Chris Downs could not stop fidgeting. His legs were moving back and forth. He alternated between clasping his hands in front of his body and behind his head, then checked to make sure his shoes were pulled on tight.
Even after a season in the spotlight, Maryland's senior running back was a bundle of nervous energy recently as he talked about the transformation from seldom-used backup to first-team all-ACC standout. Still, as he stammered to get the words out of his mouth, Downs said he has made progress.
"If you had seen me back in grade school, compared to now, good God," Downs said with a laugh. "I would sit there in class and teachers would call on me and I would actually try to hide. I would try to put my head down on the desk or turn this way [away from the teacher] or I would raise my hand real fast and ask to go to the bathroom just so I wouldn't have to answer a question."
He might not be comfortable doing interviews or speaking to a crowd, but Downs is at ease on the football field, where Maryland is preparing for Tuesday's Peach Bowl game against Tennessee. Once known for his tendency to fumble and playing only on special teams, Downs took advantage of an early-season opportunity. He still remembers vividly the Sept. 5 practice, when Coach Ralph Friedgen turned around, pointed at the reserves standing along the sideline and belted out, "Downs, you're starting, get in there!"
All of a sudden, a player who began the season fourth on the depth chart with four career carries for 14 yards was thrust into a prominent role. Later that night, even Downs seemed unsure what to expect as he called his parents and many of his siblings to relay the news.
"He said I'm starting," Downs, the second-youngest of eight children, told them. "So I guess I'm starting."
Just as he does when talking to an unfamiliar person, Downs was nervous before his first start. In the locker room in the minutes leading to kickoff, his palms were sweating and hands were shaking. After the first series, though, he settled down and finished with 58 yards and one touchdown in a 44-14 victory over Akron. One week later, in a 37-10 loss to No. 16 Florida State, Downs's 61-yard touchdown run was called back because of a holding penalty. While the play did not count, Downs said that was the moment where he realized he belonged.
Downs went on to rush for 1,113 yards, the sixth-highest total in school history and the most among ACC players this season. His 212-yard game against Georgia Tech, which included 183 yards in the second half, is the 12th-best game in school history. Even with Bruce Perry, last season's ACC offensive player of the year, back from an injury that forced him to miss the season's first seven games, Downs remains the starter. He said, though, that he remains the shy, unassuming person he has always been.
"I'm still that quiet person who doesn't like to talk all the time," said Downs, who becomes noticeably more vocal when surrounded by friends or teammates. "It's not bad, but I'm not into the whole attention thing."
Still, the microphones and tape recorders continue to follow him. After all, it isn't too often that a player makes such a dramatic move in one season.
"Talk about a storybook year," Friedgen said. "What he has meant to our football team is undeniable.
"It has to give Chris a tremendous amount of confidence to come out and have the year he had. I think a lot of people can learn from Chris. If you just keep persevering and working hard to get better each and every day, someday it happens for you."
It is a long way from Downs's days at Malvern Prep outside of Philadelphia, where he regularly eluded defenders on the football field but struggled to avoid being called on in the classroom. In particular, Downs remembered a ninth-grade religion class where he gave a presentation on gang violence.
"It was so terrible," Downs said. "I stood up there and probably said a total of 10 words [to introduce a videotape]. And four of those words were 'um.' . . . I just get nervous."
Downs said acquaintances often ask him why speaking publicly produces such trepidation when he regularly performs in front of several thousand people and countless others watching on television. The difference, he said, is that during games, viewers can see the name and number on the back of his jersey, but they can't see his face.
"I do play in front of them, but I don't have to stand up and talk to them afterward," Downs said. "I'm out there with a helmet on playing. I'm not out there with a mike in my hand giving them play-by-play after each play.
"I don't even understand. I just know that I get up there, my palms start sweating, I get nervous and the words just get stuck in my mouth, like they're fighting to get out but they just can't make it. It's a battle for me. . . . Sometimes I wonder why we can't do interviews with the helmets on. Maybe then I'll feel comfortable with it."
His teammates often poke good-natured fun at Downs. Guard Lamar Bryant, one of the more quotable players for reporters, said one common barb is to ask Downs, "Why does it takes you 30 minutes to do an interview?" Others, particularly fast-talking wide receiver Latrez Harrison, imitate Downs. "Yo, man," Harrison often says slowly when he sees Downs, cocking his finger like a gun and pointing it at his teammate. "What are you doing?"
"He does it the most," Downs said, chuckling at the recollection. "Every time I see him, before I say anything to him. I'm like, 'Shut up.' "
On the field, though, Downs has gotten in the last word. Two years at a military junior college, followed two years of anonymity on the Maryland sideline, including a broken hand that limited his participation last season, finally have paid off.
"It feels like I didn't do all that stuff for nothing," said Downs, who is on schedule to graduate in May with a degree in family studies. "Just to come here and be a face out there, it feels good for me."