When he was in fifth grade, Tim Downs arrived at an important life decision: he would play football at Maryland.
Growing up in Latrobe, Pa., Downs idolized Kyle Schmitt, an offensive lineman at Derry Area High School who had accepted a football scholarship to play for the Terps. Downs’ reaction to the news of Schmitt’s Maryland commitment was simple.
“I remember telling my dad that, ‘I’m going to go to Maryland. I bet you $100.’”
Downs eventually made good on his promise. He starred for Derry High years later at linebacker and fullback, in addition to learning to be a long snapper. By the time it was time for Downs to apply to college, Schmitt was a graduate assistant with the Terps. Downs sent his highlight tape in, was accepted to Maryland and joined the Terps as a walk-on. After redshirting his freshman year and serving as a backup in 2008, Downs won the long-snapping job and appeared in 37 games for Maryland over the next three seasons.
Downs, who graduated from Maryland in December with a history degree and is living in Tyson’s Corner, spoke to The Sun recently about his Terps career and life after college.
You came to Maryland without a scholarship. Where do you think you would’ve ended up if you didn’t go the walk-on route with the Terps?
If it wasn’t for Maryland, I probably would’ve ended up at IUP – Indiana University of Pennsylvania, a Division II school. Maryland was the only big-time Division I. I basically took a gamble with it. [Smaller schools looked at me for] fullback or linebacker, but I just wanted to take a gamble with the whole long-snapping thing. Maryland was the only big-time school I sent film to and really, if I got in there, I [decided that] I was going there because I said that’s where I’m going when I was younger. I got a phone call from the special teams coach at the time. [He said], ‘You can get in, you have the grades.’ I got in, and that was that.
Once you were at school and on the team, was it kind of surreal?
It was different, especially my first year. It was very eye-opening. You go from high school where you’re one of the bigger kids, then you go to a team where you’re not exactly the most talented or the biggest of the strongest. You go from playing, I don’t know, in front of maybe 1,000 people to just running out of that tunnel in a stadium in front of 50, 60, 70,000 people every week. It was cool and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was almost like in this dream world my whole freshman year, like ‘Holy crap, I’m playing Division I football,’ even though I was redshirting. I think it was one of the more pivotal years of my whole college career.
You redshirted your freshman year and were a backup the following season. When you won the job as a redshirt sophomore and prepared for your first game, what was going through your head?
It was almost like I [knew I] was ready. That surreal feeling really didn’t happen until my first actual game that I started. It was at Cal in Berkeley in front of 70,000 people on ESPN. The night before in the hotel, it was kind of like, ‘Holy crap, this is really happening. I guess I can’t mess up tomorrow because I’ll be on TV.’ That’s when the butterflies started happening. I worked hard every day my first two years, but it wasn’t until then that [playing for Maryland sunk in]. I was so determined not to fail and to be the starter. I had been the backup for two years, but that doesn’t mean that they couldn't bring in someone else. They did bring in someone else to test me and push me. But I took it all in and stayed focused and determined.
What was the top highlight of your Maryland career?
There were a few throughout my whole five years. As a freshman, my first true big game I was a part of, I really remember the Boston College game in 2007 when they were ranked seventh or eighth with Matt Ryan. We ended up beating them and the fans rushed the field. But as far as playing goes, I know beating Clemson my redshirt sophomore year in 2009 was pretty exciting. That whole 2010 season was great. And definitely this past year. Even just playing with the new uniforms was something special. Displaying the Maryland pride uniforms and, I think they were talked about the next 11 or 12 days on ESPN. That was pretty cool. Every time I put the uniform on, it was a special moment, no matter what.
Do you have any regrets about how your career played out?
I’ve only been done with Maryland football for three months now, but I wish I could get one more year. We were 2-10 this past season, but we were not a 2-10 team. Same thing goes for 2009. We went 2-10, but we weren’t a 2-10 team and I certainly would do anything to get those years back. But the 2010 season, when we went to the Military Bowl, we were a blown call away when we played Florida State – there was a controversial call [over] whether or not they had an interception that hit the ground. If we would’ve won that game, we would’ve gotten to the ACC championship. There’s just so much that happens that you wish you could get back. But then you understand, well, you made the most of it while you were there and you just have to live with it. I just wish I could get one more year, even one more game to put on the Maryland uniform and be a part of the team again. It was a very influential part of my life the last five years.
The coaching transition appeared rocky from an outsider’s perspective. How was it for you and what are your feelings toward Ralph Friedgen and Randy Edsall?
Well first, I think with the whole coaching transition, in my five years I had four special teams coaches. That was just – I don’t think anyone in college football can imagine that. As far as playing for Coach Friedgen or Coach Edsall, respectively, honestly my first four years with Coach Friedgen were great. They were two very different styles of coaches. But Coach Edsall and Coach Friedgen are both very good men. I’m very honored to have played for both of them. Personally, I have more of a personal relationship with Coach Edsall. But as far as Coach Friedgen, he was great for the four years I was there and obviously his time spent at Maryland. It was great to play for him and for Coach Edsall. It was great to be a part of this team. I know the direction he has the team headed. I wish I could play another year for him. Sometimes the first year for a new coach is rocky, no matter where you go. Once he gets everything established with his system, everything will take off. I got one year with it, but I definitely learned a lot during the season and I learned a lot of real life lessons. My perspective on life was kind of changed as far as understanding the correlation between hard work off the field no matter what. It’s not just about football on the field. Everything Coach Edsall stands for is great. Same with Coach Friedgen. Both are very great guys and great football coaches.
What have you been doing since then?
Since graduating I’ve been training a lot. I did the University of Maryland Pro Day, and I went to [a camp run by] Coach Gary Zauner. He coached in the NFL for awhile and now runs a college combine for punters, kickers and specialists in Phoenix, Ariz. Basically, since graduation I’ve been trying to get my name out there. I have an agent, I’m staying in shape, and I keep snapping with the hope of maybe getting a call for a tryout or an invitation to an OTA or summer camp. But if that falls through, I’ve been researching a variety of careers, just trying to find my niche. I was going to go to school to be an education major, but with practice times and the class schedule, I wasn’t able to fulfill the academic requirements and still play football. I had to basically choose one or the other. Since then, I’ve been very interested in a career in the government field as an investigator or analyst. I also spoke with some financial advisors and insurance companies. I could also do grad school for education and possibly be a graduate assistant coach at the same time.
What kind of feedback have you heard from your agent in terms of your NFL prospects?
Basically, my agent and I have talked about it and Coach Edsall and I have talked. Coach Edsall told me that I’m good enough to play in the NFL, and I’m young. So why not do that when you’re young? Five years from now I’ll look back and [won’t have any regrets]. I understand the reality of the NFL as far as long snappers. There are only 32 of them; each team has one. It’s extremely difficult to crack an NFL roster and get a tryout. But I’m looking and hoping that I’ve done well enough in showing my talent to scouts. My agent told me there are teams interested, and you just have to hope that scouts from the other end of the country haven’t seen anybody better than me. If everything works out, it’ll probably the night of the draft or the week after when I should hear something.
Looking back on your time at Maryland, what was the best part about being on the team?
There were so many things that were great about playing football at Maryland. A lot of people would assume that getting to play in a big stadium and play on TV was cool, and that was cool. But I think the biggest thing was every day, walking into that locker room and having the camaraderie and the brotherhood around you, knowing 100 guys were going out and putting the same uniform on and working toward a goal and representing the state of Maryland. I’m from Pennsylvania, but it was my dream to play football at Maryland since fifth grade. Every day of the last five years, I remembered that. I remember telling my dad that I was going to play there and him just kind of shrugging it off. Knowing that I was living my dream from age 18 to 22, it was a dream come true. The best part of it was being able to put that jersey and helmet on every day.