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DAMARLO BELCHER ONCE RESISTED COMPARISONS WITH INDIANA'S ALLTIME LEADING wide receiver, even if they were irresistible. The comparisons began after Belcher's first game as a freshman, in 2008. James Hardy had just left for the NFL as the school's career leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdown catches. Belcher and Hardy were essentially the same size (6' 5" and 6' 6" respectively), and each had grown up in Fort Wayne, Ind. And in that first IU appearance Belcher made a play that was reminiscent of Hardy, scaling a smaller defensive back to haul in a five-yard touchdown pass in a 31--13 win over Western Kentucky.
Belcher bristled when his catch was likened to a Hardy play. "I just wanted to come in and do my own thing and not be compared to anyone else," he says. But three years later Belcher is the one setting the standard by which future Hoosiers receivers may be measured. With 164 career receptions for 1,939 yards Belcher is within 27 catches and 801 yards of Hardy's records in both categories.
Belcher never considered football records while growing up in Fort Wayne because he had already pegged himself as a basketball player—one talented enough to draw interest from such mid-major schools as Valparaiso and Ball State.
His explosive athletic skills around the rim allowed him to make remarkable plays as a two-year letter winner for North Side High, where as a senior he was the state's third-leading offensive rebounder (6.1 per game) and ranked fourth in total rebounding (12.5). "If you want to score, go get it," North Side coach Mike Novell would tell him. "And he'd go get it."
The results at times were sensational. In one game as a junior, with North Side trailing Harding by two points, Belcher lined up on the baseline for teammate Eshaunte Jones's final free throw. As Jones intentionally missed the shot, Belcher looped around his defender into the middle of the lane, leaped and caught the rebound one-handed, then slammed home the tying score.
But while Belcher saw those plays as signs that he was meant to play basketball, North Side football coach Casey Kolkman looked at the same abilities and saw football potential. The skills Belcher used to rampage around the rim could be utilized for snaring passes over smaller defenders.
"Keep your options open," Kolkman said when lobbying Belcher to try football. "You never know what's going to happen."
Belcher finally gave the sport a shot as a senior to stay in shape for basketball. He didn't understand how to read defenses or pick up blitzes, but experience wasn't essential: North Side could loft passes, and Belcher would outleap a crowd for the ball. Kolkman told him to play the passes as he would a rebound: "You see the ball, go get it." Belcher finished with a school-record 688 receiving yards, and football became his sport. He was IU's second-leading receiver as a sophomore before closing in on the record books the following year. His 78 receptions as a junior led the Big Ten and was the second-best single-season performance in school history.
The only better mark is owned by Hardy. While the two worked out together in Indiana's weight room this spring, Hardy discussed how Belcher was closing in on his school records. As they spoke of the achievement, Hardy offered the same advice that led Belcher to this point: Go get it.