WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — At 23, Robert Marve feels like the old man on campus.
As the Purdue quarterback looks around Ross-Ade Stadium, he sees the baby-faced freshmen and can't believe he's still here, playing with teenagers.
After transferring from Miami, suffering two season-ending knee injuries and having his name dragged through a major recruiting scandal, the once highly touted quarterback from Plant High is preparing for his sixth and, yes, final college season.
"Yeah, we call him Grandpa Marve," receiver O.J. Ross joked. "He's a real mature quarterback, and he's a playmaker, too."
Forget the age, Marve still throws well enough to be in the midst of yet another derby at the Cradle of Quarterbacks.
Two years ago, the job was Marve's to lose. Back then, he was considered the next big thing at a school that has produced a long line of star quarterbacks — Drew Brees, Gary Danielson, Len Dawson and Bob Griese among them. Injuries never allowed Marve to reach those heights, and now, with the season opener against Eastern Kentucky five days away, he's the underdog in a competition with senior Caleb TerBush.
It was never supposed to be this tough for Marve, who was considered a shooting star with unlimited potential in 2006.
Instead, his college odyssey has been one twisted chapter after another.
The trouble began in the summer of 2007 when Marve, then Florida's reigning Mr. Football and a Miami signee, was in a car that crash-landed on its roof as he and former Tampa Bay area high school players Colin McCarthy and Jermaine McKenzie were driving from Tampa to Miami. Marve's most serious injury was to his left hand, which required season-ending surgery.
When he returned to the field the next season, there were more problems. Misdemeanor charges for minor criminal mischief and resisting arrest without violence forced him to miss the 2008 season opener. Violating the team's academic rules kept him out of the season-ending Emerald Bowl game against California. In between, he started 11 games for the Hurricanes, going 116-of-213 for 1,293 yards with nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
By the end of 2008, it was clear Marve's career was in a free-fall. He was falling behind future starter Jacory Harris, running out of chances with then-coach Randy Shannon and in need of a new start. So when Marve went looking for a new school and Miami put restrictions on his transfer that essentially forced him to leave his native South, the 6-foot-1, 212-pounder headed north, where he found a first-year coach willing to give him a second chance.
"Robert is a high-energy guy who really loves football," Purdue coach Danny Hope said. "He's always been a great effort guy, but he's matured a lot here, and I think that helps us as a football team and as a football program because he's a special talent."
The bad luck followed him to West Lafayette, Ind., however.
While sitting out the 2009 season because of the NCAA's transfer rule, Marve tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
He returned in 2010, won the Boilermakers' starting job, then hurt the same knee in the third game and reinjured it the next week against Toledo. After throwing just 99 passes and completing 67 in his second college season, an MRI exam confirmed Marve's worst fears: He had retorn the ACL in his left knee.
For the first time in his memory, Marve contemplated life without football.
"You begin to understand that it is a sport, it's something you love to do. It's not who you are," he said. "It's a great feeling to be on the field and have fun with your friends. But it put me at a point where I realized family was No. 1."
Hope wanted Marve to work his way back into Purdue's lineup slowly. Again, the plan went awry.
He was clearly not 100 percent when he was practicing last August and former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro delivered another blow to Marve's image. He named the former Hurricane as one of dozens of players to whom he provided multiple improper benefits. Soon questions surfaced about Marve's eligibility and whether he would ever play another college down. The NCAA let him continue playing.
A week after that, Rob Henry, Marve's replacement in 2010, tore the ACL in his right knee, putting Marve back in the spotlight as the possible starter.
With Marve not fully healthy, Hope made the safe choice and handed the reins to TerBush, who led the Boilermakers to their first bowl game since 2007 and their second bowl win since 2003. Marve played in 10 games and went 61-of-109 for 633 yards with four touchdowns and five interceptions.
So after five mostly disappointing college seasons, who would have blamed Marve for walking away from football?
He just couldn't.
Purdue petitioned for a sixth year of eligibility, which the NCAA granted, allowing the more mature Marve to return this fall as the second-oldest football player in West Lafayette and prove the critics wrong. Defensive tackle Kawann Short is eight days older than Marve.
"It (the competition) is a good thing," Marve said. "I don't have any added pressure and you have to understand that at Purdue there are good quarterbacks all around."
But it's not just about scoring touchdowns or winning games anymore.
Marve has become a sounding board for teammates.
He has improved in the classroom, off the field and emerged as a leader.
He's also keeping this quarterback competition in perspective and staying within the confines of team unity, regardless of whomever Hope names the starter for the season opener. Teammates like what they're seeing.
"He's healthy, that's one of the biggest things. He's back to his old ways," TerBush said of the difference between Marve this year and last. "It's competitive, but I think we're all trying to help one another."
Even Marve feels good about it.
On media day, he told reporters he's feeling healthier than he has at any point in his college career.
And though he looks and sounds older than the wide-eyed teenagers just starting out at Purdue, Marve believes he's not too old to make a difference.
"I had a lot of growing up to do in college, and I view life very different now, and I feel blessed," he said. "I don't know too many guys that have blown out two ACLs and had nerve damage in their hand and still have a chance."
Robert Marve redshirted his first year at Miami, then fell out of favor in 2008. He sat out 2009 after transferring to Purdue, where he has been hampered by injuries.