His recent 56-yard touchdown jaunt against Atlanta was one of the NFL’s top highlights this season.
But the most important runs New Orleans Saints running back Chris Ivory made were ones nobody ever saw.
The jogs came at 2 a.m. in the snow while he attended Tiffin University, a private college in a small northern Ohio outpost. Tiffin was nothing like Ivory’s hometown of Longview, Texas, let alone Washington State University, from where he transferred in 2009 after team dismissal for an off-field fight.
Ivory was playing Division II football as a Division I talent. He then suffered a knee injury. The winter came. Ivory was freezing and felt more alone than ever before.
Had he quit and returned to Longview, nobody could have blamed Ivory. But that would mean giving up on his NFL dream. So he prayed and found ways to cope. One of those mechanisms was late-night runs, followed by watching television until dawn before going back to sleep.
“I kept trying to have positive thoughts,” Ivory told FOXSports.com. “At times, I would get down. But somehow I would find a way to pick myself back up.”
For the past three weeks, Ivory has helped pick up an entire team.
Ivory’s touchdown against Atlanta in Week 10 triggered a Saints rally from a 10-0 deficit to topple the previously undefeated Falcons. Ivory took a handoff from quarterback Drew Brees and sprinted to his right so quickly that linebacker John Abraham and cornerback Asante Samuel couldn’t catch him. Ivory then cut inside free safety Thomas DeCoud along the right sideline toward the middle of the field.
The last Falcons defender to have a shot was cornerback Dunta Robinson. He fell by the wayside after Ivory’s stiff arm at the 15-yard line.
“They talk about getting into this little zone when you play,” Ivory said. “I definitely got in a zone and things did kind of slow down for me.
“I saw (Samuel) on the edge. I felt like I was able to get it. Sure enough, I was able to get around him, split the safety coming over the top and finish the run with a mean stiff arm.”
The week before, Ivory rushed for 48 yards and one touchdown in a win over Philadelphia. The week after, Ivory added another 37 yards on eight carries in Sunday’s 38-17 rout of Oakland.
But heading into the FOX America’s Game of the Week against visiting San Francisco (Sunday, 4:25 p.m. ET), there is the chance that Ivory may wind up in the same position as during the Saints’ first seven games of the season — inactive.
The only reason Ivory got his opportunity was a broken forearm suffered by another Saints running back. Darren Sproles has since recovered and is expected to play Sunday. That means Ivory, Pierre Thomas or Mark Ingram won’t be in uniform unless New Orleans takes the unusual step of dressing four running backs.
“It still remains to be seen,” Ivory said after Wednesday’s practice. “But I believe we’ll all be inserted somehow and used differently within the game and used to our strengths. I think it will be all right.”
Ivory admittedly was frustrated at not getting on the field earlier. He rushed for 716 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie after sticking with the Saints as an undrafted college free agent in 2010. The Saints, though, still decided to upgrade their backfield the next season by signing Sproles as a free agent and making Ingram a first-round draft choice. Although he started two games in 2011, Ivory saw his carries and yardage almost cut in half.
That was still better than not playing at all despite an impressive 2012 preseason. As the NFL’s trading deadline approached last month, Ivory said he was “definitely wondering” whether he would be on the move to a team that could use his services more.
“I didn’t really know what to expect, especially with the rumors going around saying I was going to be traded to Detroit or another team,” Ivory said.
Fortunately for the Saints, Ivory never checked out mentally despite his frustration. Asked how he stayed strong early in the season, Ivory said: “Just trying to stay positive. It wasn’t easy. The first couple of weeks, I was like, ‘Maybe (the coaches) are doing something and there’s a plan upstairs and I’ll play in week 4 or 5.’ That still didn’t happen. But it finally came.”
If the chances keep coming, Ivory plans to take advantage of them.
“Everybody wants to be able to contribute to their team and their wins,” he said. “I finally got back in the mix and was able to do some positive things to help. I’m looking forward to make more big plays to improve the momentum of the team and provide another big spark."
That would keep Ivory from being left out in the cold again.