Last Saturday, Maryland faced third down and 10 at its 30 with less than two minutes left in the third quarter. West Virginia trailed the Terps, 7-3.
Quarterback Mike Tice was discouraged. He had already seen four passes hit receivers in the hands, then drop to the ground. This time he looked for Chris Havener. Another strike. But as Havener touched the ball he was slammed hard from behind. He held on for a 12-yard gain and the first down the Terps needed so desperately.
"That was one of the biggest plays in the ball game," Coach Jerry Claiborne said after Maryland had scored the clinching touchdown on that drive in its 14-11 victory. "Havener made a super catch just when we had dropped a couple and they were about to get momentum."
It is ironic that Claiborne would praise Chris Havener. Last December, Claiborne called Havener into his office and told him he didn't think Maryland would renew his scholarship this fall.
"I hadn't played much last season because I was hurt in preseason," Havener said. "Coach Claiborne said they thought they could go out and recruit someone who they could give the scholarship to for four years instead of the one I had left. I really felt bad. I understood, But I didn't think I had really been given that much of a chance."
Havener had a right to feel that way. He was never recruited by Maryland.
He read in the student newpaper that he could try out for the team as a walk-on when he arrived in College Park in the fall of 1977. He was one of perhaps 30 walk-ons who showed up that fall. Today, only he and place-kicker Dale Castro remain.
Havener was born in Washington and grew up in Alexandria. No Division I schools recruited him. He chose Maryland because it was close to home. Then his parents moved to Florida. He is 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, but looks smaller. Like all walk-ons he was turned over to a graduate assistant coach who timed him in the 40 (he ran 4.95) and tested his bench-pressing strength (195 pounds). "When I was doing the weights I could tell by the look on the guy's face that they weren't exactly eager to keep me around," Havener said.
But Havener, whose reddish hair, freckles and friendly smile could get him cast as Tom Sawyer if he ever decided to get into movies, was not about to give up easily. He showed up the next day and asked Dick Redding, an assistant coach, for a uniform.
"He didn't really want to give me one, I could tell," Havener said. "He said he would have to check with Coach Claiborne. I said, 'Look, I may not be fast, but I'm pretty slow.' He didn't laugh. So I told him seriously that I could catch and I could block if they would just give me a chance."
They gave him a chance to play on the "look" squad, the group that serves in practice to prepare the varsity for its next opponent by "looking" like the other team.
"I remember the first time I heard Coach Claiborne call my name on the practice field," Havener said. "He got mad at a varsity defensive back because I kept getting open on him and he yelled, 'Quit letting Havener get open.'" I had goose bumps that he knew who I was."
Havener got open enough in practice and spring practice to work his way up to second team and the traveling squad as a sophomore. That earned him a scholarship.
"The best thing about Chris is his attitude," Claiborne said. "He's worked so hard at everything, building his speed (now 4.7) and strength (now 315 pounds). He's a tough kid. If he wasn't he would get killed out there." 3
Havener caught one pass as a sophomore and came back as a junior ready to challenge for a starting spot. But a leg injury ruined his season and he caught only two passes. Then came the December meeting at which Claiborne told him he was no longer in the varsity plans.
"It changed my attitude toward football," Havener said. "I just decided if I made it fine, if I didn't that was okay, too. I was loose in the spring and I did well."
Unlike many football players, Havener could afford to be loose because his life is not tied to a dream of playing pro football. He wants to be a stockbroker, and will graduate with a degree in economics in May.
Claiborne had already committed all his fall scholarships before spring practice. But when several players left the team in the summer, Havener got his scholarship back.
Now he is an established starter, doing interviews and modestly saying his catches Saturday were no big deal. He is happy and he is excited. But he remembers.
"I'll never forget what it was like being a walk-on," he admitted. "It's a lonely feeling, not being wanted by anyone really, players or coaches."
Now those same people want Chris Havener around. He has earned their attention.
The play of Havener and Jan Carinci against West Virginia has forced Claiborne to shake up his lineup, moving Carinci back to wingback as a starter and forcing Mike Lewis onto the second team. Lewis and Spencer Scriber will both play against North Carolina.