On Saturday, Damone Boone went through the first practice of what will be his last year of college football. It's been a long time coming.
Boone is now at Carson-Newman, a Tennessee school and perennial contender for the NCAA Division II championship.
"I have a lot of expectations, for the team and for myself," he says.
And others have long had a lot of expectations for Boone.
He was recently named to the preseason all-South Atlantic Conference squad. Boone, now 25, hadn't gotten accolades like that in a while. In what he admits seems like another lifetime, Boone was a phenom for the Spartans of West Springfield High School. He gained more than 2,500 yards rushing during his senior season, in 1995, which included running for an even 500 yards against Annandale in the final game of his high-school career. He still holds the single-game and
regular-season rushing marks for Virginia high schools. He was named the Washington Post's Offensive Player of the Year and made the Parade All-American first team his senior season. (For some perspective on how long ago that was and how prestigious that outfit is, consider that Boone's teammates on that year's Parade prep squad included Tim Couch, Edgerrin James, Ron Dayne, Quincy Carter, Plaxico Burress, Courtney Brown, and Andy Katzenmoyer.)
He was recruited by essentially every Division I football program, but decided to stay local and signed with the University of Maryland, then coached by Mark Duffner. Duffner was on his last legs in College Park, and landing an everybody's all-American like Boone was hailed as a major coup for the beleaguered coach.
But at Maryland, the can't-miss-kid missed. And how.
"The playing part isn't really what's hard," Boone told me in the middle of his freshman season with the Terps in 1996. "It's the playbook part. I've had to learn how to play football, where the game isn't just getting the ball and running with it. That's the way it always used to be for me."
Boone rode the bench his freshman year, save for one downthe last play in the season-opening game against Southern Illinoiswhich cost him a year of athletic eligibility.
Before Boone's second year with the Terps, the school got rid of Duffner and replaced him with the heralded and tightly wound Ron Vanderlinden, who had previously been an assistant coach at Northwestern. Injuries alone derailed Boone's 1997 campaign. He pulled a hamstring in a 50-7 blowout loss to Florida State in the Terps' second game of the season and sat out the rest of the year.
He was granted a medical redshirt, meaning he still had three years of NCAA eligibility left. But he didn't want them: Boone quit the team during the next spring practice, withdrew from school, and went home to Northern Virginia. His college stats when he gave up the game weren't exactly can't-miss-kid numbers: 9 carries, 56 yards.
Boone now blames immaturity and family problems that he declines to discuss for causing him to walk away.
"I was young, and there was so much going on back home, with my family, that I couldn't really handle," he says. "People kept calling, but I didn't even pick up the phone or take any calls. I didn't want to deal with it at all. I didn't care about football."
He took a job at Rosecroft Raceway as a security guard and helped out his father working for a moving company. And for the first time in his life, Boone says, he fell way out of shape and didn't even mind. But after a few years away from football, Boone says, he was surprised to discover how much he missed the game. And the fact that he'd blown what was his best, and beginning to look like his only, chance to get a college education began bothering him.
Then, in 2001, he was on the phone talking about old times with his high-school coach, Frank Creneti, when he was asked a question he'd never thought he'd hear.
"Coach Creneti said, 'Do you want to play football again?'" Boone recalls. "I hadn't even thought about it, to tell you the truth. I was just trying to make a living. When I left Maryland, I guess I thought I could always go back to college somewhere, not to play but to go to school, but things never seem to work out the way you think. And by then I was thinking, I need a degree, so when Coach Creneti told me he could get me back into school if I would play football, it wasn't so hard for him to convince me."
Creneti and his son, Tod Creneti, a former West Springfield assistant coach who had also stayed close to Boone after he left high school, decided Carson-Newman would be a good fit for their ex-star. The college, located outside Knoxville, has for years used a run-oriented veer-option offense, which season after season has left the school among the leaders in rushing in Division II. The Crenetis did all the legwork to get Boone enrolled. The rest was up to him.
In Division I, athletes must use up their eligibility in five years from the time they enroll in college, except in situations where military service, religious missions, or severe and unique hardship have kept them out of sports. But in Division II, the eligibility clock stops if you're not enrolled in school. So despite Boone's advancing years, he would still have three seasons of football remaining at Carson-Newman.
"I'd never heard of Carson-Newman before I got here," he says. "But there were players older than me."
Boone says that, just as he had his first season at Maryland, he had trouble adjusting to the Carson-Newman offense, which had him lining up in a three-point stance and closer to the line than he ever had before. But he'd learned the system fine by last year, when he gained 867 yards on just 98 carries and scored 10 touchdowns for a 12-1 team that suffered its lone loss in the playoffs.
Those stats, while impressive, aren't quite the numbers he racked up at West Springfield. But last season's performance put Boone back in a record-setting state of mind for the first time since his Spartan days. He recently took a look at the college's football record book and decided the single-season and single-game marks, both held by Heath Hawkins, Carson-Newman's current running-backs coach, are within his reach.
"I haven't told my coach yet that I'm going after his records," says Boone with a chuckle.
A lot of folks from his high school have been in touch lately and told him they'll be watching him this season, Boone says. The Crenetis are most happy that he's on track to get his degree in mass communications in December. But his West Springfield teammates have pinned higher hopes on Boone.
"They're all done playing by now, and they make fun of me a little bit for still playing, but it's all in fun, and some of the guys think I can take this further," he says. "I tell them I don't know about that, how that works, and that I'm happy just to be in the game now. But they just want the best for me, and if it happens that I can keep playing after college, well, I'll take it. Who wouldn't?" Dave McKenna