Things had gone so smoothly before college for Michael Nebrich. He shattered state football records at Lake Braddock and was named 2010 All-Met Offensive Player of the Year. He earned a scholarship to play quarterback at the University of Connecticut and sported a Mohawk haircut, carefree in the pursuits that guide many teenage boys: girls, video games and sports.
With the Huskies, everything changed. As a freshman, he lost a three-way battle for the starting job and passed for fewer than 100 yards. Then Coach Randy Edsall left for Maryland. Edsall’s successor, Paul Pasqualoni, kept Nebrich relegated to a backup role. So Nebrich, not six practices into preseason camp in 2012, asked for his release and transferred to play for an old friend, two hours south down Route 15, deep in the heart of the Bronx.
“That one was just Coach Moorhead,” Nebrich said.
Joe Moorhead, the Connecticut quarterbacks coach for three seasons, had returned to his alma mater, Fordham, to become head coach in the 2012 season.
Two seasons into their reunion, the quarterback who desperately wanted a second chance and the coach who provided it have teamed up to lead a program steeped in rich football tradition to its best season ever. And when Nebrich and the Rams visit seventh-seeded Towson in the second round of the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs Saturday, they can reach the quarterfinals for the second time in school history.
“We have a lot of guys here who have helped,” Nebrich said. “I’m really thankful to be here, play with them and rewrite the history at Fordham.”
Around campus, Nebrich has become somewhat of a folk hero, and why not? Fordham is 12-1. One of those wins was over Temple, the Rams’ first victory over a team from the highest level of college football since 1954. Nebrich has broken school records for passing yards and completions and is a finalist for the 2013 Walter Payton Award, the FCS version of the Heisman Trophy. He gives high-fives on the street and autographs at the barbershop.
“We didn’t even get a haircut that day,” said Dan Light, a junior tight end and one of Nebrich’s four roommates. “It was just passing, some of the guys standing out outside. They had a program. People know who he is.”
At first, Light knew Nebrich as the cocky hotshot riding into town less than two weeks before camp closed, armed with an FBS pedigree, even though that wound up being far from the truth. After Connecticut granted Nebrich his release, he actually planned to visit Towson, where former Huskies offensive coordinator Rob Ambrose now coaches. But on the drive home, he stopped at Fordham and reunited with Moorhead, who once recruited Nebrich out of Lake Braddock. They talked about second chances.
Nebrich quickly endeared himself to the Rams, Light included. What initially passed for arrogance turned into a fiery competitiveness. During a 37-27 first-round victory over Sacred Heart last weekend, Fordham’s school-record 12th win of the season, Moorhead called a screen pass that particularly irked Nebrich. He returned to the sideline and barked at Moorhead, part of the rapport they have developed over the past two seasons.
“He’ll yell at everyone,” Light said. “Offensive line, receivers, the refs, he gets lost. He just wants to win. It’s not like a bad thing against him. It’s a positive.”
Reluctant to accept credit for an offense that has enjoyed video-game success this season — three Rams receivers have topped 1,000 yards, and so has their running back — Nebrich had barely arrived in the Bronx when he encountered another setback. Against Cornell in the third week, he carried the football on a sweep, planted and tore his ACL.
He had never suffered a major injury before. Surgery “reprogrammed” his mind, Nebrich said. He continued to attend meetings and watched more film. This spring, he only participated in seven-on-seven drills, which allowed him to get down the timing with his wide receivers. Perhaps that’s why he leads the nation in completion percentage.
“That’s what you love about him,” Moorhead said.
In 1954, Fordham axed its football program, which is perhaps best known for its “Seven Blocks of Granite” offensive line in the 1930s that included Vince Lombardi. But two decades later, the teams were bad, the fans didn’t care and everyone was losing money. Eventually, a group of students revived the sport, first at the club level, then to Division III in 1970, then to Division I-AA in 1990, three years before Nebrich was born. But since the program’s reinstatement, Fordham had never beaten an FBS team, not until Nebrich heaved the game-winner with four seconds left at Temple this September and everyone celebrated under the aura of the second chance.