As the season opener for Towson State's football team approached, the doubts that had haunted Tony Vinson for months were clinging to him like some stubborn tackler.
Nine months had passed since Vinson had left the field against Indiana, Pa., pain shooting through his right knee. In that time, he had negotiated all of the twists and turns that accompany a comeback. He had endured setbacks, such as the arthroscopic surgery he needed to remove a calcium deposit that developed on the knee. He had done the necessary weightlifting, run the countless miles, passed the battery of tests that proved his knee was fine.
And yet, uncertainty chipped away at him. It was meaningless that Vinson, before transferring to Towson State two years ago, had started in a Big Ten backfield -- he was Purdue's only true freshman starter in 1989. As for his signature performance last year, a 41-carry, 264-yard gem against James Madison, so what? Vinson didn't need to be reminded how talented he was. He needed answers to new, frightening questions.
"What's going to happen the first time I get hit? Am I going to pull up? Am I still going to run as hard? I was always thinking these things in the back of my mind, especially knowing that people were going to go for it [the knee]," said Vinson, the Tigers senior running back.
"You know teams are going to test you. Are you going to think about the knee? Can you stand the pounding?" he added. "Early in the season, I was so anxious, I was becoming fatigued before a game even started. Now, I'm sleeping more at night."
Now, it's opposing coaches who are losing sleep over Vinson. Now, it's opposing defenses that look exhausted after dealing with him for three hours.
Vinson has left his preseason doubts in the dust the same way he leaves tacklers behind. With each passing week, he looks every bit like the runner who, in just over seven games last year, rushed for a school-record 1,042 yards.
Through four games, he has gained 629 yards on 104 carries, a 6.0-yard average. He has scored seven touchdowns and has cracked the 100-yard mark in every game. Last week, his 36-carry, 196-yard, four-touchdown afternoon pushed the Tigers to a 28-27 victory at Connecticut.
"Early in the season, I was worried about breaking the long runs, making the big plays, and I kept forcing," Vinson said. "If I saw a little crack, I would go for it no matter what, when normally I would sit back a little and see what else develops. Now, I'm relaxing more, and I'm starting to see those cutback lanes."
With an average of 157 rushing yards per game, Vinson is ranked third in the nation among Division I-AA running backs. With 1,671 career rushing yards, he is 205 yards shy of Dan Ricker's 6-year-old school record. Vinson figures to own the record sometime this month.
So many things are going right for Towson State these days that the Tigers are pinching themselves. They are 4-0, their best start in seven seasons. They head into tomorrow's homecoming showdown against undefeated, 22nd-ranked Howard with a chance to climb into the Division I-AA Top 25 and knock the Bison out of the rankings.
They'll confront Howard with an offense that has averaged 38 points and 442 yards and has wrecked teams through the air and on the ground, with big plays and grinding drives. And it's an offense that is anchored by Vinson, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound package of speed, size, power and finesse.
"If I'm a defensive coordinator and I see Tony on the field, I'm concerned," Towson State coach Gordy Combs said.
"Anybody who can start as a freshman in the Big Ten obviously has the athletic ability," said Jay Robinson, Tigers offensive coordinator. "When you combine that with his size and his work ethic, you've got yourself an NFL prospect."
When Vinson started tearing up the competition last fall, NFL scouts began to notice him. They've followed him with increasing interest this season. If he winds up in a professional uniform, it will mark the completion of an unusual course.
The product of a military family that traveled a lot, Vinson didn't begin playing football until he was 13. By the time he graduated from Denbigh High School in Newport News, Va., track had become his specialty. He was the state runner-up in the 200- and 400-meter runs. But the college football recruiters kept calling.
"I was an All-American in track. In football, I was only the fourth-leading rusher in my district. I really wasn't thinking much about college football," said Vinson. "I was surprised at how much interest was shown in me, because I hadn't put up the stats. When I went to Purdue, I never thought I'd start [that soon]."
Yet there was Vinson, dazzling the Purdue coaching staff in practice and forcing his way up the depth chart. Before long, he was playing against the likes of Michigan and Ohio State, in front of crowds of 90,000 or more. He started all 11 games as a freshman.
Something was missing, however. The Boilermakers had committed to a run-and-shoot offense, and Vinson was lining up mostly at inside receiver. Occasionally, he got to run the ball, but he longed to be a workhorse back. When he lost a fumble against Illinois midway through his sophomore season, he never played running back again. And Vinson felt it was time to go elsewhere.
He found plenty of bidders, including Arizona, Arizona State, Virginia and Maryland. Vinson surprised many people, including Combs, by choosing Towson State. By the time Vinson arrived on campus -- he got the last available scholarship in 1991 -- the school had been thinking about dropping the program, before deciding to eliminate football scholarships in 1992. In accordance with NCAA transfer rules, Vinson sat out the 1991 season.
"I still question that [Vinson's decision]," said Combs, who took over as head coach shortly after Vinson's arrival. "But he's happy, and he's close to his parents [in Prince George's County]. I didn't know much about Tony, but when I saw him beat the guys from Coppin State and Morgan in a 60-yard dash, I knew we had something."
Said Vinson: "I needed that year off. It helped me to mature physically. After being here for that first year and going through spring ball [in 1992], I knew I had made the right choice. The best thing for me was to go to a smaller school. Here, I can afford to make mistakes."
He hasn't made many. And he hasn't let the spotlight affect his approach to the game. Brian McCarty, his underrated backfield mate -- he is ranked 29th in I-AA with 97 yards rushing per game -- wasn't thrilled when Vinson arrived. The bigger, faster Vinson would cut into his playing time. Still, they have become close friends, not to mention brutally honest critics of each other.
"We're constantly badgering each other all the time, but it's a good badgering," McCarty said. "We stay at each other's throats, making each other work harder."
Vinson's work could pay off next year, come NFL draft day. For now, he concentrates on helping the Tigers get back to the playoffs for the first time since 1986.
"It's all really exciting, because I may get a chance to take care of me and my family. Coming straight out of college, not many people can say that," Vinson said. "But I still have to keep it in perspective. Until I get that phone call, it's still a dream. I found out last year that all it takes is one play, and things can change drastically."