Earning his stripes
When quarterback Grant Enders graduated after last season, Towson fans were left to ponder who would take over the position for Head Coach Rob Ambrose and company.
Competition ensued throughout the spring and summer of 2013, featuring Joe Brennan, a transfer from Wisconsin, Connor Frazier, a dual-threat player and Peter Athens, a redshirt senior in his last collegiate season.
After winning the job, Athens has come out of the gates strong this season, passing for 885 yards and five touchdowns to lead Towson to five straight wins to begin 2013. The Tigers are also ranked No. 3 in the FCS, the program’s highest ranking ever.
“I’ve been pretty happy with [the year] so far,” Athens said. “You can’t beat game experience. It’s a lot different than being on the sidelines. Being out there helps out with what you can do on the field.”
Tiger fans had watched Enders’s success in 2011 and 2012, but Athens took the job and became the quarterback once again.
Even though Athens had to sit on the bench behind Enders, he had more experience than Enders. It all started in Evanston, Ill., the home of Northwestern, some four years ago.
Towson entered Ryan Field for its 2009 opener against Northwestern as large underdogs. Following a 3-9 season, long-tenured Head Coach Gordy Combs had been fired and Rob Ambrose was hired to coach his alma mater.
Ambrose carried with him the pressure of restoring a once successful program. He had hope in the form of freshman quarterback Athens, who was starting his first collegiate game.
Athens and the Tigers were greeted by a raucous crowd in a stadium that sat over 47,000 people. The Tigers were far from the friendly confines of Johnny Unitas Stadium with a new coach and no clue what would happen next.
What happened was a 47-14 blowout, giving Athens and his team a bitter taste in their mouths but an opportunity to learn.
For Athens, Northwestern marked the beginning of a long journey.
In many ways, that game back in 2009 mirrored his college career, full of adversity.
Athens was used to adversity before he even started at Towson, enduring two school changes before he graduated high school.
Coming out of Huntington High School (Md.), he was recruited by Presbyterian College to play lacrosse, like his brothers did, and football. However, Athens decided to chase his dream at Towson.
“It was always hard for me to decide what I wanted to do in college,” Athens said. “I always wanted to play quarterback in college and I stuck with my dream and decided to play football instead of lacrosse.”
Athens arrived at Towson and immediately made an impact, winning the starting gig entering the season opener at Northwestern. Although Towson suffered the loss, he said he enjoyed the moment.
“Playing versus Northwestern in my first game was humbling,” Athens said. “It’s always special playing against a bigger school. Most of them have bigger stadiums and more fans, so it’s fun to play in front of them.”
Athens went on to start the first six games of his freshman season, becoming seemingly the quarterback of the future for Ambrose and the Tigers. In those six games, he led the Tigers to two wins over Coastal Carolina and Rhode Island.
Both of his wins came after blowout losses to Northwestern by 33 and to New Hampshire by 50. Athens bounced back after those losses, but his biggest loss of the season came against Delaware.
In just the second drive of the game for Towson, Athens tore his ACL, leaving him out for the remainder of the season.
The injury was just the start to a chain of events.
“When I got hurt, everything was seeming to come together from the high school level to college. Things starting clicking for me,” Athens said. “After I got hurt, it was pretty frustrating having to sit out the rest of the season.”
Since Athens’s injury was so severe, Ambrose and his coaching staff decided to redshirt him for the 2010-11 season.
Athens was disappointed to have to sit out a year, but what he didn’t know was that the decision would allow him to play in the 2013 season.
Athens watched from the sidelines as Towson finished the 2010 season with a 1-10 record. The players would quickly move on from the season, but the ensuing offseason proved to be another battle for Athens.
Entering the 2011 season, Athens was competing for the same job that he held just two years before. However, this time he was pinned against Enders, the transfer from Lackawanna Junior College, and this time he lost.
“[Grant] came in that first camp and took the spot and ran away with it,” Athens said. “It’s always hard being on the bench, but I’ve known since high school that there’s only one quarterback. The more mature I’ve gotten, the easier it was to be number two.”
Despite nursing his injury to full health, Athens resided on the bench for the entire 2011 season.
Towson eventually qualified for its first ever Football Championship Series playoff game, but Athens watched as his team fell to Lehigh at home.
The next offseason commenced in the spring of 2012, and Athens could not break through to the starting job.
Again, it was Enders who took the reins.
In 2012, Enders threw 317 of the Tigers’ 318 pass attempts. The other attempt came from Frazier, who appeared in three games as a runner and passer.
Despite no production, Athens still saw the season as learning experience.
“Sitting on the sidelines definitely made me grow in being a quarterback,” Athens said. “Seeing it all from the side and being able to learn like that definitely helped in my process.”
Without Enders leading the competition entering this spring, Athens saw his opportunity. He’d already been a veteran in the field of adversity, so he was ready for the battle this spring.
Ambrose informed Athens that he would be the starting quarterback on Aug. 22, finally giving him the title that he earned four years before it. He was back where he started.
Ambrose, who was alongside Athens during his journey back to the starting job, said he sees a whole new person.
“He was a wide-eyed talented, somewhat oblivious freshman,” Ambrose said. “[In 2011 and 2012] I saw a talented guy who wanted to play desperately get beat out, but now he’s grown into a
mature leader of a quarterback.”