He saw focus and determination, anxiety and eagerness.
But when Syracuse football assistant coach David Walker's eyes met
Keith Belton's, Walker saw something he had never expected.
Tears. Belton — the fullback known as "Thump" for his whole life — was
"It was last year right before the Georgia Tech game," Walker said. "I
was like, ‘What the … Are you all right?' "
Belton was more than all right.
"Coach," Belton told the running backs coach before SU's 2001 season
opener, "I've been waiting for this my whole life."
"Some guys," Walker said, "take things for granted like having an
opportunity to play on TV and a big stadium. He's so appreciative of being
in that type of scenario."
Belton's journey from an obscure junior college in Mississippi to
Syracuse — where he's played in every game the past two seasons — made him
Five years ago, Belton was one of the hottest recruits in North
Carolina after rushing for 1,327 yards and 18 touchdowns during his senior
year at West Charlotte High. Baylor and Syracuse recruited him.
"We liked what we saw from a physical standpoint," said Walker, who
recruited Belton. "He was a 'Yes-sir, No-sir,' type of guy. I liked how
polite his manners were, and he was the type of young man we wanted to
bring into this program."
But after Belton verbally committed to Syracuse, he bolted to Baylor.
That's when things started unravelling. One week into college, Belton
was declared academically ineligible because of his SAT scores, which
never topped 820.
"It wasn't that I didn't try on the SATs," Belton said. "I'm not a guy
for standardized tests. I just wasn't getting it."
Dreams of playing in front of a huge crowd and on television were
replaced by the reality that Belton would spend two years at Northeast
Mississippi Community College before he could play Division-I football.
Things got worse.
"I got to junior college, and being the person I am, I was very cocky
when I got there," Belton said. "I didn't care who you were or where you
were from. I was trying to run everyone over. It got to the point where
I had more enemies than friends."
So many that during a scrimmage, one of Belton's teammates, fed up with
the cockiness, took a cheap shot at him, Belton said.
The player targeted Belton's knee, tearing his ACL and ending his first
season at junior college.
But even with a torn ACL and lost season, Belton remained positive and
kept Syracuse in mind.
Walker's phone would ring once every two weeks, with that familiar
Southern twang on the other line.
"Thump Belton here," he'd say. "I was thinking about you guys. I saw
you last week."
"The kid," Walker said, "wanted to be here."
To try boosting his grades, Belton concentrated less on football and
more on his reading.
"You'd be surprised," Belton said. "I'm a history major, and I like to
read. I like to read a lot."
When Belton was younger, his grandfather, Willie Flemming, instructed
him to read the newspaper every day.
"His reading ability wasn't what it should have been," Flemming said.
"That was his study habit."
Belton continued to read the paper, and it paid off. He took 23 credits
during three semesters at Northeast Mississippi and graduated half a
In January 2001, after 18 months of uncertainty, he transferred to
Upon arrival, Belton immediately noticed the difference between the
junior college and college levels. He spent the entire season getting
acclimated to the pace of the game and learning the Syracuse offense.
At times, it was difficult.
"Everyone is 6-foot-2 in high school," Belton said. "Here, you see
linemen that are 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8, and you're like, 'Hold on, and they
can run too?' That ain't fun."
Belton saw action in every game his first season and rushed for 57
yards on nine attempts. His best game came against Rutgers on Oct. 6, 2001, when
he rushed for 50 yards on two carries, including a 48-yard scamper.
Belton finally felt he belonged last spring, when he began practicing
with the starters. As he became more comfortable, more of Belton's
personality started to show.
"He loosened up more and more," teammate Charles Simpson said. "He's a
happy guy all of the time. He likes to joke and play around a lot."
That comes from his grandmother, Magdalene Flemming.
"He loves to call Granny everyday," Belton's mother, Rhonda, said.
"He'll say 'G, what did you cook today?' She tells him all the things he
doesn't eat. This family is very comical."
Belton's family also taught him morals.
"When he was in high school, people were picking on this girl who wore
the same clothes all of the time," Rhonda said. "He had two shirts in
the car, gave them to her and called around to see if there is anything
that girl could wear. Thump is a very caring person."
How, then, did he earn such a tough nickname?
"He was always kicking a lot (in the womb), like he was running before
he was born," Rhonda said. "He was thumping. We've called him that ever
since he was born. The name is perfect for football."
Belton has followed his moniker. He feels he's finally adjusted to
"He always comes in to watch extra film," Walker said. "You only need
to tell him something once. I love the enthusiasm that he plays with."
Said Belton: "The fans (here) are definitely loud, and I love that.
Football is football. It's still a game, it's still a sport. If you're a
good player, you'll be able to adjust."
Belton's journey the true tale
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