Underdog No More: A Conversation with Bryan Schor
Two weeks away from kicking off his final season as a Duke, Bryan Schor clipped on the microphone and squared up to the camera. It's a routine he's very familiar with by now.
He sat in seat 13, three rows from the front of the club level seats, providing a perfect view of Zane Showker Field, which he's called home for the last three years.
Sporting a sleek and new black, No. 17 jersey, Schor puts down his phone.
"I'm going to take you down memory lane," I said. "This time, we'll try to take the express route."
It's been a long and bumpy road for Schor. And for awhile, his path to FCS greatness was never a sure thing (pun intended).
Bryan Schor has won countless awards and broken several school records on his way to helping James Madison win a national championship. But before all of that success, the quarterback originally committed to another school.
Schor grew up in Milford, Pennsylvania and played quarterback for Delaware Valley High School. In his senior season, he helped his team to an 11-2 record and finished his four-year career with 6,518 passing yards and 56 touchdowns.
"I wanted to go on and win a state championship and it's something that my high school friends still talk to me about to this day," Schor said of his high school career. "A lot of them are a little jealous about the national championship because they definitely wanted the state championship a couple years back."
Schor received offers from numerous Division I programs. But Miami-Ohio was the first school to make him an offer, entering the recruiting picture in the summer before his senior year at Delaware Valley.
"I really enjoyed the campus. I hit it off with the coaches immediately," Schor said. "Mike Bath, the QB coach. I really liked him. I felt comfortable entering the program."
But after graduating high school in 2013, Schor never made it on to Miami-Ohio's campus. He agreed to gray shirt his first semester, expected to join the program the following January.
Instead of attending school, Schor stayed at home. He stayed around the sport of football by becoming an assistant coach at his alma mater. Delaware Valley, in the first fall of the post-Schor era, won a playoff game.
"We were pretty successful," Schor said. "We definitely shocked a lot of people."
Everything seemed to be falling into place for Schor. But then the RedHawks made a coaching change just weeks before Schor was due to arrive on campus, hiring Chuck Martin to lead the football program.
At first, Schor was told there would still be a spot for him at Miami of Ohio, even though Martin was going to begin searching for another QB.
"He couldn't promise what the offense would look like," Schor said.
"We want our quarterback to be really athletic and run the ball and throw the ball as well and that type of thing," Schor was told. "That didn't scare me at all. I didn't run the ball a lot in high school but I felt confident running the ball."
As the days and weeks wore on, doubt grew that Schor would make it to Oxford, Ohio.
"I made a lot of phone calls trying to call coach back but I wasn't getting any answers from those phone calls and after about two weeks, I started noticing, I'm making this routine phone call and it's routinely being not answered," Schor said. "I wouldn't say it scared me, but it kinda opened my eyes a little bit, I got to start thinking about what are my other options here."
Every day for 50 days, Schor called Miami of Ohio.
"I kinda got the idea what was going to happen but it wasn't until what would've been my orientation day at Miami Ohio, that I got the phone call from the administration who told me that I wouldn't have an opportunity there," Schor said.
Looking back on it now, Schor says he wasn't broken by the school's decision to take away his opportunity to play football.
"You know in this world that's kinda how things work. Recruiting is tough and that's kinda how it goes."
Schor was in football limbo. With Miami of Ohio out of the picture, he enrolled at Lackawanna Community College, a temporary home as he sought a permanent one.
"There was definitely a time where there was not a lot of stability in my life. I credit my parents for keeping my head on straight. I just want to put my head down and figure this thing out and find out where I'm going to be," Schor said. "I don't want to sulk on it. I don't want to talk about the bad things that happened to me. I just want to focus on what can I do now to make my future brighter."
This wasn't how Schor imagined life after high school. His friends were already completing their first year of college while an All-State football player was sitting at home watching television.
"I was kinda nervous. I gotta get this thing figured out and start the rest of my life here."
Schor played spring ball at Lackawanna College. He made a highlight reel and sent it all over the country. A month later, James Madison University gave Schor a call, right about the time when Dukes quarterback Michael Birdsong announced he would leave the program for Marshall University.
Schor hit it off with JMU quarterbacks coach Drew Mehringer. And after a visit to campus, he was no longer in football limbo. Nearly a year after graduating from Delaware Valley High School, was headed to Harrisonburg, Virginia.
"Immediately when I came in here, they told me 'We want you to come in here and compete with Vad Lee'."
Lee transferred from Georgia Tech to join Everett Withers, who took over the JMU football program in 2014.
It didn't take long for Schor to figure out he would be the understudy for the starting quarterback role behind Lee.
"I got up to practice and I saw Vad practice and I kinda quickly figured out that I wasn't going to be competing for that spot," Schor said.
"I definitely loved the opportunity to be here with Vad. I've learned a lot from him. The way I learned to play in big games is from watching Vad Lee play."
Lee had his share of big games. In week four of his senior season against FBS foe SMU, Lee tallied 565 yards of total offense, breaking his own school record. His five touchdowns helped the Dukes defeat an FBS school for the first time in five years.
"Seeing him go into a big stage like that, it changed my approach to the game. There's nothing special you do in those moments," Schor said "You just be yourself. That's definitely something I learned from Vad."
Four weeks later, Lee and the Dukes played on an even bigger stage.
JMU's homecoming game against in-state rival Richmond was so big that ESPN's College GameDay paid a visit to Harrisonburg that week.
But in the fourth quarter, Lee went down with a season-ending foot injury, forcing Schor to step on the big stage himself.
"I think the first thing that went through my head was I have to do everything I can to give our team the opportunity to win," Schor said. "The team looks to you, you have to step up. I don't mind being thrown into the fire like that. You just go out there and play."
Schor's efforts weren't enough to beat the Spiders that night. But with Lee down, he ended up starting the final four games of his sophomore season. The Dukes won a share of the CAA championship and earned a first round bye in the FCS playoffs before losing to Colgate in the second round.
A month later, Schor was back in football limbo. Withers announced his departure to Texas State after two seasons with the Dukes.
"I think in those three weeks. I really just thought about having faith," Schor said.
Two years after a coaching change had changed Schor's trajectory as a football player, uncertainty made a return to his life. But this time, he wasn't alone.
His teammates used a group chat on their phones to reassure each other that everything was going to be okay.
"One thing I threw my two cents in there was it doesn't really matter who coaches us. We have a good group of guys and whoever coaches us is going to have a good opportunity to be successful," Schor said.
Three weeks after Withers' departure, James Madison hired Mike Houston to be the next head football coach. Little did Schor know at the time that it was a match made in heaven. The Dukes were a year away from winning the program's second national title.
After Mike Houston's first spring with the Dukes, Schor was on track to be the starting quarterback. He was ready to assume the role he inherited when Vad Lee went down with an injury the previous October.
But in the summer, Houston brought in Connor Mitch, a transfer QB out of South Carolina. An SEC player ready to challenge Schor for the role.
His mere presence at practice was enough to motivate the incumbent signal-caller.
"You just go out there and you hope that you prepare the best that you can and you do everything you can to make sure that you're the best version of yourself out there and that's something that I really focused on going through camp," Schor said. "I didn't watch to make sure how he was doing. I put my head down did everything I could each day to try and make our team better."
Schor's approach worked. He proved himself in camp and earned the starting role over Mitch, who ended up leaving the program by the end of the season.
The now junior quarterback led the Dukes to an 8-1 start, including a revenge win over Richmond on the road.
But in Week 11 at Villanova, with a conference title on the line, a back-up quarterback had to step up for the starter once again.
This time, Schor went down with an injury.
"When I was in the sling in the locker room with Villanova, the doctor told me, your collarbone is broken, I immediately thought, well that's the end of my season right there," Schor said.
"I had a couple of minutes to feel sorry for myself. I had to get back on the field and remember we had a true freshman out there playing arguably the best defense in the country. I put that in the past quick."
Back-up quarterback Cole Johnson held his own and the Dukes managed to beat Villanova, 20-7. The Dukes were CAA champs again, winning it outright this time. They earned a first-round bye in the playoffs after handily defeating Elon in the regular season finale, giving Schor even more time to heal.
He was back by the time Madison began its playoff run. And the rest you could say, is history.
The Dukes went on to beat New Hampshire, Sam Houston State and the five-time defending FCS champions North Dakota State, before traveling to Frisco, Texas.
There they beat Youngstown State to complete the coronation. JMU was back on top for the second time in school history. National Champions.
"Everything really felt real in that moment. To have all of JMU nation storm the field and to look around and see people that I don't even know, all of that stuff, it all hit me," Schor said. "Everything we put into it really mattered to us."
Schor finally tasted success. And now he wants more.
"I can remember holding up the trophy and giving it back to coach and thinking 'How can I get back to this moment?' And I think that's something that motivated us through this summer and last spring," Schor said.
Schor's success was never a sure thing.
His path as an underdog saw moments of doubt, motivation and the physical toll of being a college football player.
Now as a favorite to win, Schor looks back on that road with a smile.
"That made me who I am today. I'm confident out there because of things that I've gone through. I've gone through them. You're only better when you go through things like that. For me going through those things, I've seen how far I've come, so when I look and have my goals for the future. I look back on those, I see how far I've come and I feel confident about where I'm going now."