TOWSON, Md. — Long before he ran into the record books on the football field, when it seemed every direction he turned led to another letdown, Towson junior running back Terrance West was working at a mall in Baltimore.
He rushed for more than 4,700 yards during a prolific career at Northwestern High in Baltimore, but low SAT scores forced him to spend a year at Fork Union Military Academy in 2010. Clemson showed interest in him at one point but never offered a scholarship. He lined up a chance to walk on at Maryland, but that fell through when Ralph Friedgen was fired and new Coach Randy Edsall did not call back. He even tried to walk on at Morgan State, but there was a paperwork issue.
With few options left, and a 3-year-old son sitting at home in West Baltimore, West went to a nearby Jimmy Jazz clothing store and applied for a job.
“I was selling shoes,” he said walking toward the locker room at Towson’s Johnny Unitas Stadium after practice this week, a parade of interviews nearly complete. “I’m like the only one from my area that’s doing something positive and it’s crazy. I could have gotten distracted, but I had a goal and I had a vision. I was still working out.”
Looking back, West, who leads all of college football with 2,295 rushing yards this season, can talk wistfully about how the disappointments shaped his career now that it all worked out.
The 5-foot-11, 223-pound tailback finally landed a walk-on spot at Towson before the 2011 season. Last week, he made national headlines when he rushed for a Football Championship Subdivision playoff record 354 yards and five touchdowns in a 49-39 win over Eastern Illinois. As a result, the seventh-seeded Tigers (12-2) advanced to the FCS semifinals for the first time in school history and will face No. 3 seed Eastern Washington (12-2) Saturday afternoon.
The emergence of West mirrors the rejuvenation of an entire program. The year before he arrived on campus, the Tigers sported a 1-10 record and hadn’t won more than three games since 2006.
Still, the time spent looking for a team left West hungry to prove he belonged. He continued to live with his mother and son in Baltimore, so he would take two buses every morning in order to make 5 a.m. spring practices. The public transportation schedule meant West usually arrived at Towson an hour early, before Coach Rob Ambrose had even unlocked the team facility.
His impact on the field, though, was almost immediate. After sitting out the first game of the 2011 season, West rushed for 1,294 yards and won the Jerry Rice Award as the best freshman at the FCS level. He racked up another 1,046 yards last year.
But this season, West outperformed even his wildest expectations. He has rushed for more than 100 yards in all but three games, and eclipsed 200 yards four times. Last week, when he averaged 9.1 yards per carry, he had three runs that went for at least 37 yards and churned out 12 of Towson’s 26 first downs with his legs.
“I really was just taking it play by play,” West said. “After the game, they told me the stats, I was like, ‘Wow.’ That’s when it really hit me.”
West’s outburst, both last week and this season, has drawn the attention of pro scouts and some have called him the best FCS running back prospect since former Philadelphia Eagles star Brian Westbrook (DeMatha).
Ambrose, a former Towson wide receiver who has become a trendy name in the college football world after orchestrating the program’s resurgence, noted this week, “Two of the most commonly asked questions this season [are], ‘Is Terrance going to the NFL?’ and, ‘Am I going to be here after the season?’ ”
“I compare him real closely to [former Virginia Tech running back] Ryan Williams,” said senior linebacker Telvion Clark, who came to Towson after being dismissed from the Hokies’ football program in the spring of 2012. “He’s a much bigger back, but he has those feet like a little back would. He’s really smart and instinctive with the football.”
West dismissed any inquiries into whether he might forgo his final year at Towson to enter the 2014 NFL draft, telling reporters, “Ask me that question when we win a national championship.”
But he continues to be overlooked to a certain extent. On Monday, West finished third in voting for the Walter Payton Award — given annually to the FCS’s top offensive player. Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo won the award just two days after losing to Towson in the playoffs.
Voting was conducted before West’s record-setting performance, and he shrugged off the snub, saying he would be more upset if Towson hadn’t won the game.
“Moments like this are gonna last forever,” he said.
And it sure beats selling shoes.
“Terrance doesn’t need a trophy to tell him he’s the best player in the country,” Ambrose said. “We know he is.”