RYAN HART: One Final Opportunity!

For the past three years, Ryan Hart has started the season with plenty of optimism, only to see the dreams of a winning season come crashing down. On the verge of becoming the all-time leading passer, this Floridian believes 2005 is when it all comes together.

For as long as he can remember, Ryan Hart has been consumed by the sport of football. He can rattle off statistics, tell you all about teams and players. He has all the answers you need.

As he walked through the halls of Rutgers University this past spring, the one time Fort Lauderdale Cardinal Gibbons standout quarterback glanced at the stars of the past. Focusing on the quarterbacks who played at the school throughout the years, the 6-2, 200-pounder smiled.

With names such as Ray Lucas, Mike McMahon and all-time leading passer Scott Erney, Hart realized that he was well on his way to joining some elite company for the Scarlet Knights.

"I saw some of the names who left a mark on this school," said Hart. "When I first came here, I only hoped that I would have the opportunity to put my name on that impressive list."

Hart was part of the first recruiting class that head coach Greg Schiano brought in. At a time when the school was viewed as a doormat among the Big East programs, Hart felt right about his decision.

It was a decision that many felt was the wrong one for this Coral Springs native to make. Was he really ready to compete against schools such as Miami, Virginia Tech, Boston College and West Virginia?

"I knew inside that I had the talent to play at this level," Hart said. "I believed in my abilities as a quarterback to lead and help this team win."

At a time when Rutgers had searched for an elusive winning season, Hart headed to New Brunswick, N.J. to learn and get the chance to compete. That coveted chance came on Oct. 26, 2002 in the Carrier Dome against Syracuse. With his team mired in a 1-6 season, Hart, a true freshman, entered the game and went 0-6 passing and was stopped for a one-yard loss on the ground. Rutgers lost 45-14.

The following week at home, it was the dream come true. The team he had watched as a youngster, Miami, came to Rutgers, and Hart, at the age of 18, was the starter.

In a game that saw the Scarlet Knights battle and remain in the game until the fourth quarter, Hart completed 9 passes for 110 yards, was sacked twice and threw two interceptions. Rutgers lost to the Hurricanes, 42-17, but suddenly, there was some respect at the quarterback position.

Even though the team would lose the remaining games and finish 1-11, Hart managed to turn heads with 51 completions for 479 yards.

The very next year, the job belonged to Hart, and while he made mistakes during the 5-7 season, he threw for 2,714 yards - the most in school history and moved into eighth place all-time after just two seasons. His back-to-back 300 plus yard games against Pittsburgh (384) in a loss, and Temple (316) in a 30-14 win began to showcase that he had arrived.

"This was still a very young team," said Hart. "Everyone made mistakes, and it came back to hurt us."

When the 2004 season arrived, the Scarlet Knights had plenty of hope of having its first winning season in nearly two decades and heading to a bowl game for the first time in nearly 30 years.

The opening game at home against Michigan State was a sellout. With such stars as Rutgers alumnus James Gandolfini (Soprano's) on hand, Hart threw for 241 yards and his team won, 19-14.

"That was the game that we all felt got us over the hump," Hart said. "But mistakes began to catch up with us." The following week, Rutgers was stunned at home against New Hampshire. The 35-24 loss overshadowed a 30 of 50 for 307-yard performance by Hart. Over the next four weeks, Hart and his team did everything they could to get back on track. Beating Kent State, Vanderbilt and Temple, and losing to Syracuse, it appeared this program had indeed turned the corner, but five straight losses to end the season put the Scarlet Knights at 4-7.

During the season, as he broke his own school record with 3,154 yards and 17 TD passes, Hart passed Ed McMichael, Tom Tarver, Eric Hochberg and Lucas, moving into third place in school history.

As the 2005 season approaches, Hart's 6,347 yards trails only McMahon (6,608) and Erney (7,188).

"I could have the school record for total yards and interceptions," Hart said with a laugh. "I have 44 interceptions, but that's something that will fade away if we start winning."

As recruits poured on campus during the spring and into the summer, Hart found himself sitting down to watch a highlight film. On those highlight clips were players who were impressive. Players such as fullback Brian Leonard who figure to put this program at another level.

"As I watched that team on film, I said to myself that we have really improved as a team," Hart said. "Just look at the team speed we have now and you can see how far we've come."

As fans see Hart throughout campus, they all tell him how important winning is at a school that has done so little of it. It's something that he hears at dinner, getting gas or buying clothes at the mall. It's something that he meets head on.

"I have never been one about predictions," Hart said. "But I can tell you this, we have a lot of quality talent, great coaching and have learned how to compete and play hard. If we don't have a winning season and go to a bowl game, I truly believe that it will be disappointing to all of us!"

Larry Blustein is the publisher of www.floridakids.us. He covered Ryan Hart and several current Rutgers players at the high school level. You can reach Blustein at FloridaKids1@hotmail.com.

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