A year ago at this time Gary Nova did not want to talk about football.
The Rutgers quarterback and team captain, who had not played in the last two games of the 2013 regular season, had just learned he would be watching the team’s appearance at the Pinstripe Bowl from the sideline as well. The night he was officially benched, his roommate, offensive lineman Kaleb Johnson, returned to their apartment to find Nova despondent.
Johnson knew this drill. He picked up food and rented a movie. They burrowed in, and he steered conversation toward more pleasant topics. Under no circumstance did he mention anything to do with football.
"He came home in tears," Johnson said. "We just tried to get his mind off of it. The next day we told him to refocus his energy on getting his spot back."
Nova didn’t play in the Pinstripe Bowl, but he did win back his spot during offseason workouts. He started all 12 games for the Scarlet Knights (7-5) this year during their first Big Ten season. He set the school’s career record for touchdown passes (currently 71) in late September and needs 310 yards against North Carolina in the Quick Lane Bowl on Dec. 26 to be the program’s all-time leading passer. Nova has no problem talking football during this bowl season.
A year of ups and downs -- there were a few significant speed bumps even after he returned to the starting lineup -- is nothing new for Nova. He is one interception away from setting the Rutgers’ career mark in that category, too. His 40 starts swing like a pendulum between emotional highs and lows, fourth-quarter comebacks mixed with scathing reviews and the occasional social media threat. It’s a ride he says he would not have managed without the support of longtime teammates and his nearby family.
"It was tough when you had people booing, or you read stuff in the paper that’s about yourself," Nova said. "My teammates have been a great help. ... They just tried to give me that pat on the back and say, 'Hey don’t listen to that. You know what the people who really matter think.'"
Nova’s first taste of the zany twists and turns of college football came before he arrived on campus. The New Jersey native originally committed to be a part of Pitt’s 2011 recruiting class. He visited Rutgers, 20 miles from his home in Elmwood Park, only out of respect for former coach Greg Schiano. But when the Panthers rolled through three head coaches in less than two months that winter, Nova opted for the more stable situation close to home.
Being close to his parents and his two brothers provided a much-needed place to vent during his career. Nova drove home just about every other weekend during his first year on campus. Johnson usually tagged along to spell his own homesickness and a fill up of Daisy Nova’s Dominican cooking. That duo escaped to Elmwood often enough during their time at Rutgers that the family put Johnson’s photo on the refrigerator as an honorary brother. Nova still asks pesky reporters to steer clear of his family members. They are his getaway, untainted by talk of football.
The frequency of those trips picked up last December as Nova stewed on the scout team during bowl prep.
"Not getting first-team reps and then watching the game from the sideline, I let all of that emotion boil up inside of me and used it to drive me through the tough days in the summer," he said.
Johnson said Nova turned into the team’s biggest leader during winter workouts. His doubled-down work ethic and the arrival of new offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen gave Nova a fresh start.
In their first meeting, Friedgen told Nova he knew all about his reputation for inconsistency. He told the senior he didn’t care, that he wanted to give him a clean slate. They started with basics, learning about defensive coverages rather than Rutgers’ playbook. Friedgen preached about fundamental ways to read a defense that he assumed someone had already taught Nova. No one had, and Nova started to see the field more clearly.
When the senior threw five interceptions and was booed on his home field in Rutgers’ Big Ten debut, a 13-10 loss to Penn State, Friedgen was the first to give Nova a hug and tell him that he still believed in him. The ebbs and flows that have plagued his career continued to pop up occasionally this season, but Friedgen and Nova’s teammates remained firmly behind. Stay strong, they told him, all’s well that ends well. And with Nova, even when things start poorly, they have a history of ending well.
Nova refused to go to school some days as a high school freshman. His parents enrolled him at Don Bosco Prep, a private all-boys school 20 minutes from home. It was a different crowd and a different culture. His grades suffered. He was miserable. Eventually, football helped him assimilate.
It was there that he met Rutgers’ leading receiver Leonte Caroo, who has been his teammate for six of the past seven years and another steady crutch to lean on in bad times. They went 24-0 and won two state titles for one of the best high school teams in the nation during Nova’s two years as a starter. That is when his mother started to tell him he was a natural born "overcomer."
"I didn’t see the bigger picture at such a young age," Nova said. "But I’m glad I stuck with it."
The same pattern of tumult followed by triumph continues to play out for Nova in macro and micro ways. The crazy offseason at Pitt led him to stay at home where he found the support he needed. His benching last November motivated him to win a starting job.
On the field, he has engineered seven fourth-quarter comebacks during his career, which ties him for the lead among active FBS quarterbacks. His most recent addition to that list came in a 41-38 comeback against fellow Big Ten newcomer Maryland to wrap up the regular season. The Scarlet Knights trailed by 25 points late in the second quarter before three touchdown passes from Nova opened the door for the biggest comeback in the program’s 145 years.
"Gary has done a lot in his career at Rutgers and he will go down as one of the all-time greats even before playing this game," head coach Kyle Flood told reporters after the victory. "Does this game add to his legacy? Of course it adds to it, but I don't think it defines Gary. I think it's a great example of what he is and what he has done for this program."
Memories of last year’s bowl season still linger for Nova in the wake of that comeback win. He has one more pendulum to swing in the right direction before he leaves.