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Vinson, Towson try to fill the void


Here in the state of Mer-land, college football is the only sport that deserves an "R" rating.

An autumn Saturday promises echoes at Notre Dame and splendid cheers at other campuses across the country, but around here it means only one thing:

Cover your eyes, you doughnut!

Only once since 1986 has one of the state's four Division I teams had a winning season. Last year, their combined record was an apocalyptic 5-39.

The new season looks familiar. Maryland has a new coach, a new attitude and a winless record. Morgan State is getting better, but what can you say? Navy has not won, scored or finished a game without losing the starting quarterback to injury. And to think those are our fightin' boys.

Anyway, that leaves Towson State, which, surprisingly enough, is the one team making a little noise. Yes, the same Towson that almost dropped the sport. The same Towson that no longer offers football scholarships.

The Tigers are 2-1 after beating Bucknell and Hofstra, and though that isn't enough to retire on, you can tell things are better because there is this big, fast running back. Really. You can look it up. A back who will attract scouts and challenge Dave Meggett's records.

A transfer from Purdue, if you can believe that. At Towson State. Really.

His name is Tony Vinson and it is equal parts irony and luck that he showed up last year, when, it turned out, the school was offering football scholarships for the last time. Just as the Tigers were beginning the unsettling process of softening their schedule and scaling back their expectations, a major-leaguer showed up.

"We never would have gotten him now, without a scholarship," rookie coach Gordy Combs said this week. "But he's here and happy, and we're going to enjoy it."

Thus far, there is much to enjoy. Vinson is third in Division I-AA rushing after gaining 256 yards against Hofstra. He has broken a 65-yarder, scored three touchdowns and shed tacklers as if he were a ringer from Purdue. Which he is.

Understand, he did not stand on the sidelines during his two Big Ten seasons. He hung up more than 800 yards of offense, splitting time between tailback and receiver. But he always wanted to be a running back, period, and then there was a coaching change, and anyway he was an East Coast kid who never really took to the state that voted in Dan Quayle.

He wound up at Towson because he was fond of an assistant coach who recruited him at Denbigh High School in Newport News, Va., and because he wanted to be near his parents, who LTC recently moved to Prince George's County. His father is a career Army man who stresses education. Vinson, who sat out last year after transferring, is majoring in business.

"I had classes with 400 people at Purdue; here it's 40," he said. "I knew I'd like that better. I thought maybe I would miss the big football crowds and the atmosphere, but I find that I don't miss it at all. Football is football, whether there are 500 or 100,000 people in the stands.

"People have said to me, 'But what about the pro scouts?' Not that I'm counting on that anyway. I know the unlikelihood of it. But I have friends in the pros who say, 'If you're good enough, they'll find you.' I'm not worried about it."

He shouldn't be. Meggett and Sean Landeta made Towson a name. If Vinson deserves a look, he will get one. And at 6 feet 3 and 205 pounds, with sprinter's speed, he probably will deserve one.

"The part that has amazed me," Combs said, "is the way Tony has fit in. Guys who come from that higher level tend to have a chip on their shoulder. Tony just wants to be another player."

Of course, everyone knows he is more than that. Towson has a nucleus of upperclassmen and was expected to have a decent season, but, as Combs said, "Tony puts us over the top offensively." Feeling that burden, Vinson did not play well in the opener against Rhode Island.

"You want to talk about nervous," he said. "You'd have thought it was my first game ever. Afterward a lot of my teammates told me just to relax and not try to score on every play. I've felt much better since then."

Against a schedule that includes James Madison, William & Mary and Delaware, the Tigers will have trouble parlaying this early success into a winning season. And no one knows what to expect when non-scholarship players begin infiltrating the depth chart.

"But we're just playing for right now," Combs said. "And after what we've been through, all the talk about dropping the program, it's nice just to win some games and get back your self-esteem."

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