PSU's 'Rolls Royster' attracts fan following
It is the ultimate sign of respect in team sports when a player garners a significant enough following that his devotees join together to honor him with an informal fan club.
To his amazement, Penn State tailback Evan Royster learned he had risen to such a status prior to the second game of the 2008 season, against Oregon State, when he ran out of the tunnel at Beaver Stadium and spied a large white banner with blue lettering draped over the guard rail in the student section. It proclaimed the existence of something that had been cleverly dubbed "Blue Royster Cult."
Unfortunately for Royster, it had to be explained to him exactly what the reference meant.
"I had no idea," said Royster, whose favorite bands apparently came along after the heyday of Blue Oyster Cult, a 1960s and '70s rock group whose biggest smash, "(Don't Fear) The Reaper," was released in 1976.
For Royster, maybe even more so than for the vintage rockers to whom his name is now inextricably attached, the hits just kept on coming. A backup to a backup who had advanced far enough up the food chain through attrition in 2007 that he gained 513 yards on 82 carries (a 6.3-yard average) and scored five touchdowns as a redshirt freshman, he burst out of the blocks last season by scoring three touchdowns in a 66-10, season-opening rout of Coastal Carolina.
That apparently was enough for some industrious Penn State students to identify the Fairfax, Va., resident as a growth property and potential object of adulation, hence the banner. And when Royster followed up with another three-TD outburst in a 45-14 wipeout of Oregon State, while rushing for 141 yards on just 17 carries, it was clear that a bright, new star had arisen in the night skies above State College. Before too long, the 6-foot-1, 209-pounder with the fluid moves was conferred with still another nickname, "Rolls Royster," that suggested a luxury ride along the lines of such celebrated former Nittany Lions running backs as John Cappelletti, Franco Harris, Lydell Mitchell, Curt Warner and Larry Johnson.
Royster finished Penn State's Rose Bowl, co-Big Ten championship season with a team-high 1,236 rushing yards, a splendid 6.5 yards-per-carry average and 12 TDs, making him a consensus preseason All-Big Ten choice to duplicate and maybe even improve upon his 2008 numbers. With two seasons of eligibility remaining, he needs 1,650 more rushing yards — just 825 per season — to surpass Warner's school record of 3,398 yards that has stood since 1982.
Royster will get his first shot at closing in on Warner when the Nittany Lions, tied for ninth with Oklahoma State in The Associated Press' preseason poll, open the 2009 season at home against Akron on Sept. 5.
Those stats are pretty much what you'd expect from someone who was probably the most highly recruited athlete in the country in 2006. Except that his best sport at Westfield High wasn't football, but lacrosse.
Born in Texas and the youngest of four boys, Royster moved to Fairfax when he was in the third grade. Eventually he was introduced to lacrosse, and his skills soon became apparent. He scored 33 goals as a senior, and national powers Virginia and Johns Hopkins were among the many suitors that targeted him as a future All-America.
"He was the best player in the country his senior year, no question," said Gary Malm, Royster's high school lacrosse coach. "Everybody wanted him."
But Royster, rated "only" a three-star recruit in football by Rivals.com , wanted to concentrate on scoring touchdowns, not improving his stickwork. And, although such strong programs as Maryland, Virginia Tech and Nebraska expressed interest, Royster committed on the spot when Penn State coaching legend Joe Paterno traveled to Westfield High to make his pitch. JoePa obviously was a classic rocker to whom Royster could identify.
"I knew right away I wanted to play for Joe," Royster said.
The path to the field, though, was long and filled with obstacles. Royster redshirted in 2006 and, when fall practice commenced the following year, he was third on the depth chart behind fifth-year seniors Austin Scott and Reggie Kinlaw, both of whom had waited patiently for their turns to shine while backing up Tony Hunt.
But Scott played only five games before being suspended for a violation of team rules, which created enough of an opening for Kinlaw to break through for a 1,329-yard, 10-touchdown swan-song season. Royster, in turn, was impressive enough as Kinlaw's primary backup that he gave hope that the running game would remain productive in 2008.
What followed was "Blue Royster Cult," five 100-yard games, a Penn State sophomore rushing record (the previous mark of 1,210 yards had been set by Curtis Enis in 1996) and selection as one of 10 semifinalists for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation's best college running back.
Not bad for a shy, humble guy who somehow continued to fly under the radar for so much of his breakout season so much so that Ohio State's All-America cornerback, Malcolm Jenkins expressed amazement that he actually was as good as he is.
"He just came out of nowhere. Nobody really knew about him," Jenkins, now a rookie with the New Orleans Saints, said even before Royster rushed for 43 yards in the fourth quarter (and 77 overall), helping the Lions control the clock in a 13-6 victory in Ohio Stadium.
If Royster continues to affix his signature to the Penn State record book, could No. 22 outgrow references to a band that had only intermittent success on the charts• Might there be a way to somehow link Royster to, say, the Rolling Stones or the Beatles?