SAN BERNARDINO -- The UCLA defense lost a big part of its heart and soul on Monday.
Middle linebacker Patrick Larimore, the emotional leader, physical intimidator and defensive captain, told the team he was taking a medical retirement after suffering multiple concussions.
The guy who loved nothing more than to bang heads, seemingly banged one too many. The guy who once said he had trouble containing himself every time it was the first day in pads, will forgo any further first days in pads. The guy who became UCLA's symbol of toughness whenever the Bruins needed one hung his dinged and dented helmet in a locker room that now has a huge empty hole.
No player is irreplaceable, but Larimore was about as close as you can get when it comes to the Bruins defense. Not only was he the physical leader who could deliver a knockout blow at a crucial time, he called defensive plays during games and kept order in the locker room when needed.
"Patrick has been a huge part of this team long before I got here," coach Jim Mora said. "He’s probably one of the most respected players on this team, if not the most respected player on this team. He’s focused, he plays hard, he plays with intensity, he plays with passion, he holds his teammates accountable and he holds himself accountable to a high standard. He’s all those things you love in a football player and so we’ll miss that."
They will, of course, also miss his play. Larimore embodied the prototypical middle linebacker with his stocky build and enforcerlike mentality on the field. He led the team with 81 tackles last season despite missing the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl with a thumb injury.
Two years ago, he had a cut over the bridge of his nose that would open anew the first time he made a big hit each Saturday. He played a lot of games with a bandage on his nose, a visual symbol that he was built in the iconic middle linebacker mold.
That bandage didn't affect his sense of smell for the ball, as he emerged as the leader of the defense that season. His hard-nosed approach and physical play will be missed on the field, but his presence off the field may be missed even more. He was the elder statesman of a young and talented linebacker group that looked to Larimore whenever they needed help.
"It’s like you’re leaving the house and you lost your dad because that’s what he was to these guys," said linebacker coach Jeff Ulbrich. "When they found out, it was less a teammate and more of a father figure was leaving them."
By all accounts, Larimore's decision did not come easily. He suffered a concussion that Mora termed "serious" in April and sat out the latter part of spring practice. Last Monday, on the third day of training camp, concussion symptoms reappeared.
Larimore left camp a few days later to get evaluated by doctors at UCLA. He returned to Cal State San Bernardino and Sunday night delivered the news he was giving up his life's passion.
Fellow linebacker Jordan Zumwalt said the news cast a somber spell on the team.
"It felt like somebody died," Zumwalt said. "You could see it in the room. Our hearts just kind of hit the floor. It sounded like you could hear it. Everybody was pretty down right away."
In the end, Larimore chose long-term health over the chance at glory. Concussions have graduated in recent years from what may have been thought a minor malady to serious injury with the potential to cause permanent damage. Mora has been proactive about concussion treatment since his arrival as coach and takes little risk when players experience them.
Larimore is the third player to take a medical retirement because of concussions in the past few months, joining safety Alex Mascarenas and offensive lineman Wade Yandall on that list.
"I think what really concerns you is when you have a serious one and then you come back the first day of any contact, you suffer another one," Mora said. "That’s really a cause for concern."
That doesn't make the decision to give up the game any easier, but Mora said Larimore gave it a lot of thought before he reached his decision and called his move "courageous."
"It takes guts, especially at that age, to make the decision that I can’t do it anymore," Mora said, "and to say, 'If I do continue to do it, my long-term health is going to continue to be sacrificed.'"
Mora said Larimore intends to stick around the team in some capacity, though that role is yet to be determined. For now, he has left training camp in San Bernardino for what Mora said would be his time to "grieve football" and will meet up with his teammates when they return to Westwood later this week.
Ulbrich said Larimore can take as much time as he needs away from the game and will always be welcomed back to the Bruins practice field with open arms.
"He’s one of those guys that loved the game, as much if not more than any guy on this field," Ulbrich said. "It was a part of him and he’s going to lose a little bit of himself in that and you have to process that. Before you move on to the next challenge, you have to process that."
The Bruins will have to process how to replace their defensive leader. Eric Kendricks and Damien Holmes will have to fill the on-field leadership role. Ryan Hofmeister has been having a good camp and will get a chance to show if he can handle game day duties. And Aaron Porter, a touted freshman, will have to accelerate his learning curve.
But it will take the entire unit to make up for losing Larimore and, even then, it may well feel like there is a hole in the middle of the defense.
"I feel like he was kind of one of those irreplaceable guys and as a unit we’re all going to have to hold together," Zumwalt said. "We’re not going to try to have anyone take his place or replace him, we’re all pulling together now."