One of Chris Bleich’s most memorable sports moments didn’t come on the football field. It involved racing a motorcycle on a dirt track before he strapped on a football helmet.
“It didn’t bother me at first. I never really wanted to play football to begin with,” Bleich said. “I kind of wanted to be like my one middle brother. He used to race motocross. I was like, ‘Ma, can I race?’ First race, I took out a girl and got third place.”
But a motocross career wasn’t going to happen.
“I got fat,” Bleich said with a smile.
Years later, it’s safe to say Bleich chose the correct sport to pursue. Now 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, the Wyoming Valley West lineman turned in a remarkable high school career leading to a scholarship to the University of Florida, two Class 5A All-State selections and Times Leader Player of the Year honors.
Valley West coach Pat Keating knew he had something special the first time he saw Bleich in the weight room as an incoming freshman. He had previously attended Hanover Area.
“The first time I saw him in the weight room, he had just got done with eighth grade,” Keating said. “Obviously, he was big, but we didn’t know anything about him. When he was in the weight room, he was basically stronger than all of our varsity players at that time, as a freshman.
“The next step was to see if that translated to anything on the football field. At first, he was very raw and didn’t have a lot of football experience behind him. I just remember how quickly he was able to grasp everything, but really it was just how naturally physical he was from the get-go. Myself and my coaches knew we had something special there.”
Bleich could have taken the easy route throughout his career, using his sheer size to overwhelm smaller opponents. That tactic would have worked for the most part in high school. Not so in college.
So Bleich worked diligently at the craft of being a lineman — improving his speed, agility, footwork and hand placement. He also became cognizant of his weight, which he said reached 340 at one point.
“I prefer to be a technical more than anything,” Bleich said. “It’s nice to have strength, but you can only go so far with it. At the next level, you’re just going to average in strength with everybody else.”
Rutgers, where his uncle John Bleich played, and Syracuse were the first to offer Bleich a scholarship when he was just a freshman. More started rolling in — about 20 in all — and led to a sometimes awkward recruiting process.
Bleich initially verbally committed to Penn State as a sophomore. He later decommitted, admitting he may have made the decision in haste without hearing other offers. After scratching PSU from the hopefuls, he announced he was going to UCLA. But when the entire staff was fired in November, he opened the recruiting process again.
All the time, Mississippi State and head coach Dan Mullen remained in the running. Mullen and his staff, though, left to take over the Florida program where they continued to recruit Bleich. Bleich signed with the Gators on Dec. 20.
Bleich played tackle and guard for Valley West and said there’s a chance he could play center at Florida. He won’t be on defense, something that’s fine with him. As a senior, he played defense full time for the first time and finished with 89 tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks, but prefers the offensive side of the ball.
Bleich will get a jump on college as he has already graduated high school and will head to Florida in early January.