Each day as the Maryland quarterback, Scott Zolak awakens to a heady existence, replete with a well-wisher around each corner of the College Park campus and a scoreboard outside of Byrd Stadium that regularly flashes the most exhilarating news of all -- the Terrapins' 2-0 record under his leadership.
"I've never seen that before," marveled Zolak, who for four seasons had little reason to cheer, personally or teamwise.
Now, after wondering during that lengthy period whether he'd ever take a meaningful snap, Zolak has exploded with a pair of 300-yard performances in his first two career starts.
The fifth-year senior has completed 51 of 88 passes for 616 yards and four touchdowns and twice has been named the Atlantic Coast Conference offensive back of the week. His achievement of consecutive 300-yard games (303 vs. Virginia Tech and 313 against West Virginia) had been accomplished once in school history -- by Dan Henning in 1987.
But while awards and records are nice, for Zolak the most rewarding aspect has been walking into the Maryland locker room after the games against Virginia Tech and West Virginia knowing that the Terrapins had won and that he was a part of it.
"Just contributing, winning a game and going into the locker room and hanging out with the guys and knowing that you contributed, that's been the best part," said Zolak. "I've definitely been waiting to play, but I think I'd rather play the one year and go out a winner than have been playing the whole time and losing."
The euphoria sweeping the campus is such that there are some who wonder how much losing there would have been if Zolak had gotten his chance earlier. Certainly the Maryland defense has been outstanding this year and the injury bug that nearly devastated the squad last year hasn't bitten. But in terms of individuals, the most tangible difference between this season and the last three or four has been Zolak.
"He's made a big difference just in enthusiasm alone," said wide receiver Barry Johnson. "I'm not slamming past quarterbacks or captains or any teammates but Scott just has a way of getting the guys fired up and ready to play."
"I don't know how you evaluate something like that, hopefully I do make a difference," Zolak said. "I know I bust my butt. I know I work hard. Hopefully that sort of thing rubs off.
"I've probably been pointing to this season for two or three years because I figured that I wouldn't start until my senior year. If it was going to be my team then I wanted to try and push and motivate them. But this is already the hardest-working team we've had in four years. We're all close-knit. Before, no one seemed like a family."
If Zolak was something of an outcast it wasn't by choice -- or lineage. Speaking yesterday, the Terrapins cocaptain wore a San Francisco 49ers cap and a T-shirt that read "Ringgold Knows Joe," a reference to the high school in Monongahela, Pa., that produced him and all-pro quarterback Joe Montana.
That heritage, hailing from the same region that also produced star quarterbacks such as Dan Marino, Jim Kelly and Joe Namath, should have put him in good stead with the Terrapins. Instead he found himself waiting his turn, first behind Henning, then Neil O'Donnell.
"I think he felt like he could have been playing since his sophomore year if he had been given a shot," said Johnson, who roomed with Zolak for the three seasons preceding the current campaign. "His level of frustration got pretty high sometimes. There were times when he got down and wished they'd give him a chance, especially in games when we'd still have a chance to win."
Zolak drew little more than mop-up duty at the end of blowouts -- usually with the Terrapins losing. When he didn't play as a redshirt sophomore, Zolak, convinced that he was the best man for the job, considered transferring but decided to stick it out, rationalizing that the coaches perhaps knew a little more than he did.
"I came here to play football but how could you question the coaches here?" he asked. "They've been in the business longer than I've been alive and they were putting quarterbacks in the pros every year. They made their decisions and I had to live with the cards I had been dealt."
Rather than wallow in self-pity, Zolak decided that apart from working hard and waiting his turn, the best way to contribute to the team was by providing a little grief of his own.
Whenever the needling from teammates hit a little too close to home for Zolak's taste, the next day the offending party was apt to find a caricature -- sketched by the quarterback and highlighting his most unattractive features -- hanging in a prominent place in the Maryland locker room.
"He didn't have to but was always doing things like that," said Johnson. "He'd surprise you, always doing something that you didn't expect from him."
Although he certainly has the size -- 6 feet 5, 225 pounds -- for a quarterback, his inexperience (45 completions in 91 attempts) was supposed to be a greater factor this year. The fact that he's overcome it so splendidly has caused many to count his performance as another unexpected surprise.
Credit also should be given to the coaches' decision to switch to a one-back offense, which has lessened the amount of time that the inexperienced offensive line needs to hold its blocks for Zolak and also provides an array of talented receivers as targets.
Zolak is quick to acknowledge that aspect, as well as a defense that frequently has saved him and the entire offense through a frustrating series of turnovers that has cost Maryland at least seven to 10 points a game in both games.
If Zolak has shown any flaw, it's been an apparent susceptiblity to blitzing defenses, which led to a fumble and one of his two interceptions this year. However, teams hoping to make that pressure a way of life for Zolak should be advised that both of his game-winning touchdown passes to Gene Thomas were thrown through seams opened in part because of those blitzes.
"There's no secret on defense: You can either cover or pressure," said Coach Joe Krivak. "If you cover you run the risk of being picked apart. If you pressure you better get there because if you don't you can give up some big plays. Scott is a quarterback who can make big plays, that potential is there all the time. He gives you that dimension because he can make throws that maybe other quarterbacks can't."