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Joel's toughness comes from his father. When Joel was 4, his dad competed in the mixed martial arts World Combat Championships in North Carolina in one of the most famous early fights in MMA history. Bitonio was 6 foot 1 and 215 pounds. He was pitted against Bart Vale, a 6 3, 260 pound behemoth. Bitonio, a novice, went into the octagon with his hands untapped, ready for a bare knuckle brawl.

And Mike's message was often the same, one that he had been preaching since his son was a child. Work hard and people will notice. Work hard and you will reach your goals.

Father Mike Bitonio, in yellow, with his children, from left, Lucas, Joel and Katie during Father Day in 2006. (Provided by the Bitonio family)

The Wolf Pack offensive lineman, a redshirt freshman fighting for a starting job, cracked a smile as practice wrapped up. Bitonio always smiles at practice. Why wouldn't he? He was playing football. He was going to college for free. He was on the verge of playing time. Life was good. It couldn't get better.

After flying under the radar for most of his Nevada career Bitonio has shockingly never been named all conference despite his stellar play the 22 year old is finally getting some spotlight.

"It was the hardest phone call of my life," Bitonio said. "I called right there on the practice field and she said, 'Your father had a heart attack. He didn't make it.' I thought, 'This is impossible. He's Superman.'"

Ault was sold, on Bitonio and his family, and offered a scholarship a few days before signing day. Bitonio took a visit to Reno, accepted the offer and has become one of the best offensive linemen in Wolf Pack history. The senior has started 38 straight games and is a near lock to be selected in May's NFL draft.

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"I was kind of a yeller at basketball games, but I had to be kind of quiet that night," Debbie Bitonio joked. "I wanted to make sure that Coach Ault didn't think Joel had a crazy mom or anything."

Mike Bitonio is gone in body, but his spirit lives on through his son. The lessons he taught Joel remain. His hard work, his dedication, even his jovial nature are all a part of Joel. And now there was one more trait: anger. Anger reserved specifically for game days. Anger that his father isn't here to watch him play.

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"The only reason he fought was they would give him more money than laying carpet did at the time," Bitonio said. "He fought and then he came back home and we went to Disneyland afterwards. He was all beat up and stuff. People were asking for his autograph and I thought, 'Dang, this is pretty crazy.'"

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there.

He took 8 minutes of brutal punishment, with blood spilling over his face, before finally tapping out. Die hard MMA fans still remember the fight, specifically for toughness Bitonio showed in it.

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When Bitonio builds an invisible force field while protecting quarterback Cody Fajardo, his dad is there.

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"He was always so happy," Joel said. "No matter what, he said, 'It's a new day and every morning you have to wake up and be happy about something.' He'd always joke with me in the morning and try and make me smile in the morning. He always had a positive outlook on life. I thought that was amazing. It was hard to believe he was gone. It's still hard to believe that he's gone. I think about him every day."When Bitonio buries a defensive player during a power run over left tackle, his dad is New Balance 420 Grey Suede Trainers

A mix of panic, shock and sadness washed over Bitonio. His father, his "best friend," was gone at age 45.

best offensive lineman for quite some time," tight ends coach James Spady said. "He does the right thing every day. He prepares like a champion. He's a good student. He's a good citizen. That's who you want to model your players after. This is who we want our young kids to be."

"He's been our New Balance Usa 990 Navy

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"The thing he always told me, no matter what I was doing, was, 'Be the hardest worker,'" Bitonio said. "Hard work was everything to him. He told me, 'If you're cleaning toilets, you better be the best toilet cleaner there is.' He said, 'Just work hard and be respectful of people. If you do that, you'll be fine.'"Bitonio's first sport was roller hockey. He then began playing basketball. Finally, it was football, but not until the seventh grade. He was too large for Pop Warner ball as a youngster.

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Bitonio's mom, Debbie, sees a lot of her husband in Joel. Both were able to talk to and become friends with everybody. Both were upbeat and outgoing. Both were determined and hard working.

"Joel had such a fantastic relationship with his dad," Debbie said. "For his first year that he was in college, I think they talked to each other every day over the phone."

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"Honestly, I think it's made me a better player in a sense where I kind of played a little angrier after I came back from the funeral," Bitonio said. "Football really helped me out for the first couple of months after I lost my dad. I think it helped my whole family with the recovery process."

ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper recently listed Bitonio as one of the draft's rising players. Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian projects Bitonio as a second or third round draft pick and said he'll stump for him with any NFL team. Bitonio also stacked up well against Top 25 teams UCLA and Florida State earlier this year.

school program, Wilson High in Long Beach, which went 5 15 during his junior and senior seasons, Bitonio didn't get much recruiting attention. He was bound for UC Davis until he was named the Moore League's offensive lineman of the year. Then FBS colleges began to sniff around.

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And then he saw a friend rushing toward the Wolf Pack's practice field. His friend grabbed Bitonio and said, "You need to call your mom. You need to do it now." Bitonio knew something was wrong.

inspiration to become a dominant player

Mike Bitonio was working out in his garage when he felt ill. He came into the house, told his New Balance 1080 Boston wife he didn't feel well and asked her to call an ambulance. On the way to the hospital, Bitonio had a massive heart attack. He couldn't be saved. The man who always had a smile on his face was gone forever.

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Then Nevada coach Chris Ault decided to visit Bitonio in Long Beach, but the football season was already over. Instead of watching him on the gridiron, Ault watched Bitonio play a high school basketball game.

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