INDIANAPOLIS -- Terrance West looked every bit the part of a man fulfilled. As he rested, slightly slouched, in a relatively barren airport around 9 p.m. Sunday night, after another long and grueling day of being monitored by NFL bigwigs, with his flight still delayed and no food to be found with all concessions and restaurants closed, he was still beaming as he exchanged texts and phone calls with his friends.
The kid who many in his hardscrabble neighborhood had long ago written off -- who spent 2010 completely out of football, trying to find a college program, working at a shoe store and training daily by running through the dangerous streets of northwest Baltimore -- was now on his way home from the NFL combine with the look of a conquering hero. His workout had done nothing but boost the prospect's stock, which soared through the winter as the junior set an FCS record with more than 2,500 yards, to go with 42 touchdowns, and who tore through opponents in the playoffs to lead Towson University, mere miles from West's childhood home, to the national championship game.
Now here he was, in the same garish Under Armour official combine-garb as the kids from USC and Alabama, showing he could compete with them, impressing teams on-field and off following 13 formal interviews with NFL team executives, including with the hometown Ravens, and informal discussions with a half-dozen other clubs ("I met I met a lot of GMs and I feel like I really impressed them," West said. "I won the room.").
West's 40-yard dash time, of 4.54 seconds, was plenty fast for a running back with his size and power (5-foot-9, 225 pounds) who plays with a violent streak able to prosper despite initiating contact. Congratulatory messages from NFL scouts -- some who doubted the youngster had legit 4.5 speed -- kept coming in as West awaited his flight home (one team actually had him clocked as fast as 4.48). When the flight landed, West, 23, who grew up without male role models and from the most modest of means in the drug-ravaged streets made famous by the TV series "The Wire," was returning instead to a nouveau-hip neighborhood, Harbor East, a destination spot on the other side of the city, where he is moving into a luxury condo.
He is on the cusp of fulfilling dreams many long ago would have abandoned, upholding a pre-draft, third-round grade by the advisory committee, and making a case to perhaps get selected even higher. And as he talks about his journey, one can tell that West still is trying to make sense of it himself, not surprised he's actually making it -- that self-determination never wavered -- but very much appreciative of all that has gone in to reaching this point.
"I knew I had the ability and the talent, and I just didn't want it to go to waste," said West, speaking quietly and ever-so-excitedly after his dizzying four days at the combine. "And I've seen a lot of guys in my area got caught up in Baltimore City -- there are so many distractions and so many bad things you can fall into. But from the age of 9 years old, I had my goals painted and this was always one of my goals -- to make it to the NFL combine. This is a big stage. It don't get no bigger than this."
West, who spent the past two months training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., knew he could compete with the big boys, and his talent has never been in question. "I was going into the combine saying I was going to kill it," West said, matter-of-factly. What he needed to get here, however, was some guidance, tough love, opportunity, a structured football environment. In Towson head coach Rob Ambrose he found all of that -- an adult male who would push and challenge West while also rewarding with affection. The two built from a very rocky beginning to form a bond and ascend together, with Ambrose's program going from 1-11 the year before West arrived to now one making regular NCAA playoff appearances and with Ambrose recently rewarded with a hefty contract extension designed to keep away larger schools.
West didn't think he'd ever end up at Towson, a rapidly-growing former commuter school in a suburb just over the Baltimore City line that produced former NFL players tackle Jermon Bushrod and running back Dave Meggett. After graduating from Northwestern High as a multisport star in 2009, he was recruited heavily by ACC schools like Maryland and Clemson. West went to prep school at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia in 2010, to try to get qualified (his SAT scores were low), but left there because he felt he was too far from home. He had to sit out a season after prep school because of NCAA rules and spent what would have been that season trying to stay in shape, and trying to find a school.
"I was actually working out in the rec center gym," West said. "We had no weights, so I did push-ups, pull-ups. I was running around the neighborhood to stay in shape and guys used to laugh and say, 'You ain't going nowhere. Turn your cleats in. You didn't get no real [scholarship] offers.' I used that as motivation to just work out on own. I'd wake up and just do it on my own. No one was pushing me. I was motivating myself."
Unable to qualify at larger schools, West decided to go to nearby Morgan State, a historically black college in northwest Baltimore, and filed out forms at the school to walk on to the football team. "But the next day they said the paperwork didn't go through," West said. He was thinking he might have to consider Division III schools -- something he really wanted to avoid if possible because of the low level of competition -- when he started checking into Towson. "I seen they was 1-11 and coach Ambrose seemed to be doing the job, they was just missing a few pieces to the puzzle," West said. "I called up there, set up a meeting and walked on."
Ambrose said: "[West] was on our radar from the beginning, but we didn't think we'd ever, ever get him. He was a [Division] I-A guy from the city and he was getting recruited by big schools. And then one day I got a phone call going, 'You won't believe this, but remember that kid Terrance West? Well, he's got no home. He needs a school.'
"There was a part of me that was hesitant, because I did not understand how he could actually be in the conversation. It's like logic kicks in and you don't understand how this could make sense and be possible, and then you start looking for what's wrong."
West arrived for spring practice in 2010, and Ambrose wasn't sure what to expect. He figured the prized prospect might come with some baggage, knew he was exceptionally raw, lacked real coaching. At the end of spring practice, Ambrose meets with every player, and had to tell West some things he may not have wanted to hear.
"I told him he did some things, on the positive side, that I have never, ever seen anyone do on the football field," Ambrose said. "And, I also saw him do some things on the football field, from a negative side, I had never ever seen anyone do before. ... We run a pro-style offense, with our terminology and how we play the game, and there was a lot Terrance had to learn. He really had to start learning fast."
Ambrose was astonished at how West always initiated contact -- he could run over safeties and linebackers and run past corners -- but had to learn how to be smart about it. His vision, balance and cutting ability were dominant but West had to learn the offense and all his responsibilities and how to play within the team concept.
"When I first got there I was just a kid with talent just running wild," West said. "As I grew and matured and watched film, I understood so much more and before the snap I knew where the ball was going and the schemes and formations and how to read the defense."
At the start of the 2011 season, West did not play at all in the first game (a 42-3 rout of Morgan State), despite an athletic skill set ripe to overpower at the FCS level. In that moment, though it would cause some ripples in their relationship, Ambrose believed West began to change. Towson won easily, ran the ball for big yardage and West was a spectator, and would be blended in slowly that first month of the season, often in short-yardage or special situations only.
"For the first time in his life he had to watch a game without his helmet on and the rest of the team was having success and he wasn't on the field," Ambrose said. "I think that really was a defining moment for him and he really started to understand what was going on. That was the moment. That's when he started to get it."
West went on to rush 194 times for 1,294 yards (7 yards per carry) with 29 touchdowns in 2011, as the Tigers finished 9-3, won the Colonial Athletic Association and reached the second round of the NCAA playoffs. They had suddenly become the big men on campus, and the immediate success proved a lot to handle. Towson opened 2012 with what at the time they viewed as a disappointing 41-21 loss at Kent State, turning the ball over six times ("I really thought we had a chance to win that game," Ambrose said). Of course, Kent State ended up finishing that season ranked 25th in the nation and without all the turnovers, Towson may have prevailed.
On Sept. 29, 2012, Towson, which jumped to Division I-AA in 1987 (now the FCS), made some national waves when the team went into Baton Rouge as a 43-point underdog against No. 3 LSU before 92,000 rabid fans, and facing a roster littered with future NFL players. But Towson actually made a game of it deep into the second half. Towson led, 9-7, in the second quarter on the first of West's two rushing touchdowns (he carried 22 times for 79 yards). LSU was up only 17-9 at the half and 24-9 entering the third quarter. Though Towson lost 38-22, afterward LSU coach Les Miles talked about his "somber locker room," while Ambrose's upstart bunch thought they had won the Super Bowl.
"In hindsight, it killed our season," said Ambrose, who went 3-19 his first two seasons at Towson. "Everyone was telling them how great they were. We did not handle that well at all. It was a down year for Terrance, and all of us. For our program, long-term, it was a tremendous accomplishment but for that season it was the worst thing possible.
"When Terrance got here, his 'entourage' was his mother and grandmother. After that game, every wahoo he ever knew from Baltimore City wanted to hang around him."
Ambrose, who is brutally honest and could be fairly scathing at times, let his players know what an opportunity they had wasted in 2012, and it wasn't always rosy between him and his talented running back. Towson rallied late to win four straight games and finish 7-4, in a four-way tie atop the CAA, but did not get an invite to the FCS postseason. Despite nearly an identical number of carries as in his freshman year (when he won the Jerry Rice Award as the top freshman in the FCS), West ended up with 300 fewer yards and less than half as many touchdowns (29-14).
Ambrose, a former receiver at Towson and the 2011 FCS Coach of the Year, made it clear that kind of production was not good enough, that taking any FCS opponent lightly wouldn't be tolerated. And with West eligible to enter the NFL draft after his junior season, he and the player had a candid conversation when both renewed their commitment to the school (the program's turnaround after years of horrible results started getting Ambrose, a former coordinator at UConn, noticed by bigger schools). West needed to cut certain people out of his inner circle and continue to mature and develop.
"Coach Ambrose does believe in tough love," West said, "and he has helped me become a better person. One thing about him -- when you are doing something wrong, he lets me know. And when you are doing something right, he lets you know that too."
In 2013, everything was positive.
West played 16 games, including the playoffs, amassed a staggering 413 carries again without any major injury ("He is incredibly strong and incredibly durable," Ambrose said), averaging a whopping 157 yards per game, including 41 scores on the ground and another via reception. Barely a game went by without several highlight-reel runs, going for 78-yard runs on third and 1, absolutely shredding defenses that sold out to stop him. He set FCS single-season yardage and touchdown records, and in the first round of the playoffs, on a snowy and frigid field at Eastern Illinois and with the game broadcast on ESPN, West was super-human, running 39 times for 356 yards, setting an FCS playoff record.
After the game, West was dumbfounded when reporters asked him if he knew he set a record. "Records don't mean a thing," West responded. "I want to win a national title." Ambrose was watching the exchange closely, and in that moment knew that West was fully invested in the team concept. "He and I had talked a lot about how to respond to certain questions and I'd coached him things like that over the years," Ambrose said. "But this wasn't coached. It wasn't phony. I could see it in his eyes. He was speaking from his heart."
West carried the team into the final game, where FCS dynasty North Dakota State pulled away in the second half to win the national title. Long ago Ambrose knew that would be West's last game at Towson; his NFL stock would be too great, the ability to help get his family out of northwest Baltimore too great. It was time for West to go pro.
West isn't quite done with Towson, however. He was rallying friends to meet him for the basketball game on campus Saturday, and though he isn't working out there -- he's training at a state-of-the-art Under Armour facility downtown instead -- his presence will ensure there are a bevy of scouts at the school's Pro Day on April 7 (cornerback Jordan Love is expected to get drafted as well, and, Ambrose has several kids likely to get long looks in 2015 and beyond).
"He really has everything you want to see out of a running back," Ambrose said. "And this kid is a worker. He will work. We never had any issues with that. He is pretty complete for his size and weight and he has great hands, too. We didn't use him much in that role but he can really catch the football. He is someone I believe can have a very long career in the NFL."
When asked if West is a three-down back, right away, at the NFL level, Ambrose paused for a moment. "In the right system and with the right coaching, yes," and undoubtedly West will have much to absorb when he gets to his first training camp. But the opportunity to have NFL decision-makers at his school in a few weeks has him pumped up -- "I want to get some NFL exposure for my teammates," West said. "I want everyone to get a chance to be seen," -- and to know there is no reason to have to re-run his 40-yard dash, that his combine did nothing to diminish his stock in any way, is a relief.
The biggest challenges are still ahead this summer -- "I don't want to just get to the NFL; I want to play a long time and have a big impact and my goal is to be the rookie of the year" -- but in the meantime there is plenty to savor, like a trip home from Indianapolis in late February after a strong showing before the entire NFL.
"What an amazing day, man," West said as he lounged at the airport, still blissfully unconcerned with the status of delayed flight. "I'm just so happy I get to represent where I come from. To represent Towson University. To represent Baltimore."