If Louis Ivory had his choice in 1998, he would not have gone to Furman.
If that had happened, he wouldn't have rushed for 5,353 yards and 53 touchdowns in a record-setting career for the Paladins, which included winning the Walter Payton Award in 2000 for being the best offensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision (then Division I-AA).
And he wouldn't be The State's Player of the Decade (2000-09) for South Carolina's football-playing schools other than USC and Clemson.
"At the time Furman presented the best opportunity. That was the school that wanted me so I decided to give it a chance," Ivory said. "It worked out for both of us."
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Coming out of Peach County High in Fort Valley, Ga., Ivory liked the idea of going to Georgia Southern, winners at that time of four I-AA titles. But when the Eagles decided not to offer him a scholarship - and East Tennessee State followed suit - he took a harder look at the Greenville school still pursuing him.
But it wasn't as though the Furman coaching staff knew what it would be getting. Bobby Lamb, then the quarterbacks coach but now the head coach, remembers the recruitment, which was helped by Lamb's father being friends with Ivory's coach.
The first time the 5-foot-9 Ivory walked into the room, Lamb's thought was, "Wow, he's short."
The Paladins were looking for one tailback and two fullbacks that year, and Ivory was pegged as a potential fullback in their option offense and not a primary ball carrier. Lamb also remembers the final competition for Ivory's talents being then-NAIA power Carson-Newman. But by then, Furman, which had won a national title in 1988, had grown on Ivory.
His freshman season, Ivory rushed for 406 yards in nine games out of the fullback slot, but the Furman coaches began to see him in a different light.
"We looked at film after his freshman season and said, 'You know what? He's the best running back we've got.' So we put him at tailback and the rest is history."
His breakout sophomore season saw him gain 1,376 yards and score 14 touchdowns as the Paladins won the Southern Conference championship. But that was a mere warmup for what would come next.
In 2000, Ivory became the gold standard for running backs. His 2,079 yards and 16 touchdowns showed everyone how good he could be. No game showed that more explicitly than his performance in the ninth week against Georgia Southern, which was headed toward its second consecutive national championship. Coming off a game in which his costly fumble led to a loss against East Tennessee and knocked the Paladins out of the SoCon title race, Ivory was determined to make amends.
By the time the day was over, he had rushed for a school-record 301 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-10 rout of the top-ranked Eagles.
"It's probably my most memorable game," Ivory said.
Lamb never ceased to be amazed by how the 200-pound Ivory made the most of his skills. Although he lacked speed, he made up for it with great balance.
"Between the tackles you couldn't knock him down," Lamb said.
And although he didn't have good hands - he caught 22 passes in four seasons - it simply didn't matter.
"He couldn't catch a pass, but he could catch the option pitch, and that's all that counted," Lamb said.
Ivory continued to catch the option pitch to the tune of 1,492 yards and 19 touchdowns in his senior season, which was cut short by a knee injury in the first round of the I-AA playoffs against Western Kentucky. The Paladins advanced to the national championship game, when Ivory tried to return, but he wasn't himself in a 13-6 loss to Montana.
The knee injury - and subsequent surgery - so late in his senior season did not help him when the NFL draft rolled around. Despite his gaudy career numbers, he wasn't full-speed at workouts and that limited his ability to get a good look.
"Once I got hurt, that made it harder," Ivory said. "It wasn't there any more. Plus the window of opportunity is so small when you come from a smaller school."
Today he runs his family's auto body business in Perry, Ga.
"This is all I've ever known," he said.
Recently married with a teenage son and one-year-old son, he looks back on his Furman years with great fondness. He tries to go to games once or twice each season. At one game this season, he marveled at the reception he received from fans.
"It brought back a lot of memories," he said. "It almost brought me to tears."
Those memories include his No. 34 being retired by the school at the end of his playing days, one of three retired numbers in Paladins history.
Whether he's joking around with former teammates on Facebook or catching up with others on return trips to the campus, Ivory understands how special his four years were.
"It actually makes you feel young again," he said.
Those 2000 and 2001 seasons - when was was the SoCon Offensive Player of the Year, consensus All-American, and a leader on teams that went 21-6 - remain an elixer. And he still shakes his head over the Walter Payton Award, then in its second season of existence.
"It wasn't a big thing. It was something new for all of us," said Ivory, who has come to appreaciate it more since players such as Brian Westbrook and Tony Romo went on to win the award.
The fact that his 5,353 rushing yards still stand as the all-time leading total in state history brings a smile to his face, too.
It's a smile Lamb can't forget.
"You'd say something or you'd look at him, and the first thing that would pop up was that great smile," Lamb said.