The UCLA practice field is an unlikely place to find a would-be Buddhist shaman. A shaman is, of course, an ecstatic medicine man in touch with the world beyond. But here's Frank Batchkoff musing on meadows and wildflowers, and wondering why he's not enjoying this bright autumn day instead of running tip drills. "Football is limiting," says Batchkoff, a senior defensive tackle. "At times I'd rather be expanding my horizons. I wouldn't mind being a shaman."
Batchkoff has more than a little aura of the shaman about him. He's a measured, contemplative young man whose conversation bounces around like an onside kick. He's also a geography major and a world traveler and a mountain climber and a second-year starter on a line that last season led the nation in rushing defense. Batchkoff is possibly the only active Pac-10 lineman who has trekked to the Temple of the 10,000 Buddhas in Hong Kong's New Territories. "I'll look in the mirror and be amazed that I'm really a being," he says. "I can't believe I can actually think. Who am I? What am I? I wonder if this whole thing is a dream."
At 6'5", 250 pounds, Batchkoff seems to be a solid enough phenomenon. He became introspective partly by watching Kung Fu, partly by listening to his parents. Dad is a hospital administrator; Mom is a civil rights attorney who has argued before the Supreme Court. They divorced when Frank was five. He grew up shuttling between their homes in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
Two summers ago Batchkoff toured the Orient. "I'd taken a course in ancient civ," he recalls, "but it didn't really prepare me. When I got to China it was like, Wow! The place really blew me away." Batchkoff scrawled postcards to the folks at home: Saw Buddha! Found nirvana! and Climbed Fuji! Met Korean women! Not coming back!
Linebacker Eric Smith worried he would have to go on a reconnaissance-and-recovery mission. "I pictured myself as Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now," says Smith. "The coaches would send me into the jungle to find Batchkoff." Batchkoff returned after six weeks, however. He had lost 25 pounds, but gained a new perspective: "The coaches say you got to kill or kick butts, but reprimand you for cussing on the field."
Batchkoff had a hard time applying Zen precepts to football. His teammates call him the Baby-Faced Assassin, and opponents have accused him of spitting and gouging. "I'm not proud of it," says Batchkoff, "but last year I was a dirty player. If I saw someone's hand on the ground, I'd step on it." Batchkoff says he attacks his "opponent's ego. If a guy is arrogant, I'll go after his arrogance."
Says Smith, "Batch has snapped a few times. I've felt like taking a dart gun and shooting him full of tranquilizers." But Bruin assistant Greg Robinson says, "Frank is not a foamer." Still, Robinson thought Batchkoff's mind games were undermining his play and reflecting poorly on the team. "Basically," says Batchkoff, "they told me to play like a choirboy." He claims he has learned humility. "The human body is so fragile," he intones like a Zen master. "A lily pad is fragile, too, but water rolls right off it."
Batchkoff analyzes the game like a collectivist accountant. "The competition in football is so intense," he says, "that it's become a reflection of some capitalistic whim. After all, winning is the bottom line. That's what Karl Marx said."
Batchkoff (right) is unZenly on the field.