The quarterback took the snap, rolled to his right and set to pass. From nowhere, a 300-pound lineman barreled into Rob Ambrose, shattering his hip and ending his playing days at Towson State.
As it turned out, the lineman might have done Ambrose a favor that day at practice in 1992. Finished as a player, Ambrose turned to coaching, launching a career that has now brought him back to Towson University as head football coach.
"Your alma mater is like your mother. When momma calls, you come home," Ambrose said yesterday at a news conference introducing him as the fourth head coach in Towson's 40-year football history. He replaced Gordy Combs, fired last month after back-to-back losing seasons.
Coincidentally, it was Combs, then the Tigers' rookie head coach, who gave Ambrose his start with the clipboard after the senior was injured. Hired as a graduate assistant, Ambrose began his ascent through the ranks and was offensive coordinator at the University of Connecticut when chosen for the Towson job. On Saturday, UConn defeated Buffalo, 38-20, in the International Bowl.
Those who know him say Ambrose, 38, brings to Towson a disarming charm, the confidence to be his own man and a tireless work ethic born of having toiled as a youth on the family farm.
"To this day, I have an affinity for baling hay," said Ambrose, who grew up in Middletown in Frederick County. As a youngster, he learned to feed livestock, split wood, fix tractors and tend the garden.
"There was a sense of urgency at Rob's place about getting things done, and getting them done on time," said Paul Borawski, a childhood friend. "Your agenda was set. There were no options."
Responsibility came early for Ambrose; so did his organizational skills and a penchant for teamwork.
"Whenever my father showed up at my elementary school, it was because the cows had got out and he needed help," Ambrose said.
Sports were his outlet. At Middletown High, where his dad coached football, Ambrose played quarterback and tuned out any rumblings of nepotism. One game he passed for 326 yards, a school record.
"Rob didn't have the best skills, but he was focused, calm and he brought us all together on the field," said Borawski, a wide receiver. "He was a good communicator who could get his message across to the players - or the ladies."
"Mr. Middletown," folks called him. But Ambrose wasn't the prototypical jock. He wrote poetry. He grew a mustache. As a senior, he dated the head cheerleader from a rival school, Walkersville.
"Rob didn't mind leaving his comfort zone," said Dave Wharen, a longtime friend.
His peers played rap music; Ambrose listened to James Taylor. Teammates read Sports Illustrated; Ambrose curled up with The Canterbury Tales.
In college, he studied English and rode the bench, mostly, until the fateful March practice that closed out his career.
"I can still hear the sound" of the hip breaking, Ambrose said. "It was like squeezing a pack of crackers wrapped in plastic."
The lineman who nailed Ambrose was a buddy, Doug Irvin, with whom he had just spent spring break in Florida. But Ambrose holds no grudges.
"Doug didn't end my career. He started it," he said.