On autumn afternoons in Terre Haute, Ind., when the cool air whipped up red and yellow leaves from the backyard oak, young Danny Etling would ring up the neighborhood kids for a Saturday game of football.
He'd always pretend to be Peyton Manning or Drew Brees. And at least one kid would always complain over the phone, "But, Danny, we just did that yesterday!" Even as a 12-year-old, Etling didn't mind much. If he couldn't find friends, he'd recruit his father or older brother.
And, if they grew tired, he'd just turn to the backyard tire swing or head over to the brick middle school, where he could toss a special training pigskin -- which looked like a half-football -- that'd bounce off the wall and return like a boomerang. Rain, snow, ice -- it didn't matter. He usually didn't march back into the house until his mother screamed outside that he'd catch cold.
Etling laughed recently while recalling those memories because, back then, he worked toward one day playing for Purdue. He'd sleep in a bed alongside a Brees poster. And as of last week, as a true freshman, that work culminated in the announcement he's now the Boilermakers' starting quarterback.
"Obviously, it's a dream come true," Etling said. "It's been a dream since I was a kid, to come to Purdue University and be the starting quarterback. It's a very surreal feeling, and it's kind of hard to explain what it feels like.
"I don't know if I've had this feeling before in my life. But it's a great one."
Supporters of the Gold and Black haven't had much to cheer for lately, so seeing its quarterback of the future caused emotions to bubble over Sept. 28.
The home crowd leaped to its feet with a frenzy of noise, unleashing a tidal wave of applause and cheers, when head coach Darrell Hazell burned the freshman's redshirt by inserting him into the first half with 35 seconds left. Purdue trailed 27-7 against Northern Illinois after senior QB Rob Henry struggled, but it sounded as if Purdue had just scored the game-winning touchdown and the band was simply late to its cue.
In the stands, the eyes of Etling's father welled up with tears. On the field, Etling smiled and waited a few moments for the surprise to die down -- so his teammates could hear the cadence.
"Getting that kind of support," Etling said, "it just sends chills up your spine."
Etling became the highest-rated recruit that Purdue has signed since ESPN started keeping track in 2006. He was a four-star prospect in the 2013 class, the 12th-best pocket-passer in the nation, and has played the role of dream-catcher for a reeling Purdue fan base.
Purdue fans have spent years wondering when the Motor City Bowl and the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl wouldn't constitute a "good" season. The Boilermakers haven't been ranked in the top 25 at the end of a season since 2003, back when Kyle Orton lined up under center and when Etling's parents were pushing their son toward tennis.
Etling didn't play football until he offered a challenge to his mother in fourth grade: If I win this next tennis tournament, you have to let me play football. She agreed, thinking there's no way her son would win the first-place trophy.
The determined youngster signed up for football that summer.
He'd attend football camps at the local Division III college with few fundamentals, few physical skills and an eager attitude. He'd go home with a handful of drills, practice incessantly -- his father would often come home to bang-bang-bang from Danny tossing footballs against the house -- and return to another camp with those drills perfected.
"Maybe he wasn't the biggest guy, the strongest guy or the fastest guy," said his father, Joe Etling. "But he'd always put the work in. I almost saw it transform into kind of a blue-collar, roll-up-your-sleeves work situation."
Danny, an Eagle Scout, doesn't do things halfway. During the bye weekend, when most players return home, attend a high school football game, pose for photos and meet with old friends, Etling lingered on campus and organized extra drills for himself and his receivers.
Etling knows this team, and this fan base, are counting on him. ("You can just feel it," he said.) He was forced to start wearing a Purdue ballcap between classes because students kept stopping him along the way to chat. He loves talking to fans -- it almost reminds him of those Fridays beneath the lights -- but he'd draw perilously close to showing up late.
He's a cause for excitement in West Lafayette, which is roughly two hours from his hometown. He knows that. He knows he can't succeed against Nebraska by playing the way he did against Northern Illinois in the third quarter, when his adrenaline surged and he launched every football as hard as possible. He knows this offense goes through him. He knows if he struggles, his team struggles.
He studies Brees now instead of pretending to be him. But he still likes to think back on those fall days in the backyard every now and then, so he can fully appreciate where he is now -- and where he's heading.
"It's got me at a loss for words right now. You think back to how hard you worked and just dreaming of this day and moment," he said. "You think how it's all going to happen when I step on the field against Nebraska.
"It's got me at a loss for words -- and it's got me happy that I came to Purdue."