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Published: Sunday, 12/19/2010

Improbable journey: Springfield graduate Page blossoms into All-American at UT

Eric Page often sees a familiar face on the University of Toledo campus. His mother, Amy Weemes, is also a student. Eric Page often sees a familiar face on the University of Toledo campus. His mother, Amy Weemes, is also a student.
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We can only hope that Eric Page has one of those unlimited text-message plans with his cell phone provider.

After being told he had been named a first team All-American, and after he realized his coach wasn't "just messing with me," the University of Toledo's receiver/return specialist "thought about all the people I should thank for all the help along the way."

Page did more than think about it. He did it. Thirty text messages, or 40, or 50, he isn't positive how many.

"A lot of them, for sure," he said.

There was a lot of help, for sure.

Page makes football look easy, almost effortless as he explodes from behind a couple blockers on a kick return or slices around and past mismatched defenders, bigger and slower linebackers and safeties in man coverage, coming out of the slot on pass routes.

But there was nothing easy about the journey.

Page said he doesn't know his biological father, claims he isn't even sure of the man's first name, and only presumes that he is alive somewhere, maybe in Florida. Growing up, his mom often worked two jobs to make ends meet.

"I can't tell you how many times coaches or other kids' parents gave me rides to practices or to a tournament," said Page, who dabbled in three sports — football, baseball and soccer — during his formative years.

"If my mom didn't have the money for me to go on a trip, my coaches would find a way to help us and give us a hand. My teammates and their parents would give me a place to stay, a bed, and never asked for anything in return.

"Yeah, it was tough sometimes growing up. I'm just glad I had a lot of coaches who'd fill the role of a father figure for me. It just shows how many good people are around. Without them, I wouldn't be here. I really couldn't tell you what I'd be doing."

He'd likely not be rewriting the UT record book. Just midway through his career — he has one game, the Dec. 26 Little Caesars Pizza Bowl, remaining in his sophomore season — Page is on pace to shatter the Rockets career receiving mark by a whopping 123 catches and the career yardage record by a staggering 1,400 yards.

It is his prowess as a kickoff return specialist, though, that landed him first-team honors on the Walter Camp Foundation All-America team, the granddaddy of them all, to borrow a phrase, as well as the Sporting News All-America team. Page is the only UT player ever to be named to the Walter Camp team, which has been selected annually since 1889, and the initial Rocket to be a first team All-American on any team since quarterback Gene Swick in 1975.

Page ranks fourth in the nation in kickoff returns with a 31.8-yard average and is the only FBS (Division I-A) player to have three kickoff returns for touchdowns.

The regular-season finale against Central Michigan was his defining moment. Page had kickoff returns of 99 and 95 yards for touchdowns, caught scoring passes of 9 and 25 yards in a three-minute stretch of the second quarter, and threw a 28-yard pass for a TD to quarterback Terrance Owens on a trick play. Toledo needed just about all of it for a 42-31 win that lifted the Rockets to 8-4 overall and 7-1 in Mid-American Conference play.

"Eric is a very, very dynamic, exciting player," said UT coach Tim Beckman, "because he can do so many things. Just look at that one game."

Mario Cristobal, the coach of Florida International, UT's upcoming bowl opponent, was watching.

"Dynamic may not cover it," Cristobal said. "We've broken down a lot of Toledo film and Page is as dangerous as any player in the country. He's special."

He was special at Springfield High School, too, where he racked up nearly 9,000 career yards of total offense while quarterbacking the football team. In his senior year alone, Eric accounted for 2,381 rushing yards, 1,102 passing yards, and either ran or threw for 45 touchdowns.

Still, he said he was taken aback the day his coach called him into the office and said Andy Boyd, then an assistant coach at UT, was coming for a visit.

"A lot of people said that you can't go anywhere in football from Springfield, especially to Division I," Page said. "I guess if you hear it enough you sort of believe it. So I was surprised. I was hoping football would help me get to college. I don't know if it happens otherwise. So when coach Boyd came, that was a big day for me. I'll never forget it. I know what it meant to my mom too. "

It meant that everything changed. These days, when Eric is walking around campus, he's likely to bump into his mom, Amy Weemes, who also is a UT student and is pursuing a business degree.

"She stopped and left school around the time I was born," Eric said, "and then my younger brother came along [Darnell is a senior at Springfield]. Now my mom is back in school at UT too, which is cool. A couple of guys on the team have classes with her."

The amazing thing, perhaps, about Page's statistics and performances is that he is not particularly big — UT lists him at 5-foot-10, 180 pounds — and, while certainly quick and shifty, does not have blinding speed.

He admits there are "probably a lot of players with better skill sets than I have. I don't know if I have any talent advantage, but I feel like I have an advantage in my head. When I'm out there playing, I don't really know how to say this, but I can sort of see things before they happen."

No, he's not clairvoyant. He has what coaches call "it."

Beckman, who coaches Eric and sees him everyday, and Cristobal, who will be coaching against him and has seen him on film, had almost identical answers as to what "it" is.

"It is his intelligence and knowledge of the game and of what he can do against what other teams are trying to do to stop him," said Beckman. "He sees the game. He sees how the linebacker fits in the plan, how the safety fits in the plan. He knows how people try to take him out of the game, and he reacts and adjusts to it.

"I've been lucky during my career to be around Ted Ginn and Anthony Gonzalez [while at Ohio State] and Dez Bryant and Justin Blackmon [Oklahoma State], and what Eric has that they all have is that special sense and understanding of the game."

Said Cristobal: "He gets a great feel for the coverage. You can see him seeing a play develop. Like I said, that's special."

What may be really special about Page is that he doesn't seem too impressed by it all.

Beckman called him "kind of shy; he doesn't enjoy the limelight. He has a big game and he wants to talk about the guy throwing it to him or the guys who protected the quarterback. Eric is not a me guy, he's a we guy."

For example, ask Page about the versatility he showed in the five-touchdown game against Central Michigan and he says, "I guess it was a good game, but the best thing was that we won. Yeah, I did some stuff, but it was still a tight game. It was the team coming together to win and get to a bowl game."

It is about 7 miles from Springfield High to the Glass Bowl, an almost insignificant distance but a trip that very few football players have made. And, based on history, it is about a million miles from UT to first team All-American.

How is it possible that Eric Page, not so big, not eye-blink fast, has made both improbable journeys in a matter of two years?

"I just think it's the desire," Page said. "No one wants to get better and better more than I do. And I don't think there are many players who step on the field and the game is the most important thing in the world. That's me."

And that is "it."

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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