Five years, two coaching staffs and one season-ending injury later, Darius Hamilton's time at Rutgers nears its end Saturday.
The senior defensive tackle leads the Scarlet Knights (2-8, 0-7) out of the tunnel at High Point Solutions Stadium one last time. The stakes are high with No. 8 Penn State in Piscataway for a primetime matchup at 8 p.m.
But the spotlight centers on Rutgers’ three-time captain. With two games left in his career, the curtain call begins for Hamilton on Senior Night.
“It’s been a long ride,” Hamilton said. “Obviously, last year was probably the longest year of my life. This year’s flown by completely, so I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs.
“At the end of the day, I wouldn’t change any time I spent here for anything else in the world. I’ve had a great time here. I’ve built relationships that’ll last me a lifetime, brotherhood that’ll last me a lifetime and I’m just looking forward to finishing these last two off the right way.”
Hamilton came to Rutgers out of Ramsey (N.J.) Don Bosco as the top prospect in New Jersey and ranked No. 20 in the Scout 100 for the class of 2012. As a five-star recruit, he was highly sought after by college football’s cream of the crop.
The reason why he chose to stay home is the same advice he would give to top prospects today.
“Man, it’s probably the same thing I always say — follow your heart,” he said. “I’ve told this story many of times, but I never thought I’d be here. I was a Florida football fan, ever since I was a kid. That was my favorite school, personally.
“And when I got on (Rutgers) campus, when I got around the players, when I got around the coaches here — man, I wanted to help build something. I wanted to be a part of something special — either it’s special during my time or it’ll become special and I knew that I got an opportunity to help that place get a jumpstart on being special. It’s just always something I wanted to be a part of.”
On the field and in the locker room, Hamilton’s impact doesn’t go overlooked by coach Chris Ash’s first-year staff.
“He’s helped a lot because he's been a quality player and a good leader,” said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. “Just think about the value that guys up front have defensively. In terms of what you try to do, that’s we’re trying to build this football team from the line of scrimmage, whether you’re looking at it from an offensive or defensive perspective.
“So any time you get guys like that that are bought in and playing well and trying to lead, do the right things, it's invaluable. So we really appreciate all the effort and hard work he’s put into the season and hopefully we can send him out this last home game with a win and make it a really memorable night.”
Wins and losses aside, Hamilton understands the big picture and his overall impact.
“Listen, I love this place to death,” he said. “It was never a question in my mind where I wanted to be when things got rough, man. Sometimes things don’t work out the way you plan for them to work out. You hope that they’d work out, but man, I’m part of the process.
“I’m laying the foundation for something that’s eventually one day going to be great. I know that. I can see that with the talent that we have on this team. I can that in this coaching staff and the passion that they are to coach guys. I’m helping build something, and that’s all that I’ve ever wanted to do.”
For Carlton Agudosi, his Rutgers career goes beyond what he did or didn’t accomplish on the football field.
The 6-foot-6 wide receiver wraps up his tenure as a Scarlet Knight with just two touchdowns, 499 yards and 34 receptions ahead of Senior Night.
When Agudosi laces it up for his final Saturday at High Point Solutions Stadium.
“It’s going to be special,” Agudosi said. “I’ve been here for five years, so it’s a lot of emotions, and a lot of things I’ve been through since I got here.
“I want to send it off on a high note. It’s a long time. I was just thinking about that the other day, how fast time moves. It’s going. A lot of change happened since that day I committed — (Greg) Schiano leaving, coach (Kyle) Flood and all of that. Being here taught me a lot.”
A local product from nearby Somerset (N.J.) Franklin, Agudosi committed to Rutgers under Schiano. He stayed through the good and the bad, between Schiano’s departure before signing day and a lack of playing time through the years.
“I appreciate everything I went through,” Agudosi said. “At the moment, I didn’t understand it all, but looking back on it, I couldn't ask for anything else. Trials and tribulations taught me how to overcome.”
Agudosi applied that mentality to his schoolwork. He is expected to graduate with a degree in communication.
“My academic career has been great,” he said. “I’ve got three classes to finish up the semester with, and I’m going to leave here with a degree. I’m very proud of that.”
With the momentum from the Nittany Lions and their improved defense, Agudosi knows the Scarlet Knights have their work cut out. He had a game-high six receptions for 80 yards when Rutgers played at Penn State last year.
“They’ve won a lot of games recently, and they’re looking to make it to the playoffs,” Agudosi said. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us but we’re going to go in there and fight.”
Anthony Cioffi isn’t the only member of his family that will get attention tomorrow night.
“My sister went to Penn State and it’s also her birthday, so I kind of want to leave her on the shorter end of the stick this time,” Cioffi said. “But we just want to go out and play the best football we have all year, and just go out and get a ‘W.’”
Cioffi nears the completion of a career where he was a four-year starter. He entered as a cornerback out of Springfield (N.J.) Dayton and played right away as a starter throughout his first two years before he moved to safety.
Forty-five games, eight interceptions, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries later, Cioffi is two games away from the end.
“It’s just nuts that it’s all over with,” he said. “And for any of the younger guys, it’s going to go by fast. So you need to cherish the moment, as far as being out on that field because the season goes by way too fast. So you can’t take it for granted.”
Despite a decline over the past two seasons from the peak of an 8-5 season and a 2014 Quick Lane Bowl championship, Cioffi said he sees promise for the future of the program.
“I think it’s going up,” he said. “And that’s the only way we want it go, as far as coming back, because you want the best for the school. And I feel as though the coaching staff and everyone that’s in place right now couldn’t be in a better position.”
Football became Derrick Nelson's life when he was kid. Regardless of what the next chapter holds, Nelson brings what he learned from the game at Rutgers with him.
“(Football) helped me a lot, just based on the fact that you learn how to deal with losses, you learn how to deal with wins, coachability,” he said. “I mean, things like that transfer into the work place. You learn how to deal with criticism.”
Nelson still has two more times to suit up as a Scarlet Knight. The first is Saturday with Senior Night against No. 8 Penn State.
“The biggest thing for me is going to be controlling emotions,” Nelson said. “This game is important to me just because of the whole fact that it’s my last home game and my family’s going to be there. My mom hasn’t made it to many games, but I’m very thankful for the fact that she’s coming along with a lot of my other family and they’re able to see me play one more time at High Point Solutions Stadium.”
A senior captain and a two-year starter at center, Nelson brought a distinguished presence to Rutgers as a leader on and off the field.
But his teammates were the ones to lift him up when he needed it most.
Nelson hit a rough patch midway through his career and questioned his love for the game. Darius Hamilton, Julian Pinnix-Odrick and Vance Matthews — now his housemates — helped him get through it.
“Those guys really helped me through some rough times here because there was a point where I struggled in my love for football,” Nelson said. “I had problems with passion for the game and living with those guys helped me realize it wasn’t a problem with the passion, it was just me getting through my rough patch. … They helped me realize that it’s just me and my confidence level and realizing who I am.”
Through the adversity, Nelson takes his experience into his final two games. He understands the value that Senior Night holds, but not because it comes against the Nittany Lions and their College Football Playoff hopes.
“I think that’s the biggest thing for me is finally realizing that my college career is coming to an end and I think that’s how most seniors see is … how do they want to leave this field?” Nelson said. “So that’s the biggest thing for us. What’s the legacy going to be for us on this field that Saturday?”
Whatever comes after the season, Nelson will embrace it. He plans to train for the NFL Draft and continue his football career, but will pursue his passion in human resources if that doesn’t pan out.
“I like working with people,” Nelson said. “I think there are things that I can do in that (human resources) field after football that I think I can do really well. I think that it suits my values well just based on the fact that HR typically deals with structure and that’s basically been what my life has been for the past five years (playing football for Rutgers).”
Most players downplay the hype that surrounds a big game.
For Rutgers, that was mostly the case during the week.
But when Julian Pinnix-Odrick was asked about what a win against the Nittany Lions would mean for the Scarlet Knights, the fifth-year senior captain didn’t back down.
“(A win) would be huge,” Pinnix-Odrick said. “It represents more than just a game, to be honest, man. It represents our respect as a university. It represents — we haven’t gotten a conference win yet. It represents who we are and who we want to be as a university, who we’re going to be and way after I’m gone.”
Given the struggles for Rutgers over the past couple of seasons and the results from the past two matchups against Penn State, Saturday represents more than just a game for the senior defensive end.
“I know a lot of people that go to that school,” Pinnix-Odrick said. “We got guys from Pa. who everybody they know goes to that school. Whatever, I don’t really care much for them, pretty much like I don’t like any opponent.
“But it’s a certain aura that — that’s all I’ll say about it … I’m coming different Saturday. Just really brings something out of you that — it’s not really good to keep in.”
Pinnix-Odrick is aware that the close proximity between the two Big Ten schools could mean a big turnout of blue and white in the stands. He had a message for Rutgers fans.
“If you want to be a fan, man, be a fan — and we appreciate that because we don’t play for just us,” he said. “I told the team last game at halftime (at Michigan State), I said, ‘Listen, we don’t play for just us.’ People think that throw on these pads and throw on this jersey just because we have to. Just because someone said we’re on scholarship and, ‘Oh, you’re down by this much by this team so you have to go back out for halftime. You have to play the game. You have to put on the pads.’
“No you don’t. It’s a decision. It’s really a decision that we make everyday to come in and fight for this. If anybody has any question about that, they can come in here and see how we work and come in here and see how I work. This isn’t something you just go do. We put our hearts and souls into this. That’s why whatever we do on that field is a representation of us — the good, the bad and the ugly. It is what it is, but we represent more than that.”
Pinnix-Odrick made his passion for Rutgers clear.
“I represent this R,” he said. “I represent Rutgers. Man, I go to the other sports games. I watch them on TV. I get proud, man. I told the other sports teams, I get proud. When I look on the TV and see guys doing it, I’m proud of the school, I’m proud of the university I go to. … I’m proud of this R, man.
“You bring how many fans you want. That’s cool. They’re not going to play for you, so you can have as many people as you want in there that’s blue and white but who’s going to step on that field? It’s 11 versus 11. It’s going to be us versus them. It’s going to be light versus dark and we’re going to get right. I’m coming different, like I said.”