By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It had been a while.
A month? Maybe more. Noel Devine, who had been so available, so free and easy early in the season in his dealings with the media, had disappeared into the Bat Cave.
It was his toe and then his foot that he’d injured but it was his pride, really, that was hurt the most.
He was a football player who could not play football, at least not on the level he was used to playing, not like that YouTube sensation who had captured the nation’s imagination with electrifying runs in high school, not like the running back who had let Steve Slaton more on to the professional ranks from West Virginia a year early without the team missing a beat.
But then, against LSU, he was hit out of bounds and his toe had been mangled. Then, as he was getting back, he was injured again against Louisville, this time his ankle more than his toe, but all of a sudden this human Pac Man was now an ordinary runner.
Those spectacular jump cuts no longer had the sharpness or the speed that they had. Defenders who were left grabbing at air were getting a good piece of Devine.
It was like taking the sight on Annie Oakley’s rifle away, like making Randy Barnes throw a 25-pound shot put or LeBron James shoot at a 12-foot basket.
If anything is a great equalizer it is an injury and, as Devine would say, “injuries come with football.”
He’d been fortunate up that point, his injuries being only minor, the kind you don’t tell anyone about.
But now he was hurt and WVU lost to LSU, lost to Syracuse and lost to Connecticut, each by less than a Noel Devine touchdown.
Those 1,000-yard seasons he used to churn out by the ninth game would not come as a senior.
“It’s frustrating, but, at the same time I know what I can do and I know my abilities. The fact that I can’t do what I normally do and that I can’t be out there with my finishing things is frustrating,” he said as he sat there with the media.
It was not where Devine wanted to be and that was obvious. He was cordial and answered directly and honestly, but the questions were always about the injuries and the shortcomings in his season and he really didn’t want to talk about that.
“Enough about injuries. I feel like I’m going to die over here,” he said at one point.
But the questions were mostly about the injuries and the rehab and would he play this week, on Senior Day, his last game at Mountaineer Field, facing Rutgers in a must-win game that could lead to a Big East championship with a victory.
“You got a chance to see something this week,” he said.
Actually, he had shown something a week earlier against Pitt when he caught a swing pass, made a quick move and then scampered quite well down the sideline to set up the key score in the game.
“I was just itching and my adrenaline was going so much that I was ready to make a play and pick our team up and set the tempo,” he said. “I was trying to make a big play. After that we got it rolling.”
To contribute was wonderful for Devine, especially since he had been limited mostly to being an behind the scenes contributor.
“It made me pick up my leadership as far as being more vocal as far as encouraging others when I’m not there,” he said.
In his absence young Shawne Alston got a chance and played big time, not yet the All-American style that was expected out of Devine, but gave the team a big back look that Coach Bill Stewart liked and adopted.
“Shawne has been very impressive,” Devine said. “I had seen that he has something special and was going to be great. It was just a matter of having a chance to show his ability.”
Now all that’s left is Rutgers, a bowl game, in Devine’s case hopefully a BCS bowl, and then he has been invited to the Senior Bowl, which may be important because the people on the NFL have to be wondering about his situation.
As for Devine, there is no worry. He has those three chances to prove himself and he has a lifetime of missed tackles on his resume.
“All I need is a chance,” he said.
Anyone doubt that?
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.