When A.J. Hines arrived at Duquesne University last summer as a freshman running back, the Fike High graduate had high hopes but hardly any expectations that his first season would turn out the way it did.
Hines capped an outstanding debut season for the Football Championship Subdivision Dukes by being named the winner of the STATS FCS Jerry Rice Award as the top freshman among FCS players nationally.
"Yeah, it's very special," Hines said in a telephone interview during a break between classes Wednesday. "It's an honor to win this award and to overcome what I did last summer."
What Hines overcame was discovering that he hadn't qualified academically at the University of Richmond after signing with the Spiders last February. He was quickly offered a scholarship by Duquesne on a trip there in late June and made his decision upon his return to Wilson, North Carolina.
To say the least, that decision has paid off handsomely for both Duquesne and Hines, who finished 10th among FCS rushers nationally with 1,291 yards, which is a program record for freshmen. He was named to the first-team All-Northeast Conference squad and set a league mark by being named Rookie of the Week 10 times.
Hines admitted that his success was a bit surprising.
"Yeah, it did surprise me because when I came up to training camp they were talking about me being third string," he said. "I had to work my way up the depth chart and take my opportunity when it came."
Hines traveled to Frisco, Texas, for the STATS FCS banquet where he was presented the Jerry Rice Award by the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame wide receiver himself on Jan. 7.
"I enjoyed it a lot," he said of meeting Rice. "He talked to me a lot. He's an inspiration to me and a role model. He talked about how he grew up and worked so hard."
Other former NFL greats such as Doug Williams and Dexter Coakley were on hand for the banquet.
Hines was able to visit the Dallas Cowboys training facility as the guest of Cowboys public relations director Rich Dalrymple, who was a teammate of Duquesne head coach Jerry Schmitt when both played at Westminster (Pennsylvania) College.
"He's like (Cowboys owner) Jerry Jones' right-hand man," Hines said of Dalrymple.
During their visit, Hines was able to meet Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, who didn't mind having his ice bath interrupted to chat with another celebrated rookie.
"He was a real cool dude," Hines said.
Hines said that although he set the bar extremely high for himself, he's looking forward to greater things in 2017.
"My goal going into next season and the next time I'm in Frisco will be playing with my teammates for the championship," he said. "Hopefully I will be the first to win the Jerry Rice and Walter Payton awards."
The latter is given annually to the top FCS offensive player.
This article is written by Paul Durham from The Wilson Daily Times, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network.