“He came to work every day, even in the meeting room,” Tufunga said of Charles. “He brought up the young guys. He was another resource that we could ask and talk about plays and stuff like that. It’s a tough loss.”