The ring is clunky and gaudy and almost weighs down Jason Ambrose's finger. When he goes out at night, the diamonds glisten under the light.
"It's almost obnoxiously big," he said. "I don't have to say much when I wear it. People kind of just stare. It's a great conversation starter, though. Everyone always wants to know about it."
It's the Penn State men's volleyball team's 2008 national championship ring, and it's Ambrose's most-prized possession.
When he's not wearing it, he keeps it in a small cushioned box, locked away in his room.
"I love that thing," the 6-foot-5 outside hitter said. "Because it means so much to me. It represents teamwork and hard work and synergy."
But when the Nittany Lions won that ring -- when they upset West Coast power Pepperdine in the NCAA finals -- Ambrose wasn't on the court. He wasn't even on the sideline. He was back in State College, watching the game on television with a couple members of the women's volleyball team and Joe Sunder, who redshirted the 2008 season. The Lions could only take 17 players to Irvine, Calif., for the national tournament. Ambrose didn't travel.
"I remember we were on the edge of our seats the entire match," Sunder said. "And when we won, we just screamed and celebrated. I just remember how happy he was."
Two years later, Ambrose is winding down his senior season at Penn State. But his volleyball career hasn't quite worked out as expected. The prized recruit from Barrington, Ill. -- who could have been a star at nearly any East Coast school -- has seldom played.
When the No. 6 Lions play Princeton at 7 tonight at Rec Hall, Ambrose's name will be called by the P.A. announcer for a rare occasion. He'll be one of three seniors recognized on Senior Day.
And when Ambrose looks back on his Penn State career, there will be no regrets, he said. In fact, he'll consider himself fortunate. He was part of a top-notch volleyball program. Half of his tuition was already paid. And really, how many collegiate athletes get to own a NCAA championship ring?
Being with the best
Sometimes when Ambrose jumps up and hits the ball into the net during practice, he'll laugh and turn to his teammates.
"Well," he'll joke. "That's why they're paying me to be here."
The NCAA allows each Division I men's volleyball program to have 4.5 full scholarships.
Ambrose's 50-percent scholarship accounts for one-ninth of the Lions' quota.
"Some kids come into the gym, big stars in high school, but they don't get any money to come here," he said. "And then they see me and find out I'm on scholarship and see that I'm not playing that much. It's probably weird for them."
It's weird for Ambrose, too. Named one of the top-50 players in Illinois all four years of high school, Ambrose is used to things coming easily for him on the court. And when he began his college search, he explored his options.
He went on an unofficial recruiting trip to the West Coast -- where he visited perennial powerhouses UCLA, Pepperdine and UC Irvine -- but boiled his choice down to Penn State and Princeton.
Ivy League institutions aren't allowed to offer athletic scholarships. And as luring as the prestigious education was, his heart turned to the Lions.
Ambrose is very competitive by nature. His mother, Kathryn, said as a child he played just about every sport, except for gymnastics.
"He was too tall for that," she said. "But he loved to do everything from choir to debate. And he loved to work hard and be the best that he could at it."
So Ambrose loved the idea of playing for a school like Penn State, where he would have the opportunity to compete for a national championship every year.
"We told him not to worry about the money. We wanted him to do what would make him happy," Kathryn said. "And he told us, 'How will I know how good I am if I don't play with the best?' He wanted to be with the best, and he wanted to go Penn State."
A tough realization
It was the ultimate compliment when coach Mark Pavlik told Ambrose he didn't want him to play his freshman year.
The coaching staff asked Ambrose to redshirt, suggesting the program had great expectations for him.
"Of course I wanted to contribute right away," Ambrose said. "But I realized I had to be patient, because it was all about the team."
But by the time Ambrose's sophomore year began, he didn't look ready to step on the court for the Lions. Then his junior year came, and still he wasn't there.
"He never really developed as the attacker and blocker as much as we hoped he would," Pavlik said. "And I can't tell you why. Just like I can't tell you why some guys do develop the way they do. It's just one of those things. It's part of the game."
It's a part of the game that's hard.
Each year, Ambrose saw new guys -- like Sunder and Will Price -- who played his position come into the gym. And he was impressed by their talent.
"I knew I was going to have to work my butt off," Ambrose said. "But it was like, no matter how hard I work, these guys are more physically talented than me and will always be a step ahead of me. Realizing that was a process I had to go through."
At first, Ambrose had trouble coming to grips with it. He understood he had an important role for the team. But still, volleyball was consuming.
In high school, he was always jumping around from activity to activity: basketball, baseball, soccer, church groups, glee club, student government.
"Yeah, there was a time, maybe my freshman year here, when I thought about some of the different things I might be missing out on because of volleyball," he said. "But as I've gotten closer to the guys on this team, I can't believe how much fun I've had and how many experiences I've had here."
During matches, Ambrose stands on the sideline and cheers on his teammates. His facial expressions are animated, his mood is relaxed.
"To be honest, being on the bench is kind of a role I've accepted," he said. "I learned it's being more of the type of player that the team needs rather than the go-to-guy every time. And I love this team. It's almost more fun for me to see Joe or Will go out there and bounce the ball as it is for me to go out there and do it."
The next chapter
He's ready to move on.
Though he has one more year of eligibility left, Ambrose decided he will spend his final year of college studying abroad.
It was a tough decision to make. He sat down with Pavlik early last year, and the two talked it out.
"Pav understood," Ambrose said. "He always been a guy who really wants to do what's best for each guy on the team."
Ambrose's teammates understood, too. He didn't make any formal announcement, but he said the guys slowly found out and supported his decision.
"As far as volleyball goes, I enjoyed my experience here, but I'm ready to move forward," he said. "Experience some new things. I always love trying new stuff."
When he does graduate, he doesn't know what he wants to do.
But he does know he has a leg up on the competition -- experiences he's gained in four years with the Penn State men's volleyball team.
"Having that on your rÃ©sumÃ© is such a boost," he said. "It shows that you perform well on a team, you represent the university on a daily basis, you have leadership and teamwork experience."
And it's not just Ambrose who has benefited from his four years with the Lions. Ambrose's teammates said his presence in the gym is vital to their success.
"Jason works hard and does everything he's supposed to," Sunder said. "Is he a role model? He's absolutely the best."
But to Ambrose, that's all part of the package. He just loves being part of the team. And being a part of something great.
"Looking down on your finger, seeing the national championship ring, you realize it's worth it," Ambrose said. "All of the struggles you had to go through, all of the doubts you had. Because at the end of the day, it's all about what we accomplished together."