To Chris Villarrial, NFL Hall of Famer Walter Payton was not some mythical figure he knew nothing about beyond game film that immortalized him as one of the greatest players of all time.
Unlike most others, Villarrial knew Payton.
Though his career as an offensive lineman with the Chicago Bears began about nine years after "Sweetness" retired, Villarrial got to know Payton well as a mentor who helped him find his NFL footing.
About 14 years after Payton died, Villarrial, now the football coach at Saint Francis in Loretto, Pa., has been re-acquainted with Payton, even if it is only from the name of an award.
After a five-game start that in which he has rushed for nearly 1,000 yards, Kyle Harbridge, Villarrial's star running back, has been nominated to the Payton Award Watch List. The award annually is given to the most outstanding offensive player in Division I-AA.
"He definitely embraces everything Walter would have embraced, and I think Walter would have been proud of a guy like Kyle receiving that kind of recognition," Villarrial said.
This year, this senior from Easton, Pa., has put forth his best season in an already a decorated career in which he has rewritten the school's record book.
In five games, Harbridge has rushed for 937 yards, the most of any Division I-AA player, and 10 touchdowns while averaging 7.5 yards per carry.
Last week, in a 179-yard performance against Central Connecticut State, Harbridge set the school's career rushing record with 3,439 yards, a mark that could soon surpass 4,000 because six games remain on the Red Flash's schedule.
As successful as this season has been for Harbridge, it has come after a year of uncertainty. While preparing for training camp a year ago, Harbridge suffered a knee injury that kept him out for all of 2012.
But, after months of recovery and rehabilitation, he is better than ever.
"It's a long and tedious process," Harbridge said.
"It's frustrating when you're in season and your teammates are fighting while you're on the sideline taking a backseat. It's a minor setback for a big comeback."
Harbridge, who graduated in the spring and is currently pursuing a graduate degree, does not know where his football career will go after this season, if it continues at all.
His coach, however, is confident that his running back's name will be remembered for some time.
And, if things go right, Harbridge's name might even go alongside an award named after one of the best to play his position.
"He's in the weight room constantly, he's one of the first guys in meetings, he's one of the last guys to leave the meeting room," Villarrial said.
"He's a guy that's on the field all the time, directing people, trying to get guys motivated.
'Overall, he's just a good guy."
Slippery Rock excels in soccer
About halfway through the college soccer season, Slippery Rock holds the enviable status of having both its men's and women's soccer teams ranked in the top 25 of the NSCAA Coaches Poll.
Slippery Rock's men's team was ranked No. 15 in the most recent poll thanks to its 7-1-1 record.
Deer Lakes High School graduate Zach Hall is second on the team with nine points (three goals, three assists).
Goalkeeper and former Moon standout Chris Zier has given up just two goals in about 395 minutes of play this season.
After its second loss in its first nine games, the women's team fell to No. 24 in the poll.
California is the top-ranked local team in that poll, sitting at No. 13 after building a 7-2-1 record.
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG. First Published October 9, 2013 9:22 PM