He had only been there one season, but already he knew he didn't belong.
Before Cleveland Browns training camp had even begun, Travis Prentice expected to be the odd man out. The second-year Browns had veteran Errict Rhett. They drafted a running back in the third round. They had the combination of veteran and rookie. That, Prentice figured, left little room for him.
It wasn't as if Prentice had a miserable rookie season with the expansion Browns. Prentice, a Miami (Ohio) University football staple during the late 1990s, rushed for 512 yards and five touchdowns during his inaugural 2000 NFL campaign. Even though he averaged just 2.95 yards per carry, he felt he laid the foundation for bigger and better things in 2001.
Then again, he had a hunch the Browns didn't see it that way. He'd hear one thing from one coach, then another from someone else. One coach would say they liked what he was doing in practice, then during a preseason game he wouldn't get in until the third-string scrubs took the field sometime during the third or fourth quarter.
Prentice was on the receiving end of mixed signals, but the inconsistent messages he interpreted loudly and clearly.
"I really didn't expect to stay with Cleveland," Prentice said. "I was hearing that Cleveland needed a running back and a whole bunch of stuff. They drafted a running back in the third round and they still had Rhett, so I knew I wasn't going to get a chance. It just didn't work out."
Knowing he wasn't going to be a Brown for much longer, Prentice had a decision to make. He could mail it in or work even harder. Rather than whining relentlessly about his personal situation and becoming the Browns' squeaky wheel, Prentice opted to continue forward, practice hard and do whatever he could in his new, less-than-sexy role with Cleveland.
"The only thing you can do is work your hardest," he said. "You don't give them any room for them to tell you they told you so. When things like that happen, you have to work hard so you know that it isn't because you were playing bad. I did everything they asked me to do."
That is, in fact, Prentice's only route.
He knows no other way to approach a responsibility. When something is asked of him, he'll do it not only for accomplishment purposes, but he'll do it as well as he possibly can.
That is why he was all-universe at Miami of Ohio. In college, there wasn't a bigger man on campus than Prentice, who virtually rewrote the Miami of Ohio and many NCAA record books with his illustrious collegiate career. While at Miami of Ohio, Prentice became the NCCA all-time points leader after scoring 486. He is the NCAA record holder with 73 rushing touchdowns, 78 total touchdowns, and most games scoring a touchdown with 35. His three consecutive seasons of 1,500-plus yards of rushing is also an NCAA record. Not surprisingly, he is the Mid-American Conference career rushing yards leader with 5,596 yards, as well as being the MAC's all-purpose career yardage leader with 6,118.
Prentice's talent, combined with his work ethic, elevated him to elite status as a collegiate running back. Led by Prentice, Miami of Ohio knocked off powerhouses such as North Carolina and Virginia Tech — when it wasn't expected to compete. "Nobody gave us a chance because they were ranked," Prentice said.
Nobody gave his expansion Browns a chance last season, either. Then again, they didn't deserve it. Averaging just 10.1 points per game, Cleveland stumbled, fumbled and bumbled its way to a not-so-surprising 3-13 season.
Even though he rushed half way to the proverbial 1,000-yard plateau in his rookie season, Prentice was disenchanted. After such a monumental college career, his first year as a professional failed to meet his personally imposed expectations.
"I expected more out of myself," Prentice said. "It was just a bad, bad situation. Being on a team that was losing … It was just a bad situation."
Early in the Browns' season, Rhett went down with an injury. The next game, on Oct. 8, with Prentice as the starting running back at Sun Devil Stadium in Phoenix, Ariz., he rushed for three touchdowns and 98 yards. Even though the Browns lost to the Cardinals, Prentice felt he had arrived.
"The next day in the papers it was like, ‘Cleveland has found their running back,'" Prentice recalled. "The next week I had a bad week and it was totally different. One day I'm like the savior, the next day I'm like the black sheep.
"Sometimes it happens like that. You just have to understand it and not get caught up in it. It's one of those things that you have to put everything into perspective."
Prentice wouldn't score another touchdown the rest of the season. The frustration and criticism began to haunt him. Even though he quit reading the newspapers and stopped listening to sports talk radio, he still felt the unshakable monkey hermetically sealed to his back.
At Miami of Ohio, he could be afforded a bad game. He still attended class, went to practice and prepared for the next Saturday showdown. At Cleveland, he never felt the comfort and safety of true job security.
"There's a lot of pressure in college, but it's different from the pros," he said. "In the pros the pressure is different because here you can be gone the next day. In college, you're still on scholarship and there's lots of chances for development. They don't cut you in college."
But they can cut you in the pros, which is what Prentice thought was a possibility going through training camp two months ago with Cleveland. On Sept. 2, just a week before the opener, Prentice was informed he was wanted in the front offices. Prentice left the blue-collar weight room and went upstairs to the white-collar business offices.
"I wasn't getting much playing time during the preseason games, I knew something was going to happen to me," Prentice said. "(Coach) Butch Davis told me I was traded to the Minnesota Vikings and he said I should do well there."
Browns pro personnel coordinator Jeremy Green, Vikings coach Dennis Green's son, had executed a trade. Prentice and Spergon Wynn were dealt to the Vikings for a fifth-round draft pick in 2002 and a conditional 2003 choice.
"We traded for a bigger running back," Dennis Green said. "With Michael Bennett and Doug Chapman — two young guys with the same sort of size, we felt we needed a bigger guy to go along with it. You need three backs to be in our system. Prentice is a big, strong guy. He'll give us some contrast. Travis gives us a guy with a little bit more speed who is also a slashing runner."
In a matter of seconds, Prentice went from the lowly Cleveland Browns to the Super Bowl-aspiring Minnesota Vikings. Kind of like driving to White Castle for a greasy burger, then dining at Ruth's Chris Steak House instead.
Sept. 2, 2001: The liberation of Travis Prentice had begun. "It was one of those feelings of relief," Prentice admitted. "I was tired of walking on eggshells — am I going to be here or am I going to not be playing here? Coach Davis said I was playing well, but I wasn't playing."
Admittedly, through the first quarter of the season Prentice hasn't played much in Minnesota, either. In fact, he scored a touchdown on his first play from scrimmage Oct. 14 against Detroit, becoming the first Viking to ever accomplish that feat. Even though the Vikings have departed the gates slowly, he still believes he is the member of a victorious organization and a winning team.
"You want playing time, but when you're on a winning team it's good," said Prentice, who, with Doug Chapman, saw more playing time against Green Bay because of Michael Bennett's injury.
Not even being here two months yet, it has taken Prentice time to learn the Vikings' system. But not nearly as long as expected. "I picked up the offense pretty well," he said. "I pretty much have it picked up now. It's easier to learn the offense when you get here after training camp, because during the season everything is game-planned week to week."
It is that security of a week-to-week routine that Prentice has been looking for since he left college two short years ago. VU
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