"When you've got freshmen saying they're 17-years-old or 18-years-old, you feel real old," Rome said on Friday. "Feels like you've been around a long, long time."
With seniority comes the task of guiding younger teammates and making sure they understand what it takes to keep plugging during the difficult times and not get too high when you pull out a victory. After 37 games of playing experience and 12 starts, Rome witnessed first-hand the 52-7 loss at Clemson in 2006 that spelled the end of John Bunting's tenure at UNC.
The Tar Heels are now coming off an 8-5 season and enter the '09 season ranked in the preseason top-25 coaches' poll. Rome's ability to emerge from the Bunting dark ages has turned him into a beacon for remembering the past. When training camp started several weeks ago, the coaching staff asked the senior fullback to address the entire team about where this program has come from and what it took to get here.
"I just think it's amazing how fast this program has turned around, and I'm just happy to be a part of it," Rome said. "… I can remember the days of looking at the schedule and saying, ‘Okay, maybe we can beat this team,' and maybe counting the win before the game – hoping maybe this team won't show up that day. And now, you look at the schedule and you've got confidence that you can pretty much beat anybody on the schedule."
Being asked to share his thoughts with the team is just one act that running backs coach Kenny Browning and the rest of the staff has asked out of Rome this preseason.
"They want me to take more of a leadership role, not only with the running backs, but with the whole team," Rome said. "… With me being the oldest guy, a lot of guys look up to me. I'm at the point of attack at a lot of plays this year, and with our offensive line being so young, a lot of the running game is going to be behind me this upcoming season."
But talking about being a leader and actually being a leader are completely different things. To achieve the desired effect, Rome stepped forward in offseason conditioning drills, making sure he was up front whether it be with sprints or in the weight room. The side benefit was dropping 20 pounds in enter training camp at 5-foot-11, 245 pounds.
Following the loss of seven offensive linemen during the offseason, including the recent ACL injury to Carl Gaskins and the departure of Kevin Bryant, Rome found himself having to reassure his teammates about rising above the adversity.
"You think about it a little bit, and then the only thing you think about is, ‘Look, they're young – who are they going to follow now?'" Rome said. "I took it upon myself to be a leader on this football team and try to be the guy [that says], ‘Look, follow me. Look at how I practice and look at how I go hard.'… I know if everybody is practicing hard, then they have no choice but to get better."
But Rome offers more than just leadership – the fullback has caught 24 passes for 248 yards over the past two seasons. His highlight, however, is a 50-yard touchdown throw to Brandon Tate against N.C. State in '07. Is another halfback pass a possibility for the '09 season?
"If [offensive coordinator John] Shoop feels like it's going to work in the offense, then hey, I'm ready to do it," Rome said. "We've got a lot of other weapons that can throw the ball, guys like A.J. Blue. I'm just trying to do whatever it takes to help."
One area that has blossomed during Rome's tenure in Chapel Hill is the number of playmakers on offense. Even with Hakeem Nicks and Tate now playing in the NFL, the cupboard appears to be well-stocked, as Shoop continues to add new wrinkles to the offense.
"[The playbook has] definitely opened up a little bit," Rome said. "That just comes with trust. The more they trust us, the more stuff they're going to put on us. The better we get, the more stuff they feel like we can handle... With Coach Shoop and the complex offense that he runs, he has so many ideas – he wants to put those on the field. I think he thinks he has the tools to put it on the field this year."
If you see Rome standing by himself on the field after a UNC victory this fall, don't think anything about it. After his long career as a Tar Heel, he just understands the importance of savoring every win more than most.