By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun
3:38 PM EST, January 6, 2012
The route Terrance West took from an overshadowed high school player in Baltimore to college star is not typical of athletes.
It's not the fact that West had to spend a year in prep school after finishing at Northwestern High to shore up his academics and gain his eligibility.
Nor is it that West, who was named Thursday as the top freshman in the NCAA Division I Football Championship Subdivision, had to start near the bottom of the depth chart once he arrived at Towson last January.
In West's case, the route he took to sudden stardom for the Tigers included a bus route. Two, actually, with West leaving his home in West Baltimore about 3 a.m. every day for Towson's 5:30 a.m. workouts.
"I'm an early riser. I'm always here, but I would see him here because he was at the mercy of a bus schedule," Towson coach Rob Ambrose said this week. "I knew he had potential, but the thing that stuck with me was his desire and commitment. He didn't miss a practice; he wasn't late. That's when I knew there might be a chance for him."
West would take the No. 13 bus to the No. 8, giving himself plenty of time to get to the campus. The trip would typically take between an hour and 90 minutes, and West repeated it nearly every day between the start of winter workouts in January and the end of spring practice in April. He often did it during the summer as well before moving to the campus last fall.
"I looked on the bright side: It just made me want it more," West said Thursday afternoon, a few hours before the award was officially announced.
West will receive the first Jerry Rice Award on Saturday at the national championship game between North Dakota State and Sam Houston State in Frisco, Texas, where Ambrose will be honored as the Eddie Robinson Award winner as the top coach in the FCS.
Just as few could have predicted Towson's turnaround this past season, from 1-10 bottom feeders in the Colonial Athletic Assocation to a 9-3 team that won the CAA championship for the first time in school history, even Ambrose was a bit surprised by West's immediate impact on the program and the FCS landscape.
After not playing in the season opener against Morgan State and coming close to being redshirted, the 5-foot-11, 222-pound tailback became Towson's biggest weapon. He gained 1,294 yards on 194 carries and scored an FCS-best 29 touchdowns. He started just one game but often finished off his team's opponents.
"I always knew I had the potential," West said Thursday afternoon, a few hours before the award was made official. "I knew if I was given the chance, I could show the world what I could do. This is very special."
After playing a season at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, West returned to Baltimore without any college offers. He said he had even considered playing in Division II or Division III until getting a call from Ambrose, who had recruited West at Northwestern High after taking the job at Towson in 2009.
"Everything happens for a reason," West said. "Coming out of Fork Union, I didn't have any offers, so I had to sit out a year. That motivated me even more. I appreciated the fact that Coach Ambrose gave me the opportunity to play football because I didn't think I was going to be able to play no more."
Starting with a two-touchdown performance in what was considered an upset of then-No. 20 Villanova in Towson's second game, West went from playing in short-yardage and goal-line situations to being a virtual touchdown machine. He scored four touchdowns in three different games and had three in three others. He rushed for more than 100 yards in six straight games in the middle of the season, including a season-best 261 yards (including 72-yard and 69-yard touchdown runs) against New Hampshire.
There was some question whether Ambrose and West were going in the same direction at the end of the season, when West carried only 11 times for 52 yards and two touchdowns in a 40-38 playoff loss to Lehigh on Dec. 3 at Johnny Unitas Stadium. It came a week after West had only 52 yards on 19 carries at Rhode Island.
Ambrose said after the season-ending loss to Lehigh that West had not practiced well, and the coach seemed to indicate that West's sudden rise might have affected his attitude. In retrospect, Ambrose believes it was a matter of Rhode Island and Lehigh gearing their defenses toward stopping West.
"Would he have liked the ball more?" Ambrose said this week. "There's not a football player in America that doesn't want the ball, even the guys that never get to carry it. I think, schematically, people were ready to stop him and the running game and they did a good job."
Some in West's position might consider going to a Football Bowl Subdivision school in order to play against better competition and gain more exposure, as San Francisco 49ers safety Madieu Williams did in leaving Towson for Maryland. But West, who badly wanted to play for the Terps after being recruited by then-coach Ralph Friedgen, realizes that he wound up at the right place.
"This is my home," West said.
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