Dean Muhtadi glanced around Maryland’s locker room as the countdown to noon - and kickoff against California - unfolded on an unseasonably hot day in September.
The mood was somber and bleak, and the sting of a loss a week earlier at Middle Tennessee was threatening to bleed into the remaining 10 games of the Terrapins‘ season.
For the moment, Muhtadi was as quiet as everyone else, his headphones snugly delivering one of his preferred intense tunes. As the song grew louder, Muhtadi became more agitated. Finally, the defensive lineman began screaming, pounding his locker - anything to generate an inkling of excitement an hour before a game against a ranked team.
“I don’t know if it was because of the loss to Middle Tennessee or if guys didn’t believe we could win that game,” Muhtadi said of the moments before the Terps’ 35-27 upset of the Golden Bears. “I didn’t like what I was seeing, and I had my headphones on, and I was all amped and ready to go and just went crazy.”
It wasn’t long before everyone else did, too - so much that coach Ralph Friedgen had to contain his team from pouring onto the field too early. That’s the sort of effect Muhtadi, a former walk-on by way of Division III Christopher Newport, possesses - and will try one last time to provide for the Terrapins (7-5) when they play Nevada (7-5) in Tuesday’s Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Idaho.
He’s a guy who secured a job with Morgan Stanley in Alexandria, filing papers and making copies - the summer before he entered seventh grade - and parlayed it into what he describes as a “10-year internship.” He walked away from plenty of playing time at Christopher Newport after two seasons, wanting to give Division I a try while he still could.
That he pulled it off is impressive, and that he recorded 2.5 sacks and started three games this fall in his only year on scholarship demonstrates his value to a program short on defensive linemen entering the season. And he did it all while beginning work on a graduate degree in Maryland’s business school.
“He’s exceptionally bright,” Friedgen said. “You don’t find defensive linemen that are that way. He’s going to be a very big success in this world because I think he has an engaging personality, he’s very outgoing, very bright and he’s a very hard worker. When you put that combination together, I think he’s going to be successful.”
Yet Muhtadi’s greatest value may lie in his genuine personality. His gregarious bellowing is often heard well before he comes close to Maryland’s interview room, and it’s part of why his pregame routine - which is now more of a ritual than an impromptu shoutfest - works for the Terps.
Maryland’s locker room is organized by jersey number, so Muhtadi (who wears No. 97) dresses far from most of the defensive backs. Still, his voice isn’t difficult to distinguish, even in the din of pregame preparation.
“It’s already loud, but when he yells you can hear him throughout the locker room,” said cornerback Jamari McCollough, who wears No. 4. “It just echoes off the walls. He gets you energized. He speaks loud and says motivating things. … When we’re down sometimes, he brings inspiration. He lifts you up. He speaks loud, and you’ll hear him. He doesn’t just say stuff to say it. You know he really means it.”
Perhaps it stems from where he was just a few years ago. Muhtadi recalled playing a Division III game on a high school field in Greensboro, N.C., before about a hundred fans - hardly his vision of the college experience.
The past three years were far different. He spent time on the scout team and only emerged as a regular contributor this season. It led to plenty of memories, and even if he wishes he could come back and improve next season, Muhtadi appreciates the unlikely chance he received with the Terps.
“I would probably trade a year of playing games at Christopher Newport for a single big game of starting here,” Muhtadi said. “Just because of everything that goes with it - the pageantry, the rivalry, the competition. All of it.”
Especially the pregame inspiration.