AT PENN STATE HAVE NEVER SEEN ANYONE QUITE LIKE EVAN ROYSTER, WHICH may help explain why, for years now, he has been drawing comparisons with the ultimate running back (and perhaps the ultimate original), Jim Brown. Like Brown, Royster was a prodigious football talent in high school, rushing for a career 6,384 yards and 90 touchdowns on 750 carries at Westfield (Va.) High. Also like Brown, he was just as prolific on the lacrosse pitch. As a senior Royster scored 33 goals and earned an invitation to play in the North-South All-America game. Johns Hopkins and Virginia were among the lacrosse powerhouses desperate to sign Royster to a letter of intent.
In the end Penn State won him over, despite a demand that few other schools would have thought of making: ditch lacrosse. The move seemed like recruiting suicide, but it pushed Royster to follow his heart. "Lacrosse was always a secondary sport to me, and I just developed into a pretty good player," says Royster, now a Nittany Lions fifth-year senior. "I always wanted to play [football] in college."
His brother Brandon played college ball (as a wide receiver at Stanford from 2000 through '03), and Royster was eager to follow in his footsteps. Still, the younger brother might not have gotten the chance on the gridiron if he didn't have those lacrosse skills. On the recruiting trail coach Joe Paterno looks for athletic prowess outside of football, and when he learned that Royster, an all-state rusher, was also one of the most outstanding lacrosse players in Virginia, he said to [assistant] Larry Johnson, "See if we can get him."
After Royster arrived on campus, coaches were awestruck at how seamlessly his lacrosse skills transferred to the gridiron. His knack for moving in traffic near the cage translated into an ability to maneuver between the tackles; the quick hands he showed with the stick were just as nimble at catching passes. What's more, he had the size (6' 1", 213 pounds), speed and power of a workhorse back.
After redshirting in 2006, Royster turned heads in the '07 opener, carrying eight times for 70 yards in a reserve role. He rushed for 513 yards that year, for a total of 2,405 yards over the next two and began this season just 481 yards away from becoming the Lions' alltime leading rusher. Senior guard Stefen Wisniewski and the offensive line were bent on getting Royster's name to the top of that list. "As O-linemen we don't have stats," he said before the season, "but to say that we blocked for Penn State's alltime leading rusher would be pretty cool."
Royster had a chance to turn pro after last season but bypassed the NFL for the chance to break the record. "It was definitely tough for me to consider leaving, being so close," says Royster, who graduated this past spring with a degree in management information systems. It's an especially remarkable opportunity given that he, like Brown, may have been even better with the lacrosse stick than he is with the pigskin. "Just to be mentioned in both sports as a great player like [Brown]," he says. "That's definitely an achievement. It's something I'll talk about for the rest of my life."