When Peter Athens joined the rest of Towson's starting offense in the huddle for the Aug. 29 win over Connecticut, it culminated a five-year period for the quarterback that included knee surgery, one season on the men's lacrosse team and almost deciding to walk away from football.
Making his first start since Oct. 1, 2011, was a surreal and modest moment for the 6-foot-1, 220-pound fifth-year senior.
"I didn't anticipate anything," Athens said of his expectations. "I came in for my fifth year hoping that I could start. I worked my tail off. I've had my challenges over the past four years. It's been hard, but I've stayed humble, and I'm just very blessed to have the opportunity."
Looking to continue the momentum from the season-opening victory, Athens and the Tigers travel to play Holy Cross at 1 p.m. Saturday.
While junior running back Terrance West was named the Colonial Athletic Association's Offensive Player of the Week for rushing for 156 yards and two touchdowns in that 33-18 victory over the Huskies, Athens played a supporting, yet equally as important, role in the win. He completed 13 of 20 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) to help the Tigers secure their first win against a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
Athens did throw a pass into double coverage that was intercepted in the first quarter, but Towson coach Rob Ambrose said Athens displayed "some really amazing stuff" and committed few miscues.
"But to be honest, in those 60 minutes, he limited his mistakes," Ambrose said. "He led his offense with a great degree of efficiency. Getting over 40 percent and close to 50 percent on third-down conversions against a [FBS] team? Forty percent is high anyhow, but against a team that's supposed to be better than you? And that's in direct correlation to him and how he led his offense. He was a fifth-year game manager."
Athens' talent as a dropback passer helped the coaching staff to name him as the starter in 2009 — the first year at Towson for both him and Ambrose. As a true freshman, Athens completed 59 of 112 passes for 691 yards and six touchdowns, and Towson went 2-3 in the quarterback's first five starts.
But in his sixth game, Athens tore his anterior cruciate ligament against Delaware. The injury lingered into the 2010 season, forcing the team to redshirt him. The following season, Grant Enders became the Tigers' starting quarterback.
With Enders under center, the Tigers won 16 of 22 games, captured back-to-back CAA titles, and played in the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs in 2011. But Athens began to question his future on the football team.
Asked to describe the lowest point in his playing career, Athens said: "Probably when Grant came in. I had been redshirted, and I was looking forward to being able to start, and I had some stuff go on. I kind of lost my spot, and Grant had two amazing seasons here."
Ambrose talked with Athens in an attempt to persuade him to remain in the program.
"We talked about who he was when we recruited him, who we thought he was currently, and who we always thought he could be," Ambrose said. "All of those three things were about him and no one else. He then had to decide what was most important for him. That was a rough road for him, and he had to do some soul-searching, and he made some changes in his personal life and got refocused on the things that were really important to him."
Ambrose allowed Athens to join the men's lacrosse team for the 2012 season, but the quarterback requested a return — which Ambrose accepted — after rediscovering his passion for football.
After two years as Enders' backup, Athens battled with sophomore Connor Frazier in the summer for the starting quarterback job. Frazier is regarded as the more athletic quarterback, but Athens is the better passer.
Towson senior center Doug Shaw said Athens is more vocal than Enders, but Shaw said Athens also brings a calmness to the huddle.
"When things aren't going right, Pete will calm us down," said Shaw, a Woodbine native and Loyola graduate. "He would get pretty fired up after plays, and so would all of us. But when he was calling the plays, he would say, 'Alright, guys, let's settle down. We've got to focus on the next play.' That helped us out tremendously."
That level-headedness has earned Athens the respect of his teammates, but he dismissed the notion that this is his offense.
"As a quarterback, you want to think that. You want to think that everyone's behind you," he said. "You're looked at as the leader, and I would hope that people look at me like that. But I wouldn't say it's my team. It's a 'we' unit. It's a big family here, and I think we respect one another a lot."
The next step in Athens' development will unfold against Holy Cross.
"He will tell you that he made probably three critical errors last Thursday — none of which affected the outcome of the game," Ambrose said. "So they won't show up in the newspaper or on TV. But they will show up in the film room. If he can limit those to zero with his passing ability, we are growing as an offense with him.
"There are things that we did not do because of the timing of some of the critical errors that were made last Thursday. But there are things that we did do because of the things that he does just phenomenally. So as we grow with this, it really is an almost unlimited ceiling."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun