TAMPA — If you address USF's sophomore middle linebacker as Mike Lanaris, he'll politely answer without so much as a blink. But in truth, he prefers to be called Michael, if only because that was the name his uncle went by.
You won't find a Bulls player with more college football in his blood — counting both sides of his family, he's a fourth-generation college football player — but his name, as well as some of his inspiration, comes from a man he never met, one who never made it onto a football field.
"It's definitely an honor," said Lanaris, a 6-foot, 232-pounder from Lake Mary who has seven tackles and an interception heading into Saturday's game against Florida Atlantic.
Lanaris, 20, was named after his father Mark's older brother, Michael, who died during the summer before his freshman year of college from complications from a form of muscular dystrophy. The disease kept him from playing football but never stopped him from loving sports or attending Mark's games.
"He had a strong, strong passion for sports," Mark Lanaris recalled. "He truly loved sports, was a statistical nut, knew every stat about every imaginable sport. He voraciously attended all my events. One of my fondest memories was a couple nights before he passed, he was at a summer league game supporting me from a wheelchair.
"Michael being our firstborn (son), Brenda and I were in agreement that would be a nice way to honor his name."
If his uncle is a reminder of things in life he should never take for granted, Lanaris has football inspiration all over his family. His father played at Titusville's Astronaut High with future NFL receiver Cris Collinsworth and Florida State star Reggie Herring, then walked-on as a defensive tackle at Western Carolina in 1977.
On his mother Brenda's side, his grandfather, Jim Munnis, played end for Miami in the 1950s and his great-grandfather, Frederick Bell, helped Ohio State to a Big Ten championship and undefeated season in 1917 as a tackle. According to the Official Ohio State Football Encyclopedia, Bell was one of just four returning players on the 1918 team, then, like most teammates, left in the middle of the season to serve in the Army during World War I.
Lanaris' love of college football is as much nurture as nature.
"Growing up, we watched football all the time," said Brenda, a nurse in Orlando and maybe the biggest football fan in the family.
Michael was recruited by Arkansas, Louisville, Georgia Tech and South Carolina but chose USF, in part, because of its proximity to his family. His parents have attended all of his home games and some road ones.
He grew up watching Ohio State and Miami. And as luck would have it, when coach Skip Holtz took over the Bulls in January, he brought in two assistants with strong ties to those schools.
Linebackers coach Mark Snyder was an assistant on the Buckeyes' national championship team in 2002 and coached one of Lanaris' favorite players, A.J. Hawk. Defensive ends coach Vernon Hargreaves spent eight seasons coaching linebackers at Miami, including future NFL players Jonathan Vilma, Jon Beason and Dan Morgan.
"He's a treat. He knows every kid I've ever coached. They were kind of his idols growing up," Snyder said. "He wears me out about those guys, but he needs to be of that mold. A.J. was a self-made player; not highly recruited out of high school. And the rest is history."
For all his family's background in football, Lanaris said one reason he loves the sport is it was never forced on him. Baseball was his first love, and he played catcher in high school. In August, when USF had a home run derby at the baseball facilities known as Dodgertown in Vero Beach, he hit a team-high three balls out of the park.
But football gave him a better opportunity at a scholarship and already had his heart.
"They waited for me to ask to play football. I had to kind of plead with my mom to let me play," Lanaris said. "I think that's what drove me to love football so much was because I wanted to do it myself."
Lanaris opened the season as the starting middle linebacker but now comes off the bench as part of a rotation with fellow sophomore Sam Barrington, the Bulls' leading tackler. That allows both to play with more energy — "I consider us two very selfless people," Lanaris said — and the competition has made both better.
"He's a good friend and a great player," Lanaris said. "It's awesome to have that cohesiveness within our unit."
Lanaris' grandfather didn't get to see him play at USF because he died when Michael was in eighth grade. But Mark Lanaris — whose grandparents were Greek immigrants who started a restaurant in Buffalo, N.Y. — sees a great family pride in Michael any time he takes the field.
"We're just working-class folks, and he's just kind of a throwback, hard-working kid," his father said. "He's always at his best when he's climbing. We're just so pleased and proud of him, keeping a positive attitude, his love of the game. He steps into a whole other world when he gets on the football field. That's where he's most comfortable in life."
Greg Auman can be reached at email@example.com.