The beginning and the end seemed the worst. In sum, Ralph Lary's career at Maryland -- athletically and academically -- has been as rich and varied as any player experiences. The football phase would be over in slightly more than 24 hours and his eyes were dancing now, the stream of consciousness flowing freely.
"I've been very lucky. There's so much I want to say, how happy I've been. I'm sad about leaving, that's how good it's been here. I wish I could keep playing in college forever, 'cause it's just so much fun. But I don't want to keep living in the past.
"I'll remember my losses, or my lows to prepare me. I'll savor my highs, but I won't ever try to immortalize myself by 'em. You see a lot of people that, because football means their whole life, they take every opportunity to tell everyone how good they were.
"But that just cheapens them, I think. I've had a pretty colorful career here." He took stock of himself physically, the strained knee that made life miserable his freshman year, the broken elbow and collarbone. And academically, how he will graduate with nearly a B+ average in aerospace engineering. And how it all started five years ago.
"I almost didn't go to Maryland. They kinda half-recruited me, told me at first they didn't have a scholarship for me. Then, I guess, somebody backed out and they called up and said they did have one. I remember sitting in Coach Claiborne's office (before accepting the scholarship) and him saying he didn't know if I would play or where but, 'You're the kind of athlete we need because a lot of your game's in your head.'
"Automatically, I said: 'I'm comin' here. This guy knows me.'"
Before the first practices, there was respect that came close to awe. Lary recalls walking into the Terrapin weight room and watching players built like Mr. Universe bench press what seemed like a trillion pounds. Like the players safety Lary had hit at Wootton High in Potomac, these large Terrapins could be felled.
And so could he.
"I got hurt the fifth day of practice, the first day in pads. Strained knee ligaments that kept my leg in a cast six weeks. Can you imagine, having psyched yourself so high, to miss it all? It seemed like my freshman year life was at an all-time low.
"I'd broken up with a girl i'd gone with for more than two years. Then my grandfather died. Then the knee. The fall semester was my hardest. The (football) class I came in with was a great bunch to guys to put up with me, 'cause I was a real jerk early on.
"Not moping. But when an athlete gets hurt he builds up a lot of tension that can't be released. I remember sitting in the stands when that cannon went off (as the team came on the field) and my heart starting to race. I said to myself: 'I can't take this. I'm not gonna go through this again.'"
He did not, the last four years after that redshirt season having been relatively injury free. The last two seem the most vivid, for he realized fame and then realized it was not as terrific as he once thought. Last season, as a junior, he played exceptionally long and exceptionally well.
"We had a couple of injuries and I really got to play the way I wanted to play. Almost all the time. That's unrealistic, in a way, because I'm not the best athlete on this team. I'm also not the best athlete in the defensive secondary -- but definitely the slowest."
With his competition injured, Lary enjoyed the season of his dreams. Ninety-five tackles and seven interceptions, three of them against Clemson in the second game of the year.
"As far as I was concerned," he said, "that just made it here. Just being able to play the way I'd always wanted to play, the entire game (on defense). I'd started really getting into religion last year, reading the Bible and all. I'd never done that before, and I also was questioning things. I said to Him: 'I want to believe. Give me a sign.'
"That was the Clemson week -- and I had three interceptions. Most valuable player (in the Atlantic Coast Conference). Is that a sign or what? I couldn't believe it. I said: 'Holy smokes. I just wanted a sign, not a landslide.'"
Later, there came a sign that hit him even harder.
Some friends thought Lary was becoming too self-centered, too distant. And he agreed. Last season had been personally satisfying but only 7-4 and no bowl game for the team. Before this season, Lary was determined to make his own goals secondary to the team's, not knowing that the coaches had something similar in mind.
"First day of practice they had both me and Sammy (Johnson) listed as first team (safety). They had five senior defensive backs and only three can play. So you have to fight it out. The coaches don't explain this. It's one of the games they play with you. They'd explain it if you asked, but there's an aura of pride involved. It's football; you should let your actions speak for you.
"But that messes with my mind. I think a lot. I can be my own worst enemy.We were both listed as first team, but the person listed first starts. eAnd when they'd switch our names during the week, say, that would blow my mind."
Lary found himself starting the season at safety, but also starting to slide, both on and off the field.
"The first three games I was first (ahead of Johnson, but still splitting time); the next two I was second. And they didn't tell my why. When they switched me, after a win and before the biggest game of the season till then (North Carolina), it blew my mind. I thought: 'They've totally lost confidence in me.' One of my goals had been to gain the respect of my coaches and teammates and I though for sure I'd lost it."
Lary's grades suffered. He also became ordinary in the classroom. Words and concepts that always moved quickly from books to his mind stayed a blur.Matters stayed this way until after a play against Pitt, one Lary is convinced cost the team the game despite the final score being 38-9.
"We were holding 'em and in a coverage we'd practiced all year, where the whole line just goes. We (the backs) had to stay close to our men, but it's still a three-deep (zone). I went up, my guy went in the flat and the other guy did a post (for a touchdown). That just popped the balloon right there. Everybody just felt shock.
"Something like that, when you see all your teammates down, that made me say: 'You're a jerk. Snap out of it. You're drowning in your own tears -- and your're dragging everybody else down with you.' So I just snapped out of it. Started praying again, too. That may have helped."
An injury to Johnson also helped Lary regain his starting position. He has kept it. His grades have shot back to their usual high level. He will make ACC all-academic for the fourth straight year. He also might be in love again, with a girl he met after the last exam of this semester but just before the team left campus for the Tangerine Bowl here.
"No regrets," he said. "Everything has really gone my way. You can't always be a superstar. My parents have an attitude every parent ought to have, that when your kid has something, say an IQ test, that pits him against other kids, you should never tell him exactly how he stands. They said: 'You're smart enough (and talented enough athletically) to do anything you want.' That never puts a top on your life. You're always reaching out, farther and farther. It's something you need, to never be stymied."
A former roommate, John Baldante, once wrote a poem with an anti-football theme. Lary admired Baldante for writing it, but was moved to produce one more in line with his own feelings. It is called "The Huddle" and reads:
"A mass of human energy/ 11 became one/ a signal, advice from above and hands clap together/ and one becomes even stronger."