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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Blake LaRussa Remains Humble after Career Performance against Virginia Tech

By Harry Minium

Blake LaRussa had just led Old Dominion to one of the biggest college football upsets of all time, a 49-35 triumph over No. 13 Virginia Tech that earned ODU face time on every national sports network.

He sat on the turf at Foreman Field at S.B. Ballard Stadium, waiting for his turn to talk to TV reporters, bloodied and looking absolutely exhausted. His left eye appeared to have taken a bare knuckled right hook from Muhammad Ali.

His arms were covered with cuts and were red and swollen. He appeared to be deep in thought when I approached him and asked, "Has it sunk it what you did tonight?"

He shook his head. "Maybe tomorrow," he said.

What LaRussa did Saturday night might be the most delicious story in college football. This modest, hard-working, faithful but diminutive guy is perhaps the most unlikely football hero since Rudy Ruettiger suited up for Notre Dame.

LaRussa has dreamed of being a star Division I quarterback since he was in grade school. But at times, only he seemed to believe he could do it.

Generously listed by ODU at 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, he's always been told he's too short, too weak and too slow. No Division I teams offered him a scholarship, and only ODU offered him the chance to walk on without a scholarship.

Until Saturday, he appeared consigned to the role of a career backup, a steady guy who worked hard but would never get a real shot at stardom.

Given that chance against Virginia Tech, on national TV, in the biggest home game ODU has ever played, LaRussa shone ever so brightly.

He completed 30 of 49 passes for 495 yards and four touchdowns and ran for another TD.

Honestly, how many of you believed ODU, a 28-point underdog, would upset Virginia Tech? And did anyone really believe LaRussa would lead the charge?

Tech was determined to play man-to-man pass defense, blitz and pound ODU's quarterbacks into submission. But LaRussa played with surprising poise and toughness. He stunned the Hokies, and a lot of ODU fans, with his elusiveness.

He absorbed some teeth-jarring blows - he was sacked three times and knocked to the turf 15 or 20 more times.

"Blake LaRussa's body is not built for that," ODU coach Bobby Wilder said. "But you talk about tough, he hung in there. Virginia Tech has a defensive line that is just relentless and they hit him time after time tonight and he hung in there and made play after play."

The black eye came courtesy of a vicious facemask penalty from Tech's Devon Hunter, a sophomore linebacker from Chesapeake. Each time LaRussa got socked, he got back up and dusted himself off.

That's kind of what he's been doing virtually all of his life.

Even after he threw for an incredible 8,289 yards in four combined seasons at Grassfield and Bishop Sullivan Catholic high schools, his lone offer was a partial scholarship from Division II Elizabeth City State.

Only because ODU quarterbacks coach Ron Whitcomb liked what he saw of LaRussa at a summer camp did he get an invitation to walk-on for the Monarchs.

"I saw something in him," Whitcomb said. "He's got such a strong arm. He's smart. He's dedicated. And he works so hard."

LaRussa graduated from Bishop Sullivan in December 2014, enrolled at ODU and was told if you don't impress in spring practice, we won't invite you back.

"My first impression of Blake was that we needed to introduce him to the weight room and put a little weight on him," Wilder said.

LaRussa did that in eight weeks of winter workouts. Halfway through spring practice, Wilder told him he'd earned a spot on the roster.

He redshirted in 2015 and played sparingly the last two seasons. He won a scholarship, and got playing time and a short time last season was ODU's starter.

But after Steven Williams won the starting job a year ago as a true freshman, LaRussa seemed to be destined to be a role player.

LaRussa didn't pout, didn't complain and just kept working hard. I asked him during the postgame press conference Saturday what kept him going.

His answer makes me wonder if he's not ODU's Tim Tebow.

"It's been an uphill battle since I was a little kid," he said. "I didn't have a lot of offers, and I'm a short guy, so I get it.

"But we are all given an opportunity in life, and we just have to take advantage of it. For me, it has always been about God. That's what has allowed me to get through everything.

"I've always had bad odds, but no matter what the odds are, God has been my source of faith."

The room was silent for a few seconds as reporters and several teammates took that in.

His faith is reflected in his on the field behavior. When he scored Saturday, he handed the ball to the official and ran back to the bench without any theatrics. As I was videotaping a celebration in the locker room, LaRussa had a wide smile, but quietly walked by his teammates and headed to his locker.

Classy? Absolutely. As Wilder said, if he had a daughter, he'd want her to date LaRussa.

LaRussa never lacked for self-confidence. In 2015, when the Monarchs were struggling at quarterback, he walked into Wilder's office and said if you play me, I promise you I'll win for you. Wilder didn't take him up on the offer, but his respect for LaRussa grew after that meeting.

LaRussa's big chance finally came three years later on ODU's second series against the Hokies. Williams has struggled this season and after ODU went three and out on its first series, coaches inserted LaRussa.

It was a gamble. ODU was in a precarious position, with a first down at its 1. LaRussa calmly faded back in the pocket and tossed a 30-yard pass to Travis Fulgham.

"That may have been the biggest play of the game," Wilder said. In order to upset Tech, ODU had to have something happen early that got the crowd juiced up, Wilder said.

"And that 30-yarder affected the crowd," he said.

ODU didn't score on that series. But it did on the next, when LaRussa ran for 20 yards, completed three passes for 51 yards and led ODU to a touchdown.

That's when ODU fans in the record crowd of 20,523 began to have hope. ODU was moving the ball. And LaRussa was the guy calling the shots.

Wilder said the plan was to play both LaRussa and Williams. But LaRussa "got the hot hand," he said.

LaRussa didn't turn the ball over and picked apart a secondary coached by Bud Foster, considered among the greatest defensive coordinators in the game.

Tech mixed in some zone defense in the second half, in an effort to slow ODU. But it didn't matter. LaRussa threw nine passes each to Travis Fulgham and Jonathan Duhart, tall, rangy and athletic redshirt seniors who more often than not will beat a defensive back one on one.

ODU wore Tech down, an incredible feat for a mid-major school against one of America's great football programs. The Monarchs outscored the Hokies 28-7 in the fourth quarter.

Fulgham said the Monarchs have always believed in LaRussa.

"He never gives up and has always believed in himself," he said. "I am so happy things worked out for him."

It was no great surprise when Wilder announced, after the game that "Blake LaRussa is our starting quarterback."

The awards rolled in for the heretofore unknown LaRussa on Sunday. The Walter Camp Foundation named him the National Offensive Player of the Week. Athlon Sports and College Sports Madness named him National Player of the Week. Not surprisingly, he was also named Conference USA's Offensive Player of the Week.

He was feted on ESPN and Fox Sports. Nationally known sports writer Dennis Dodd tweeted that LaRussa was fifth on his list of Heisman Trophy candidates. And although the tweet was made in jest, it shows that overnight, the powers that be in the national sports media now know ODU and LaRussa.

It was unthinkable just a few days ago that LaRussa's highlights would be featured on SportsCenter.

"Don't let anyone tell you what you can't do," tweeted Bryan LaRussa, Blake's brother and an ODU graduate.

I asked LaRussa if it will be hard to stay humble.

"Not hard to stay humble cause it wasn't me," he replied via text message. "God moved mountains on Saturday.

"I hope everyone would look at this and realize that Jesus is real and that He Loves us and that He has a plan for each of us.

"It was all Him on Saturday."

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