Evan Royster sat at his locker after Saturday’s win, a bit overwhelmed.
Everything had fallen into place a little too perfectly, Royster said a few minutes later in his postgame interview.
Saturday night, he broke Curt Warner’s 28-year old Penn State rushing record early in the first quarter on a 20-yard gain. He scored a pair of touchdowns and ran for 150 yards in a victory over Michigan before a white-clad student section. It was, he said, the most fun he’s ever had playing football.
But what Royster said choked him up most as he sat in front of the locker, with the burden of months of questions about the record finally off his back, was the slew of teammates who took turns approaching him to offer congratulatory comments.
“Once I got into the locker room, I almost started crying,” Royster said. “Everyone was coming up to me, congratulating me. It feels great to have teammates like that who love you and have your back.”
Breaking the record in style
In all, nights like Saturday were the reason Royster opted to return to school for his fifth season, passing up the NFL Draft — a decision he said he hasn’t regretted, despite struggling this year. The senior tailback has taken plenty of criticism, with only one game of more than 62 yards on the ground before Saturday.
Many thought Royster would’ve had the record wrapped up before late October, but a lack of carries mixed with his own struggles and similar problems on the offensive line prevented that from happening.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Royster said. “Having a good game at home, and breaking the record is how I always saw it in my mind. It’s a great feeling to have the fans’ support and the team. It’s something that I’ll never forget.”
It’s also something he never thought would be possible. When Royster arrived as a freshman, his goal was to have one yard to his name, let alone a program-high 3,518 and counting.
“I just came here hoping to get a chance to play,” Royster said. “And to be in this situation, it’s a blessing, and I couldn’t have asked for a better turnout.”
It’s almost fitting Royster’s record came against Michigan, the team he’s carved up for the last two seasons, going for 174 and 100 yards in those games.
But Royster simply laughed when asked why he had such an easy time finding holes in the Wolverines defense.
“It’s never easy,” he said.
GETTING TO THE MARK
Nor was the decision to pass up the NFL for another year at Penn State.
Ultimately, according to Ted Royster, Evan’s father, Royster felt as if he had something left to prove. He wanted NFL scouts to know he could be a consistent every-down back, and additionally, he wanted another year with his friends in Happy Valley.
One thing Ted said wasn’t on Royster’s list of things to prove was breaking Warner’s mark.
“He never talked about the record at all,” Ted Royster said. “Even after getting it last night there was no conversation. We would bring it to his attention, but he would never say anything. He knew it was there, he knew it was on the horizon, but that certainly wasn’t the driving force behind Evan.”
Until Royster made his final decision to remain in school, Ted said no one in the family had started thinking about the record.
Then, one day over the summer, the Roysters were in the Student Book Store, where on each step to the second floor is a top-10 Penn State rusher, in order. Royster sat in eighth place with a full year of football awaiting him.
“We started thinking, ‘Hmm. Maybe he could move up those steps,’ ” Ted Royster said.
Now, Royster is atop those stairs at a school that has hosted a Heisman-winning tailback in John Cappelletti, and the likes of Warner, Ki-Jana Carter, D.J. Dozier, Lydell Mitchell and Blair Thomas. With the mark sealed as Royster’s for at least a couple seasons and probably longer, the questions are no longer directed at him and are now for those capable of putting the mark in perspective.
Warner gave Royster full credit for the record, saying, “running is running,” regardless of the era or the team.
“It’s a nice thing to have individual records,” Warner said of his own mark. “But they’re gonna be broken eventually.”
He offered his congratulations to Royster, saying as he watched the game from his home in Vancouver, Wash., he felt happiness for a deserving Royster.
Penn State football historian Lou Prato, author of the Penn State Football Encyclopedia, said regardless of where Royster’s talents rank among the school’s greats, the record remains significant.
“With all the great running backs here, it means a lot,” Prato said. “Until someone breaks his record, he’ll be known as the leading ground gainer in Penn State history. There is a dilemma here, though, because the team he is playing on does not have the glamour or the record of some of our leading rushers in the past.”
Prato noted Royster will almost certainly finish his career without ever being named as a first-team All-American. In its history, Penn State boasts 13 first-team selections at halfback.
Carter, Cappelletti and Warner specifically are in a class of their own, Prato said, adding in 10 years, he wouldn’t be putting Royster near the “greatest” conversation. But he added those three ran behind three of the greatest offensive lines in Penn State history, a luxury Royster never had.
Joe Paterno agreed with that assessment, saying the line’s performance was a big reason for Royster’s breakout game Saturday
“He’s a good back,” Paterno said. “A good solid back. But he’s like all of them, he needs some running room. I think he got some today and he took advantage of it.”
Prato reiterated the need to give the record time to sink in before it can be put in perspective. Even then, he said records are never fully indicative of “the best,” noting the expansion of schedules and the change in running styles over the years.
“You have to understand,” Prato said, “that when you look later, through the spectrum of history, it all changes.”
The spectrum of history was never something that concerned Royster until this season.
“With all this record talk, I couldn’t help but hear about things,” Royster said. “It just feels good to hear myself mentioned with some of [the great running backs.]”
But he added he doesn’t care where he sits individually in Penn State’s history. He’d rather win games. Both Royster and Warner were adamant at their indifference to the record.
But Royster spent some time in Joe Paterno’s doghouse this offseason. Paterno called for Royster to lose weight — which he did — and the coach hasn’t offered much praise for his top tailback. Coupled with Royster’s early season struggles, it caused fans and media to doubt Royster’s abilities.
“I hear about those things, and it does kind of tick me off and make me want to prove people wrong,” Royster said. “It’s not a huge thing. I always want to come out and play hard, but I don’t really do this for other people.”
The only “other people,” Royster is playing for, he said, are his teammates. After the drive, most of them approached him to say congratulations, and wide receiver Graham Zug already had a new nickname for Royster by the time he reached the sideline: “All-time.”
The phrase “all-time leading rusher” is one Royster said won’t sink in until at least after the season and possibly not for a few years.
“Yeah, but by that time, Silas might have broken it,” Royster laughed, offering high praise of Silas Redd, a true freshman who has shown signs of brilliance this season.
Ted Royster said Evan talks with him often about helping his backups — Redd and junior Stephfon Green. Ted said his son takes pride in helping the program in the future, even when he is no longer there, even though sometimes it’s tough for Royster to stand on the sideline and watch.
“If you could put Evan out there on every play,” Ted Royster said, “he’d probably do that.”
If Redd does come close, as Royster predicted, he expects to respond to more questions. Those are questions Royster will be more than happy to answer, given his own pursuit of the mark is now a thing of the past.
“The monkey’s off my back,” Royster said. “I feel great. It’ll be great when I don’t have to field all these questions about it.”