The first time he looked at Towson State football up close, Mark Orlando was a scrawny 17-year-old, more curious about the college game than committed to it.
"I never even imagined being able to step on the field with those guys. They were so big, so fast, so strong," Orlando said. "I was overwhelmed for the first three months. At one time, I was No. 10 out of 10 receivers on the depth chart. I didn't even go to the position meetings, because I didn't understand what they were doing."
Orlando no longer resembles that lost kid who hooked up with the Tigers as a walk-on four years ago, with raw speed and decent hands his lone virtues.
The speed, the quick first step, the explosive acceleration, they're all still there. But it's the package Orlando has fashioned -- the terrific hands, studious pass routes, high concentration level, great moves and countless big plays --
that quietly has turned him into the premier wide receiver in school history.
And after three remarkably consistent, productive seasons, Orlando has saved his best act for his last year.
His 11-catch, 266-yard, three-touchdown effort on Saturday, leading the Tigers to a 48-6 homecoming rout of American International, continued Orlando's assault on the school record book. He is
the Tigers' all-time leader in receptions (163), receiving touchdowns (29) and receiving yardage (3,162). Through six games this senior season, Orlando has caught 40 passes for 925 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 23.1 yards per catch.
When he lines up at Hofstra on Friday night, Orlando, 6 feet, 180 pounds, will do so as one of the best receivers to play in Division
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I-AA. He leads Division I-AA receivers this season with an average of 154.2 yards per game. For his career, Orlando has moved into 10th place on the division's all-time receiving yardage list.
Not bad for a guy who never played football before attending Liberty High School. Not bad for a walk-on.
"He's always been athletic, but I've never seen anyone work harder at improving his game than Mark Orlando," said Jay Robinson, Towson State's offensive coordinator.
Said Tigers coach Gordy Combs: "The work ethic, the intelligence. He works so hard at the game, at perfecting his weaknesses. You know he's going to get open, no matter what the coverage is. He never takes a play off."
Orlando doesn't just bother defenses, he demoralizes them. Consider that, over four years, against zone, man-to-man, double coverage and other wrinkles, Orlando has averaged nearly four receptions per game and 19.4 yards per catch. Basically, an Orlando reception is a guaranteed first down.
Then, there is his durability. Orlando has not missed a game in four years and, by his count, has missed three practices -- all despite the added danger that comes with being the Tigers' top punt returner. Over the past two years, Orlando has averaged 13.5 yards per return.
Senior quarterback Dan Crowley probably appreciates Orlando the most, because their record-setting careers have been connected for four years. Orlando has had a hand in 41 percent of
Crowley's school-record 71 touchdown passes and 7,818 passing yards, just shy of another school record.
"When you play with someone for four years, you know what they're thinking. That's where those numbers come from," said Crowley, who has improvised with Orlando on many occasions for big-play results. "Great moves, great instincts, great feel for the ball. Mark is something to watch."
And, as Orlando heads into the homestretch of his college career, he does so as a self-made player.
How could a guy who caught a total of three passes in his last two seasons at Liberty High (he played quarterback as a senior) arrive at this point? How could a guy who never even lifted weights in high school, then reversed a decision to quit football at the last minute before taking a chance at Towson State, end up as the school's best wide receiver?
"It was the challenge of seeing whether I could do it. I love when people tell me I can't do some
thing," said Orlando, a biology major who commuted to Towson State during his first semester. He will graduate in May with a grade-point average in the 3.0 range. "I didn't pick biology because I like it so much. I picked it because of the challenge."
Orlando's first season, his redshirt year, was one of major adjustment. Luckily for Orlando, Kevin Howard, one of the Tigers' top all-time receivers, schooled him on the work that would be required to maintain a roster spot. By his first spring football season, Orlando caught the eyes of the Towson State coaching staff. They rewarded him with a partial scholarship.
Orlando gave the Tigers a glimpse of his talent in fall 1991, his first season in uniform. Orlando caught 44 passes for 686 yards, a 15.6-yard average.
The numbers have remained consistent ever since. Orlando averaged 20.9 yards on 35 catches and scored eight touchdowns as a sophomore. Last year, despite being in an offense that leaned heavily on 2,000-yard running back Tony Vinson, Orlando still grabbed 44 passes for 821 yards. Saturday, with Howard among the homecoming spectators, Orlando broke his mentor's receptions record.
"To think that I went from a kid who didn't want to play football to one of the leaders of the team," Orlando said. "If someone had told me I would be one of the top receivers in the nation this year, I would've laughed in their face. But when I'm out there on Saturday, I like to feel I'm the best on the field at my position, that I can't be covered or stopped.
"I don't run around and tell everybody about the records, but when I'm sitting home thinking about it or with close friends, that's when it feels really good to me. I want to be known as the best receiver ever to play here."
Year .. G .. Rec. .. .. Yds. .. Avg. .. Lg .. TD
1991 . 11 .. . 44 .. ... 686 .. 15.6 .. 51 ... 3
1992 . 10 .. . 35 .. ... 730 .. 20.9 .. 54 ... 8
1993 . 10 .. . 44 .. ... 821 .. 18.7 .. 74 ... 8
1994* . 6 .. . 40 .. ... 925 .. 23.1 .. 83 .. 10
Career 37 ... 163 .. . 3,162 .. 19.4 .. 83 .. 29
* - Towson has four games remaining.