YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan – To hear Andrew Conkling, Chris Castillo and Keegan Ryan say it, being a football lineman is like singing backup.

They don’t get the headlines as would a running back such as Anthony McNeill, Tony Presnell or Derick Seward. Nor do they bask in the spotlight as would a soloist.

And when not in the classroom or plowing the road for Yokota’s running backs or protecting passer DeEric Harvin, they do, as a matter of fact, actually sing in the school choir.

But their jobs, they say, are important — for without that key block or hitting the right note, playing or singing becomes as pointless as writing with a broken pencil.

“They’re a big part of it,” said McNeill, the defending Japan Football League rushing champion who’s run for 582 yards and seven touchdowns on 96 carries this season. “Without them, it doesn’t happen.”

“You need everybody to make everything function,” said Castillo, a 240-pound senior.

“You can’t rely on just the running back or the quarterback to pass,” he said. “In a chorus, a soloist can’t be a star without everybody pitching in. Add harmony, the piece becomes more beautiful. Blocking makes those plays that much more beautiful.”

“It’s how all those people blend into one team, to make a good voice or big yardage,” said Conkling, a junior.

The work of the line is “a part of the game of which the average spectator isn’t aware,” coach Tim Pujol said.

Yet they’re a key reason why the Panthers are 6-0 and have run their Pacific record regular-season winning streak to 45 games.

And they’ve led the way for Yokota’s bevy of backs led by McNeill.

Linemen are “probably some of the smartest guys on the field,” said Pujol, whose first high-school coaching job was 21 years ago in Texas. “I quickly realized that that’s where the nuts and bolts of the game are.”

Most times people will only notice linemen when they make a mistake, miss a block or allow a sack.

“When they do things right, they go unnoticed,” Pujol said. “They should take pride when the running back gets the yards and the quarterback has time to throw.”

For their part, Conkling and his linemates do just that.

“If they have a good game, we did our job. To me, the most important number is the one under the name ‘Yokota’ on the scoreboard.”

It’s that reason why Pujol praises his “singing linemen,” part of a core group that has paced Panther Nation to eight straight JFL championships and four Rising Sun Bowl titles earlier this decade.

“They’re fantastic, intelligent,” Pujol said.

Castillo, the biggest and perhaps the most talkative of the lot, spent the past two years on the junior varsity before moving up this season.

“He has exceeded expectations,” Pujol said. “And you won’t meet a nicer young man.”

Conkling weighs some 80 pounds less than Castillo, but possesses “a heart as big as a watermelon,” Pujol said of a junior who plays offense, defense and special teams. “He never leaves the field.”

Despite the Panthers’ successes thus far, Conkling feels the capper would be getting past the first round of the Class AA playoffs for the first time and taking home the title. Yokota visits Guam High in the semifinal on Nov. 3, and if the Panthers win, they’d play at Seoul American or the Okinawa Activities Council champion Nov. 10.

“It would be worth it — the whole season, all those two-a-days — to get that championship,” Conkling said.

Ryan, a sophomore second-teamer, stands in line to inherit that legacy, Pujol said.

“If he stays with it, he’ll be part of the next group that plows the way for those who carry the mail.”

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

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