FLORENCE, Ala. – There are certain events in your life that you remember forever. Your first time on an airplane. The birth of a child. Winning an award. Any of these would be a story to tell for years to come.

How about all three in the same week? Meet Mars Hill senior running back Jonas Randolph, who took home the 26th Harlon Hill Trophy as the best Division II football player in 2011 on Friday night in the closest voting in the history of the award -- a three-point margin.

Getting on a plane for the first time can be terrifying enough. With his girlfriend Jackie back home with a baby due any minute, it made it that much more so for him.

2011 Harlon Hill Vote Totals
Points Player Pos. School
120 Jonas Randolph RB Mars Hill
117 Dane Simoneau QB Washburn
101 Micah Davis QB Delta St.
88 Brandon Kelsey QB Midwestern St.
78 Adam Neugebauer QB W. Va. Wesleyan
65 Jake Spitzlberger QB Neb.-Kearney
29 Joe Glendening RB Hillsdale
25 Rashaad Slowley RB S. Conn. St.
15 Lee Chapple QB North Alabama

“First time I’m flying and I’m nervous early in the morning and my girlfriend doesn’t want me to leave,” Randolph said. “Once I landed in Atlanta and told her I made it, she replied ‘I think my water broke.’ So we made all of the arrangements so I could make it back home to see the baby on Wednesday. It was beautiful, and it’s going to feel real good to take this award back to the house.”

Randolph gets to take the hardware back to North Carolina and his son Braylen after he led all NCAA divisions in rushing yards per game this season with 197.3. The Daleville, Ala. native became the South Atlantic Conference’s career rushing leader with 5,608 yards in his final game.

And while Randolph eventually made it to Florence this week to enjoy time with fellow finalists Micah Davis of Delta State and Dane Simoneau of Washburn, it wasn’t always an easy road. Not just the eventual drive from Mars Hill, which is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

“I thought about leaving my freshman year,” Randolph said. “I was far away from home. But it grew on me, and everyone grew on me. It’s been a long road.”

It was the right choice.

Randolph was a Harlon Hill Trophy candidate the last two seasons as well. And it was in 2010 when he started to think that winning the award could become a reality.

“My junior year, I just kept grinding,” Randolph said. “I’ve always told people that if I wasn’t at Mars Hill, I have no idea where I’d be. You learn so much from football and take so much out of football. It’s all been a blessing.”

It was a kicker from his high school that was already playing for the Lions that led the 5-foot-10 running back nearly 500 miles away to play college football. Having the same blue and gold colors as Daleville High School also helped Mars Hill’s chances of landing Randolph. Six consecutive years he’s worn those colors now.

All of this week’s action comes after his standout final season led Mars Hill to its first playoff appearance in school history. The Lions hosted North Greenville as a No. 2 seed in the second round, but fell 58-32.

Randolph rushed for 200 yards on 38 carries in that game, helping add to his Division II-leading 366 carries in the team’s 11 games. He also averaged more than 37 yards per game more than the next closest rusher in DII.

“It was a great feeling to be known as someone that helped Mars Hill out,” Randolph said. “They helped me and I’ve helped them, it’s that hand-in-hand thing. I loved playing for Mars Hill.”

Randolph becomes the first player from the SAC to take home the award -- which is named for former North Alabama player Harlon Hill -- and gets it back in the hands of a running back -- the fifth time in six seasons it has -- after Central Missouri quarterback Eric Czerniewski won in 2010.

All Randolph wants to do is keep playing football, and it’s not out of the question just because he played Division II football. When looking up and down the list of Harlon Hill Trophy winners and DII Hall of Fame inductees, it’s possible that his career could continue. One of those was inducted Friday night, former Mississippi College running back Fred McAfee who also spent 16 years in the NFL.

Then there’s the 5-foot-7 Danny Woodhead, who won the award in 2006 and 2007 with Chadron State before starting his NFL career.

“I love the game of football,” Randolph said. “From being young and winning the 40-yard dash and getting a little medal -- I thought that was great. But this right here is a thousand, a million times better. I’m proud to be a Harlon Hill finalist, a Harlon Hill winner. I wish I could play football some more. I wish I was here for five, 10 more years. This is a great game and DII or DI -- I think we can compete with those guys talent-wise.”

If this week for Randolph is any indication, he just might make it happen.