GREENVILLE, S.C. -- Harris Roberts was walking past the library at Clemson after wrapping up one of his engineering classes last week when he heard some students whispering behind him.
"That's him," one said. "Harris ... something."
Roberts knew they were talking about him, though he didn't bother offering his last name. A month ago, no one knew him at Clemson outside of a few classmates, but he suddenly has become a popular figure on campus, even if some of the smaller details -- like his last name -- are still a little tough to remember.
They know he goes to school at Clemson. He's a mechanical engineering major, and he hopes to design cars one day. This is a product of a lifelong love of American muscle cars. His uncle had a GTO, and his dad loved NASCAR -- and Roberts has never strayed far from the dream of building his own roaring engines.
The other thing people now know is that Roberts plays football for Furman. He's the quarterback, a fifth-year senior and the starter on a depth chart with three freshmen. The Paladins were his lone Division I offer out of high school, and one offer was all he needed to make a decision.
And, of course, putting those two things together offers the most unique thing people know about Roberts. He'll be quarterbacking the football team at one school on Saturday hoping to pull the upset against the school where he's taking classes.
That's enough to earn some national recognition.
"I didn't expect it at all," said Roberts, whose story has gone from the local news to national acclaim in the past two weeks. "I've had people call me about jobs. An engineering firm in Kansas City. A guy at church this past week gave me his business card just because he saw the story."
It is a crazy story, after all.
Best anyone at Furman can tell, there's never been another story like this. The Paladins' former kicker is taking classes with Roberts at Clemson now too, but he wrapped up his eligibility on the football team last year, so Roberts is at least making some history at the school. And, really, what are the odds someone else has done this anywhere? It's unconventional, to say the least.
The mechanics of the situation are simple enough though. Roberts wanted to be an engineer. He also wanted to play football. Furman gave him the opportunity to do the latter and offered a workaround for the former. Because the school doesn't offer a mechanical engineering major, Roberts was allowed to get his core classes finished at Furman, then finish up at another school that will allow credits to transfer. And because Clemson is less than an hour away, Roberts has found a way to take classes on one campus and play football on the other.
So chalk it all up as an anomaly, a strange twist of fate that put this little-known quarterback in the spotlight for his 15 minutes of fame.
The thing is though, that story would undersell just how much effort Roberts put in to getting here.
Roberts is the oldest of four boys, and he grew up in a home where education, cars and football were all held in high esteem. He played high school ball at North Forsyth in Cumming, Georgia, where he was the school's salutatorian and served as the team's captain as both a junior and a senior. The latter honor came even after he broke his collarbone and played in just half the team's games.
At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Roberts had the size to go with his smarts, and he got a few looks from colleges. His father, Brian Roberts, remembers the pair trekking from Georgia to New Jersey -- dad driving, son asleep in the passenger seat -- for a camp at Princeton, where Harris had drawn strong interest. But the injury convinced several schools to back off, and when the season wrapped, Roberts was without a Division I offer.
The family was driving home from North Forsyth's football banquet after Roberts' senior season, and his younger brother, West, chimed in.
"I wish you'd go to Furman," he said.
Furman hadn't really been on Roberts' radar at the time. The school had shown interest, but Roberts was told they'd offered several other quarterbacks. His chances were slim. But West wanted his brother to stay close to home, and Furman was an easy enough commute.
When they got home, Roberts realized his phone battery had died. He plugged it in, and when it sprung to life, he had a message. It was from the recruiting coordinator at Furman. He had a scholarship offer, if he wanted it.
That was it. That was the whole decision. Roberts' grades could've gotten him in to several great schools, but he couldn't imagine passing up a chance to play football.
"I knew I couldn't play football forever, so I probably weighed that a little more," he said. "That may not be the best advice I'd give kids now, but it's what I wanted."
It came as no surprise to anyone who knew Roberts. He was never one to pass up an opportunity to get the most out of life, and this might've been his only chance to see how far he could take football.
The first three years he was at Furman involved little playing time. The Paladins had an incumbent QB, and Roberts was slotted as a backup. When he had wrapped his studies at Furman, he was left with a choice: Stay, play football and commute to Clemson every day or quit football and transfer to another school full time.
He talked with his dad and measured his options. He thought he still had a chance to play, and he wasn't ready to say goodbye to his friends. He had come this far, so why leave now?
And so, each morning, Roberts wakes up before dawn. He goes to the weight room and works out, showers, hops in his car and drives the backroads of upstate South Carolina from Greenville to Clemson. He likes to listen to podcasts or perhaps a sermon. Mostly, he thinks about football. When he arrives, he parks his car in the shadow of Clemson Memorial Stadium. He's in class by 8, spends all morning learning about statistics and system controls and heat transfer and machine design. Then it's back to the car, back to Furman, into the locker room and the uniform and onto the practice field. Rinse, repeat.
"You can't waste any time," Roberts said. "I've gotten behind in classes, and it's not fun to catch back up."
It wasn't until a few weeks ago though that Roberts would look up at the towering stands of the stadium at Clemson and think about the possibility that he might soon be leading his team onto that field. But when it clicked, the idea overwhelmed him. This dream, the one he worked five years for, it was going to actually come true.
"He hasn't played a lot since he's been here," said Furman coach Clay Hendrix. "It's easier to do all those things when you reap the benefits. And a year ago, we didn't know if he'd even come back. And to go to the degree he's had to do it, he's just made it work, and he's made it easy for us."
There was a scuffed-up old football that floated around the practice field at Roberts' old high school. It was a practice ball, worn and grubby. Roberts loved it. It was his ball. His hand stuck to it, and it fit just right. He asked his coach if he could use it in games. It ended up getting the nickname "God's ball," said Roberts' former QB coach Jason Armstrong.
Armstrong tells the story as if it's an apt metaphor for Roberts:
He was overlooked. He wasn't the picture-perfect recruit. He has gotten worn and tattered without much time in the spotlight. But take some time to appreciate it, to feel the grip and test the contours -- well, there's something special about it.
And maybe that's taking the whole thing a bit too far. Roberts, after all, isn't a special case. There are plenty of quarterbacks just like him who'll take the field this weekend. They didn't have offers from Clemson or Alabama. They spent plenty of long, hot days on the practice field only to slump down into a couch with a book open to some indecipherable chapter on thermodynamics or molecular biology, and they do it all happily because they love the game and they're thrilled to have a chance to play football just a little longer.
That's perhaps why Roberts' story has really taken hold the past few weeks. He represents all those guys toiling in the shadows.
"I've always thought he's such a hard worker, and he just goes about working on his craft all the time," Brian Roberts said. "He doesn't think of any of it as real special."
Then this strange twist of fate came along. He goes to Clemson. He'll play against Clemson. It's a novelty. Man bites dog, so people paid attention.
Truth is, Roberts doesn't have any particular allegiance to Clemson. He has a T-shirt and a drawstring bag they gave him when he enrolled, but the rest of his gear is Furman. Heck, he grew up a Florida fan, rooting for Tim Tebow on Saturdays and watching stock cars on Sundays. But Clemson was close by, and it offered the classes he needed, and now here he is. It's funny how things work out, how the little things end up being what everyone notices, even after five years of doing the big things far from the spotlight.
Armstrong still has that old, worn football. God's football. He had always told his former quaterback that if he started a game in college, he'd mail him that football as a memento, a reminder of how far Roberts had come. So a couple of weeks ago, he gave Roberts a call.
"I've got the football right here waiting to send," Armstrong said.
Roberts laughed. He promised Armstrong he would mail him a signed copy of the starting lineup.
The two talked about the old days for a bit, about Roberts' family, about what it'll be like to play Clemson. It's a big moment, Armstrong said, not because of a funny quirk that has garnered national headlines, but because Roberts has been working for this for so long.
"He's just one of those kids that, when he went off, I told everyone, he's one of a kind," Armstrong said. "It's just not acceptable for him not to love life, not to try to get everything out of it."