- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

Two days after being mostly a spectator during Maryland's 22-0 opening loss to Notre Dame, Chris Downs wanted some answers. The senior tailback approached running backs coach Mike Locksley after Monday's practice with a fierce look on his face.

"I was shocked because he was never a guy that even once complained," Locksley said. "He came in and waited after a meeting and told me he had talked to his dad at home. And his dad, who never says anything about playing, said, 'Hey, if you're not playing, maybe you need to concentrate on school or maybe look into going some other places.' He came in and said, 'I'm not complaining, but I'm busting my [butt]. Will I ever get a shot?'"

Downs got the reassurance he needed and has been on a breakaway run to daylight since. The 5-foot-8, 193-pounder had the biggest game by an ACC back this season when he ran over Georgia Tech for 212 yards and three touchdowns last week. He is averaging 100 yards rushing a game and 6.6 yards a carry since that post-practice conversation with Locksley.

He will start his seventh consecutive game when the Terrapins (5-2, 1-1 ACC) visit Duke (2-6, 0-4) this afternoon. Bruce Perry, the ACC offensive player of the year last season, will make his 2002 debut after tearing his left groin muscle in the preseason. However, even as Perry looks to regain last season's form (1,242 yards rushing), Downs has established himself as a major part of the offense after his ascent from obscurity to star.

"I was really not counting on Chris," said Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen, who can't recall another player in his 34 years of coaching rising so fast so late in a career. "It speaks volume for his perseverance and his attitude."

This wasn't the first time Downs had wondered about his role. The Philadelphia native strongly considered transferring most likely to Division I-AA Delaware at his family's urging after last season, when he had only four carries and was used almost exclusively on special teams. He said he wasn't seriously thinking about leaving when he confronted Locksley, only trying to clarify his status.

Downs had watched helplessly as Maryland ran for a paltry 16 yards on 21 carries against Notre Dame, with sophomore Jason Crawford and freshman Mario Merrills the featured rushers in the Kickoff Classic horror show. He chose his words carefully during the conversation with Locksley, which lasted about five minutes.

"I just asked him if I was going to get a shot to play," Downs said. "He said the next game they weren't going to start me, but they were going to put me in early on in the first quarter. I was like, 'All right, that's cool.' Later on during the week, Coach Friedgen told me I was starting."

Two days later, Friedgen gave him "a battlefield promotion" after Crawford and Merrills struggled in practice. Downs blocked crisply, hit holes and, perhaps most importantly, held on to the ball. He had a modest debut with 12 carries for 58 yards against Akron, but a play that didn't count the following week showed that Downs could be a big-time running back.

Against Florida State, Downs found a seam and outran the speedy Seminoles for an apparent 61-yard touchdown that was called back because of an illegal block. He had 147 yards rushing against Wofford and a 72-yard touchdown run against West Virginia to set up last week's spectacular performance, which included 109 yards rushing and two touchdowns in the third quarter alone and a 64-yard scoring jaunt in the fourth to seal the game.

It is a bit surprising to find him still in College Park at all after being fourth-string last season. The outlook was bleak with Perry and Crawford returning. Downs could have transferred and played immediately for a Division I-AA program like Delaware, where older brother Derrick played tailback and still has contacts.

Chris, the second youngest of eight children, also spoke regularly with brother Steven, the running backs coach at I-AA Pennsylvania. Steven fielded calls from several coaches interested in Chris and could have brokered a change. But after some reflection following last January's Orange Bowl, Downs realized he would rather stay with the Terps even if he was only on special teams.

"I would definitely have to say it was more my family members than me," said Downs, who put the matter behind him before spring practice. "I really didn't mind staying, but they were trying to push me into leaving. I told them, 'If I decide to leave, it would basically mean I'm quitting something.' And that's just not me."

Downs stayed largely because he likes his teammates, coaches and the school. He is scheduled to graduate in the spring with a degree in family studies and plans to become a family therapist. He also didn't want to move to a third college after getting his academics straight while playing his first two years at Valley Forge Military Academy and College in Wayne, Pa., before arriving at Maryland in the fall of 2000 and redshirting his first season.

Downs expected to get his chance, especially after Perry went down. The season-opening debacle against Notre Dame left him wondering.

"They had him thinking he would get some playing time, and they never put him in," said Steven Downs, who counseled his brother not to be confrontational with Locksley. "If he would have been told, 'You're just playing special teams' or 'you don't sound like you want to be here,' that would have been a problem. I could see things going a little different direction. He's a little stubborn at times."

The stubbornness is probably why Downs stayed and refused to accept his support role. Friedgen calls Downs' story "a great lesson in life if you keep working hard, good things are going to happen." The coach feels Downs overcame being "labeled" as a backup and that most role players in their senior seasons would get discouraged and miss out on opportunities.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide