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Missouri football coaches the other day were discussing an overachieving walk-on from 15 years ago when one reminded the others of a story that illustrated the player’s combination of brain and brawn.
The University of Toledo, where Gary Pinkel and a handful of his assistants coached for 10 seasons, was getting clobbered by Ohio State, the No. 1 team in the country. Games and athletes become a blur as years turn into decades, but accounts from that September afternoon in 1998 remain clear. The Buckeyes, in what turned out to be a mistake, left their backup quarterback in the game on kickoff coverage at the end of a 49-0 romp.
"Romules just about beat him up," Pinkel recalled. "He didn’t care if we were up by 40 or down by 40. He went down and blasted that guy."
Romules Durant, who recently was selected interim superintendent of Toledo Public Schools, spent all week preparing for the encounter. He studied film and detected the usual path the quarterback took down the field, and by the time Steve Bellisari broke left to pursue the ball carrier, it was too late.
"I had watched him do it several times, and I timed it just right," Durant remembers. "That was the last time he was in the game."
The studying of tendencies remains key to Durant’s success. Lining walls in his office are white boards showing how each school within the district is performing in various subject matters, a tool the 37-year-old believes separated him from other superintendent hopefuls. The setup was not unlike Pinkel’s office at UT, where walls were decorated with players’ heights and weights and their baseline scores in bench press and 40-yard dash. Durant, who joined TPS in 1999, estimates 90 percent of his job is related to football, right down to his clothing.
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Though he was not asked to show proof, Durant says he wears old football athletic shorts underneath his business suit, a superstition that, unlike the Rocket emblem on the shorts, has not faded since his playing days. Meticulously organized, he wears the same UT football t-shirt to the gym every Monday, and a different one on Wednesdays for inspiration during grueling leg training sessions. On days he forgets to wear his varsity ring to work, Durant will turn around and drive home to get it.
"I’m not surprised he is superintendent," said his former UT teammate, Sylvester Patton. "It’s good to know he’s in that capacity."
Patton, who played safety and running back, called Durant "the most feared walk-on in UT history." Though not exceptionally fast or big, Durant, a standout at Waite, took pleasure in knocking opponents and teammates to the turf. That tenacity earned him a scholarship after his first season.
Coaches had to tell Durant, a scout team linebacker, which offensive starters were nursing injuries and advised him to use discretion at practice. He either didn’t listen, but more likely didn’t care, so Pinkel sometimes had to kick Durant out of drills for rough play.
"I talked to him a year ago," said Patton, a minister in Atlanta. "I said, do they know who is on the school administration, a crazy linebacker? There might be some practice tape that would sway their decision."
A bully on the field, Durant had a reputation as a gentleman off it. Unlike the typical student-athlete who wears athletic apparel to class, Durant looked like he was walking into a job interview. Khaki pants, a button-down dress shirt, and dress shoes were his usual ensemble. He never waited until his hair got messy before seeing a barber. "We were in two-a-days, and it looked like he was going to the mall," Patton said. Durant’s credo — "Allow you to define yourself. Don’t let others define you — is something he took from his father. Benjamin and Carolynne Durant raised three children in East Toledo’s Birmingham neighborhood.
"Rom has always been goal-oriented," Darrick Beckwith, another former teammate, said. "Whatever he sets his mind to he’s always accomplished. Success is something he makes happen. He knows it’s not going to be given to him."
Durant, who signed a contract with TPS during his senior football season, made a goal to be superintendent by 37. He is right on time, though his appointment is on an interim basis. Durant rose quickly from teacher to dean of students to assistant principal to principal and then to district administrator. Along the way, he attained a doctorate in education, administration, and supervision from UT.
This month, Durant beat out Cleveland Heights-University Heights Schools superintendent Douglas Heuer to replace departing superintendent Jerome Pecko. Durant emphasized the importance of tendencies in the job interview, drawing inspiration from his carefully organized white boards. He uses an example of a child struggling with geometry. If the student consistently makes errors on problems related to angles, then maybe angles, and not geometry as a whole, is the issue.
"People fund football teams based on wins and losses," Durant said. "If you’re not winning, you’re not getting booster help. There are a lot of programs within the scope of our budget that we can’t fund, but by demonstrating the impact and the effectiveness that it has we will garner some sense of support from the outside community. We have people that want to contribute money, but they want to know if there will be a return on their investment."
Durant’s office features little evidence of his playing career. There is a letter hanging on the door from Rockets coach Matt Campbell thanking Durant for speaking to his team recently about career choices, and a UT ice cooler sitting on a shelf. Most memorabilia sits in a trophy case at his home. There are mementos of twice being named the team’s most inspirational player and a ring from UT’s win in the 1995 Las Vegas Bowl.
There also is a yellow hammer that celebrates a hit Durant administered to an unsuspecting Ohio State quarterback that resonates still today.
"He didn’t run away from anybody," Patton said. "A lot of us were running away from Romules."
Contact Ryan Autullo at: email@example.com, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.