CLEMSON —In his vision, Darien Rencher was supposed to get here, to the doorstep of the end zone as a Clemson running back, much sooner.
Things haven't always gone according to plan in Rencher's football career, though. He turned heads as a freshman at T.L. Hanna High School in nearby Anderson, taking his first varsity carry 54 yards for a touchdown. The rest of the season played out in similar fashion, and letters from ACC and SEC coaches popped up in the mailbox.
Then he tore the ACL in his left knee during a basketball game that winter. He returned in time for his sophomore campaign and picked up where he left off, but in a preseason scrimmage the following year, he made a cut to the inside and felt a pop in his right knee.
His father, Darwin, and Riley Cummings, Rencher's mentor and a longtime pastor at NewSpring, a Southern Baptist megachurch based in Anderson, huddled on the sideline, looking down at the running back sprawled on the trainer's table, crying. This time, in addition to tearing the ACL in his right knee, Rencher had torn his MCL, PCL and suffered meniscus damage. Two cadaver ligaments were inserted to replace what was lost. Division I recruiters backed away.
Cummings visited Rencher two days after his surgery and found the the running back cooped up in bed. As his teammates kicked off another season, Rencher was watching The Price is Right. He was bummed. But it also put things in perspective, Cummings said:
"God used that do some special things in his life."
In the years to come, Rencher would join the Clemson football team as a walk-on, earn a scholarship and, according to offensive lineman Sean Pollard, become a 'spiritual giant' in the locker room. The 5-foot-8, 195-pound kid with two surgically repaired knees found a niche.
"He's been leading in the shadows for Clemson's football program and helping create a culture for three-and-a-half years now, with not an iota of fame for it," Cummings said.
That's fine by Rencher — for the most part. He's learned to trust his journey, which he's used as a platform to promote his Christian faith. But entering the Tigers' game at Louisville last week, a big chunk of the redshirt junior's vision remained unrealized.
Rencher had yet to reach the end zone.
The running back returned for his senior season at T.L. Hanna and had interest from S.C. State and North Carolina schools Catawba College and Lenoir-Rhyne University, his father said. But Rencher's heart was in another place.
"I wanted to do it big," he said.
So one Sunday morning at NewSpring, Darwin approached Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who had attended church that day with his team.
Darwin said all his son wanted was a shot.
"He (Swinney) said, 'Yeah, I've heard of him. But I just don't got any more room in my running back room,'" Darwin said.
Rencher applied to Clemson anyway and was admitted as a full-time student, but he told his parents, both of whom are Clemson graduates, he had little interest in going to college without playing football. He planned to attend NewSpring's seminary school instead.
"I was, like, having a panic attack," his mother, Tara said. "It wasn't until after he graduated he got a call from (Clemson defensive coordinator Brent) Venables."
"He was like, 'Hey man, you good?' I was like, 'I'm great.' He told me he had a spot for me," Rencher said. "This was always a dream."
The dream was rocky at first. After Rencher redshirted in 2016 and played on the scout team, wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, the former walk-on turned Tigers hero, told Rencher he believed the Anderson product would get put on scholarship the following season.
When it didn't happen, Rencher said, he was disappointed. But he remembered what Cummings told him at one of their Wednesday morning bible study sessions at the local Chick-fil-A while Rencher was still in high school.
"Even if things go the greatest they could possible go — you're taken No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft, by the time you're like 33, you're done with football," Cummings said. "Life is so much bigger than football. This has to do with the kingdom of God, and what he wants to work out for you and what he wants to do in other people through you."
Rencher continued to work toward a scholarship, and behind the scenes, he spoke of his faith. Before quarterback Trevor Lawrence began his freshman season, one that would vault him into the national spotlight, Lawrence attended NewSpring's Gauntlet, an annual weeklong spiritual camp in Daytona Beach, Fla. Rencher was his room leader.
"Trevor is a different person because of Darien's investment in him," Cummings said.
Before the 2018 season started, Rencher was put on scholarship. In seven games, he rushed for 65 yards on 15 carries, and he entered the 2019 season as the Tigers' No. 3 running back behind junior Travis Etienne and sophomore Lyn-J Dixon.
Late in the summer, Pollard said, he tagged along with Rencher to NewSpring.
"He said the prayer to give my life to Christ," Pollard said. "He tries to glorify God in everything he does. You can feel his aura in the locker room."
As the season wore on, though, Rencher's faith was getting tested yet again. He outwardly maintained his positive demeanor. But those closest to him realized something was off. Darwin's mother was taken aback watching Rencher on the sideline during the Tigers' game against Charlotte on Sept. 21.
"My baby doesn't look happy," she told Darwin.
Four weeks into the season, Rencher was the only one of five scholarship running backs who had not scored a touchdown. Chez Mellusi and Michel Dukes, two freshman running backs expected to play big roles for the Tigers in the future, were logging more late-game carries and both had crossed the goal line.
Darwin said his son's normally electric smile looked "cosmetic."
Rencher confided in Cummings and co-offensive coordinator/running backs coach Tony Elliott, a former walk-on himself. His mother sent him a video in which pastor Steven Furtick declared: "That's where you find God. Beyond what you can understand."
In a text message, his father wrote: "It's time to stop feeling sad when the play-calling doesn't go as you desire. It's time to FOCUS on what GOD has destined you to be."
Rencher didn't get any carries in Clemson's fifth game, a closer-than-expected victory against North Carolina, but his mood started to shift. In the Florida State game two weeks later he recorded three carries for 27 yards. Still, he hadn't scored a touchdown.
On the morning of Oct. 19, Darwin woke up in his Louisville hotel room and called his son, who said he was feeling buoyant: "Today's going to be a good day."
Clemson led 31-3 early in the fourth quarter when Rencher lined up beside Lawrence. On second and goal, Rencher — and his father, sitting in the stands — noticed Louisville's middle linebacker shift a couple steps to the left before the play. Darwin saw his son squeeze his thigh pads and snapped a photo.
Lawrence handed the ball to Rencher, who slipped through the left side untouched for eight yards. He skipped as he crossed the goal line, reminding Darwin of his son's freshman season at T.L. Hanna.
Rencher jumped into wide receiver Joseph Ngata's arms and fell back down to earth as teammates patted him on the helmet.
In the stands, Darwin plopped himself in his seat, pushed his sunglasses to the top of his nose and started to cry.