Thirty minutes into dinner, the West Virginia fans began to yell. It was bowl week in late 2003, down by the shores of the St. John’s River in Jacksonville, Fla., when Scott McBrien and three Maryland football teammates settled into their booth, the entire restaurant empty, and readied themselves for some thick-cut meats. Then-coach Ralph Friedgen had given his players the night off after Gator Bowl practice, so McBrien, Steve Suter, Bruce Perry and Jafar Williams all walked from the team hotel, wearing their Terrapins travel outfits, and found a deserted steakhouse for dinner.
“Evidently there was an event down there,” McBrien said this week. “Battle of the bands or something. Half an hour into our dinner, the doors flood with West Virginia fans. I’m going, ‘Here we go.’ ”
They recognized McBrien instantly. How could they not? He quarterbacked the Mountaineers three seasons before, appearing in 10 games as a backup role. The following season, a coaching regime change sent McBrien packing. He pondered quitting altogether, but after the DeMatha High School graduate drove home and consulted with family, he sought refuge as a walk-on in College Park.
In three games against West Virginia, including the 2004 Gator Bowl, McBrien never lost. He was the last Terrapins signal-caller to beat their border rival.
But as McBrien sat in the restaurant, the prospect of a bowl victory over their former quarterback still swirling in the minds of Mountaineers faithful, the fans began chanting at McBrien while the steak cooled, untouched, on the plate before him.
“RA-SHEED MAR-SHALL,” they yelled, the name of McBrien’s successor.
The fans kept going. They waited years for an up-close shot at McBrien, the player they labeled “traitor” after he announced his transfer. So Williams yelled back, defending Maryland’s leader.
Eventually, the fans dispersed. Some apologized to McBrien, thanking him for his service and wishing him luck. Turned out, he needed little of it. McBrien threw for 381 yards and three touchdowns, winning MVP honors. Maryland routed West Virginia, 41-7, their second blowout win over the Mountaineers that season.
As Maryland and West Virginia prepare to meet for the 50th time this weekend, McBrien will call Saturday’s game from the sideline, the newest member of the Terrapin Sports Radio Network broadcasting team. He also happens to be the poster child of a rare brotherhood, the football players who played on both sides of the border.
“It never really hit me that I’d have to play them,” McBrien said. “I was more focused on battling for a starting job and getting back on the field, earning a scholarship. Once I got that job, of course you look at the schedule and go, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to play West Virginia.’ First time playing was of course in Morgantown. Cool story about that first time was, we go out for warmups, and their whole student section is filled. They get their early for a good seat. Well I can’t repeat what they were saying to me, but the comments weren’t pretty.”
After stretching and warmups, Maryland jogged into the locker room. McBrien was never a vocal leader, even with Peach Bowl MVP honors in his rear-view mirror the season before and professional football career in the NFL and CFL in his future. When the Terps sprinted from the tunnel on to the field, McBrien tended to lag behind. Sometimes, he even walked, slowly, straight to the sideline.
The Gator Bowl time was different. Deep in the bowels of Alltell Stadium, Suter and Rich Parson grabbed McBrien and issued a declaration. “You’re leading us,” they said, “whether you like it or not.”
McBrien relented. He walked to the front of the pack and, before 78,892 fans, charged everyone out on the tunnel.
“As much as I didn’t want to do it, looking back on it, those guys really wanted to win the game for me,” he said this week. “They heard the student section, they knew all the criticism I had been taking week in and week out, from West Virginia fans, saying I was a traitor.”
Thing was, McBrien wanted to play for West Virginia. Friedgen never offered him a scholarship out of high school, and he loved Morgantown. He loved that all his friends lived there, that fans began tailgating on Friday nights, that children flipped the bird to visiting team buses. But when Don Nehlen, who McBrien considered “like a grandfather,” announced his retirement and Rich Rodriguez implemented a new system, McBrien began looking elsewhere. It was a business decision, he says today. Either not play and be miserable – McBrien never even sniffed the field during spring practices under Rodriguez, he says — or finish his college career at home.
After McBrien graduated from Maryland, the rivalry reversed course. West Virginia has won seven straight games since that Gator Bowl. But this might be the year for Terps fans. They are 3-0, undefeated behind a juggernaut offense led by quarterback C.J. Brown, who just might do what no one since McBrien could.
He still talks with his old Mountaineers teammates, too. They catch up and reminisce about the old days. But during game week, the texts contain barbs and the calls trash talk. After all, McBrien is now part of the other side.