Football isn't religion for Maryland quarterback Sam Hollenbach, but he can't seem to separate the two.
After all, Hollenbach's faith in God is the reason he didn't transfer last year, and it's what he credits with transforming him from an unlikely backup to possibly the team's top quarterback this fall.
Amid all of the pressure and media hype piled on the back of a Division I quarterback, Hollenbach said last week that he couldn't be more at peace. Even though there are two other quarterbacks pushing him every day at practice - including last year's starter - Hollenbach's emotions remain in check. And even though he was raised and coached by a former Big Ten quarterback, Hollenbach has always made his own decisions.
There's no question, though, the 21-year-old junior has asked for a little guidance along the way.
"I was praying a lot about [transferring], and at the end of the season, [God] showed me what he wanted me to do," said Hollenbach, who belongs to the Navigators, a Christian group on campus. "I got some playing time at the end, and I prayed about it more after the season. It just seemed like the clear decision was to stay here.
"Once I made that decision to stay here, I really feel comfortable with what's going to happen," he said. "Regardless of my future personally with football, this is where God wants me to be. If that's the case, that's where I want to be."
After his final two seasons at Pennridge High School in Perkasie, Pa., Hollenbach definitely had his choice. Under the direction of his father, Jeff, Hollenbach threw for 2,754 yards and 26 touchdowns in his final two seasons. He drew the attention of Michigan State, Iowa, Pittsburgh and his father's alma mater, Illinois.
"He was really torn," said Jeff Hollenbach, the Illini's starting quarterback in 1973 and 1974. "He was raised with Big Ten football, heard the Illini fight song all the time."
With his father's blessing, Hollenbach was lured to the Atlantic Coast Conference. His next big decision was whether he'd stay.
In spring 2004, Hollenbach was competing against Joel Statham and Ryan Mitch. And the arrival of highly touted freshman Jordan Steffy that fall only worsened his odds.
Statham wound up starting every game but the last. Hollenbach wound up watching.
"We anticipated him getting a really good shot to be the starter last year," Jeff Hollenbach said. "It was difficult. You have high expectations, and all of a sudden it's the opposite."
Sam Hollenbach found solace in the Navigators, and he confided in his close friend and roommate, tight end Brad Schell.
There are two beds in Schell's room at his parents' home in Spencerville. Hollenbach has stayed there two of the past four summers. On frustrating days after preseason camp, the duo would take long drives and talk.
"He gets down on himself like anybody," Schell said. "I remember last summer, he wasn't real happy with camp. It helps just to get off campus.
"He's a real smart kid. He busts his butt with engineering. He's studying constantly, always has papers to do, always has homework. He's constantly in the library. Couple that with the quarterback stuff ... he was here till 8 or 9 over the summer every night watching film."
Apparently, it has paid off.
Since a win against Wake Forest last year in Hollenbach's only start of his collegiate career, Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen has said at least twice that the starting job is his to lose.
"I really don't even consider what he said to really mean anything at all," Hollenbach said. "I have to go out there and prove I can do it."
As the other quarterbacks continue to improve, that seems to be getting more difficult to do. Steffy, who missed the entire spring with injuries, has impressed the coaches early with his versatility. He has a style more conducive to Friedgen's offense than Hollenbach, who, at 6 feet 5, is more of a pocket quarterback and isn't as shifty. And Statham, despite throwing eight touchdowns and 15 interceptions last year, isn't giving up.
Still, Friedgen said Hollenbach had his best practice on Saturday.
"I told Sam [Sunday] night, 'I think that's the most accurate we've had someone throw the ball since Scott McBrien'" led the Terps to the Peach and Gator bowls, Friedgen said. "He threw some ropes, made some long throws, threw a seam that went to Jo Jo [Walker] about 70 yards for a touchdown.
"They had pressure on him and he hung in the pocket," Friedgen said. "Even [defensive coordinator Gary] Blackney said, 'He had a heck of a day.' What Sam's gotta be able to do is gain confidence from that and take that from the practice field to the game."
Friedgen said Hollenbach holds the linebackers with his snap count, uses different cadences, is able to look off defenders and is running better and faster than he ever has.
In the final break before preseason camp began last Monday, Hollenbach went home to help paint his sister's house. She is expecting a baby Sept. 3 - the day of the season opener against Navy. As they were painting, his father was talking and Hollenbach was listening.
"We got talking about the pressure that's going to come, all the attention he's going to get," Jeff Hollenbach said. "I think he keeps a pretty level head about the whole thing. I talked about what happens with the media, stuff that is said on the Internet. He said, 'I just don't get into that.' That's probably the best way to handle it. He's that kind of kid."
"My career has had lots of valleys and is starting to hit some peaks," Sam Hollenbach said. "Having that faith in God that he's got a will for me, whatever happens, it's in his hands, that's the view I'm taking. He has blessed me with this situation, and I'm having fun with it."
Around this time last year, his father said he thought the best decision for his son might have been to transfer.
He knew, though, it wasn't his decision to make.
"When it came down to it," Jeff Hollenbach said, "he really made the right choice, and his prayers were answered."