As part of USF's kickoff coverage team, Sharly Azard's job is to find the quickest, most direct path to the football.
At 27 years old, playing his first snaps of significant football in nine years, the senior walk-on knows how much more there is to his story.
"This is amazing," Azard said this week as he prepared for tonight's game at Rutgers, which brings him back to New Jersey, where he lived after moving from Haiti when he was 12. "I've been talking to friends all week long. They're excited to see me play."
It has been a long road to college football for Azard, who had last played as a senior at Abraham Clark High in Roselle, N.J., in fall 2002. He found his way to Felician College in New Jersey as a student in 2007, then to USF in 2009, making the football team after an open tryout in 2010. He made it onto the field for a single play last season, on defense for the last play in a blowout win against Florida Atlantic. Now he's playing more regularly, bringing a dose of blue-collar Jersey to the Bulls.
"He works incredibly hard," coach Skip Holtz said. "You love to see those success stories. He was a no-name guy that walked on that nobody gave a chance. I'm sure people said, 'You're doing what? Come on. Give me a break.' Here he is, he's not only on the team, but he's playing and playing a key role for us on special teams."
Azard didn't opt for college initially, working a string of "dead-end jobs" — as a truck driver, security officer, caddie, at Home Depot, at a moving company in New York City, unloading and loading trucks in the cold on overnight shifts for Fed Ex. He sent money home to his mother and relatives in Haiti, then at his father's urging, started taking classes at Felician. Two years ago, he decided to seek warmer weather and a dream of playing college football, though he hadn't played for years.
"I basically worked and worked out. I always kept myself in shape," said Azard, who weighs 218 pounds and can now bench-press 450. "Someday, I might come back to it. I love football, and I just wanted to try out, to see what I could do with that."
Azard was fast enough in high school to run the 100 meters in 10.8 seconds and strong enough to play offensive guard despite weighing 185 pounds. When he got to USF in the fall of 2009, he talked with Jim Leavitt about walking on the next spring, only to see Leavitt fired that January. From an open tryout of 50-plus hopefuls, he was one of 14 new walk-ons in Holtz's first spring, and only four of those made it to summer. A year later, Azard kept his spot on the roster, making a name for himself on the "Pit Bull" squad, the scout team that goes against special-teams starters in practice.
"You're going kickoff return, and you can't block him," Holtz said of Azard's work in practice. "You go kickoff and he's knocking the heck out of somebody. You go punt, and he's the guy rushing the punter at 100 miles per hour. It's 'You know what, we ought to look at playing him. He's better than the guys we're playing with.' "
Early in USF's Big East opener at Pittsburgh in late September, linebacker DeDe Lattimore injured his ankle, putting his backup, Azard, on the field for kickoff coverage.
"This was my chance to get on the field," Azard said. "I gave it all I had, and fortunately, I caught the coaches' eyes and they made me a starter."
He has been on the starting kickoff unit ever since, and on the final kickoff against Cincinnati two weeks ago, Azard made his first college tackle. His father, Older, a math teacher, will be in the crowd tonight in New Jersey, and Azard will leave USF with more than just football memories. He's due to graduate next summer with a degree in communications, and he's excited about the prospects for his next job, building off what he has been able to do on the football field.
"We finally said, 'Let's give him a chance,' and the rest is history," special-teams coach Vernon Hargreaves said. "He can run; he's the first guy down the field. For the last year, the guy's done anything you asked him to do, works extremely hard. You want to give him an opportunity.”