WESTMINSTER -- Now comes the hard part. Eric Frees rushed for more yards than all but six backs in college football history, carried more than a thousand times in his four years at Western Maryland, a thousand sessions of butting helmets with linebackers -- and it's funny, but yes, now comes the hard part.
Now comes the reckoning, the inevitable, discouraging reckoning of the NFL scouts. Frees knows what they will say before they say it. Everyone does. They will say he is too small, too slow, that he didn't play big-time opponents. They'll have plenty of reasons not to like him. Frees knows it. Everyone does.
Yes, the hard part is the sell, a tough sell indeed when you're 5 feet 8 and 185 pounds and still getting over the Johns Hopkins game, and a scout is sitting there trying to envision you playing against the Redskins. The hard part is a scout spitting that word in your face -- prospect -- the inference that you're somehow belittled if you don't measure up.
"I know they'll talk about my supposed shortcomings," Frees said between classes the other day. "It won't be nice to hear, but I'm used to it. I've always been one of the smallest players on my teams, since I was a kid. All I'm hoping for is that they take more than a passing look."
That is what so many people are saying these days up here amid the fallen leaves and rolling hills of Carroll County. They're saying that, after watching Frees rush for three miles in four years, 5,281 yards to be exact, hopefully the pros will at least get beyond their stopwatches and tape measurements.
"All I'm asking," Western Maryland coach Dale Sprague said, "is they sit down and talk with him, listen to him, look at his films. Do more than measure him physically and walk away. You've got to get inside this kid to see what makes him tick. I have runs on film that defy probability. I've got one that defies gravity."
Up here they are all believers. They've seen the stuff of legend. Frees got the ball in his first game as a freshman, when the No. 1 back was injured, and the next week broke a 73-yard touchdown on his third carry. He never missed another start. In his last game a week ago, he carried 48 times for 205 yards and two late touchdowns -- on fourth-down runs -- that beat Hopkins.
"He accomplished so much here that I could spend hours talking about him," Sprague said. "This is a very driven kid. First one on the practice field, last off. First one in the weight room, last out. I've been in coaching 17 years and seen none better."
His ability is not about speed or unusual quickness, but changing directions, making beautiful, sharp cuts that enable him to slip through sliver-thin holes and make tacklers miss. And strength, too. He weighed 160 pounds as a freshman, but four years of weightlifting has added 25 pounds, so that, he said, "Now I hit instead of get hit."
There were those who saw this coming. Frees was recruited by some Division I schools (Iowa, Missouri) and the Division II powers coming out of Ephrata High School, in Pennsylvania's Lancaster County. But the lights of the big time didn't beckon to him.
"I didn't want to go somewhere and sit three years to play one," he said. "I also didn't want football to be the whole of my college experience."
He is the first member of his family to attend college -- his mother is a nurse, his father a mason, his brother a construction foreman -- and plans to graduate next spring with an English degree. He doesn't know what he'll do if there is no more football. Maybe graduate school. Maybe going back to Ephrata to work.
But the thing is, he does want more football. To go directly from 1,500-yard seasons to nothing would be difficult. He could take it -- that's the beauty of Division III, the perspective it teaches -- but NTC what's wrong with hoping? Besides, there are other choices, Canada, the WLAF.
"I can say I'm totally satisfied if it's all over," he said. "I've had a great experience. I'll always remember the Hopkins game this year, beating Franklin and Marshall last year up there in front of my people at home, beating Dickinson when they were nationally ranked last year. But . . .
"I hope [the pros] will at least look at me. Once I'm on the field with everyone, I feel good about my chances. I see those holes Thurman Thomas runs through. I just don't think it's unreasonable. Hopkins had that linebacker who'd transferred from Harvard and said I was the best back he'd ever played against. People say stuff."
So the hard part begins. One NFL team has called. The scouting services sent letters and will be on campus sometime in the next few months. Sprague called the people who run the Blue-Gray All-Star Game.
"They listened," Sprague said. "Eric understands that it's an uphill struggle. I'm just trying to get his name in front of as many people as possible."
Other have gone before him, of course. Joe Dudek, the only Division III back who gained more yards than Frees, played for the Broncos. Bruce Laird, the Colts' fine safety from their Baltimore days, came from American International, a Division III school.
"If they took a look at Dudek and took a look at Laird, who was my college teammate," Sprague said, "then Eric Frees deserves a look. If he doesn't at least get a look, something is wrong in this world."