It took five long years, hundreds of practices, thousands of workouts, dozens of interviews and 33 dispiriting losses before Adam Weber finally said something even vaguely negative about the University of Minnesota.
"I hate to say it, but I'm really tired of school," the Gophers quarterback admitted this week. "I'm ready to graduate and be done with college."
He was talking about classwork, not football, since he already possesses a business degree and has been taking grad-level courses this fall. But who could blame the 23-year-old senior if he was anxious to walk away from a football experience that didn't come within a season's worth of Hail Marys from what he hoped and expected?
Yet Weber approaches his 50th start in the Gophers backfield on Saturday, his final game in a remarkable college career, with sanguine emotions, an against-all-odds feeling that it was worth all the effort. Weber long ago came to terms with his team's naggingly persistent failure to live up to its ambitions, and said he can appreciate his career for the adventure, however frustrating, that it was.
The journey was supposed to take him somewhere, in other words, but he's discovered that the quest can be fulfilling by itself.
"I'm proud of many things we've accomplished. I know we're here to win games, and I wish we had done more of that," the senior from Shoreview said. "But we had some great moments, big wins. And there are a lot of great experiences that I'm grateful for because of football. We work with Hope Kids -- I can walk into a room at a children's hospital and make a sick kid smile, just because there's a Golden Gopher in his room. ... How can I say anything bad about [my career], when it allows me to do something that makes you feel so good?"
That's extraordinary maturity, those around the program say, from a player whose confidence and competitiveness make each loss -- and no quarterback in recent memory has suffered more of them -- a surprise and a heartache.
"You're measured by wins and losses, but you're also measured in how you respond to adversity. And nobody ever dreamed there would be this much adversity," athletic director Joel Maturi said. "Adam has been affected by a lot of factors outside his control, and he's never complained. I'm sure inside he's wondering, 'What if?' He's human, how can he not? But he's never said it, not to me or anyone I know of. And that's maturity far beyond his years."
A mixed legacy
Actually, Weber insists he never dwells on the road not taken, never second-guesses his choice of Minnesota, his father's alma mater, over Wisconsin or Iowa. He had to work with four offensive coordinators in his five years, first becoming a spread-offense conductor creating on the run, then morphing into a drop-back pocket passer. He rarely had much depth to work with at receiver -- but helped one notable exception, Eric Decker, develop into an NFL player. He had to face the brunt of fans' frustration over the Gophers' record and their unpopular coach, and the lingering feeling that his smashing freshman year -- "It was amazing how comfortable he appeared at an early age," said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz -- was his ceiling.
Instead of all that, he could have gone to Madison and played for a trip to Pasadena that the Gophers dreamed of but never came close to achieving.
Weber's what-ifs, however, involve that unsuccessful two-minute drive against Northwestern, or the lead that slipped away against Kansas in the Insight Bowl two years ago, or failing to score against the Hawkeyes in a winnable game last November. "There are so many games I'll look back on and think: If I do this or something else, we win. And that hurts," he said. "We could have won so many more games here, and I can't separate my responsibility for it. I didn't get it done."
Yes, that's the odd, mixed legacy of Minnesota's most statistically accomplished quarterback in history. He's known for his amazing durability, having played virtually every offensive down of every game in his career -- "I take pride in the fact that I've missed one practice in my five years, the day after my knee surgery," he said -- and for the clockwork amassing of yards and completions. Only two quarterbacks in Big Ten history have thrown for more yards than Weber, only three have completed more passes, and only four can match his 72 touchdowns.
But Adam Weber is at once better and worse than those statistics suggest.
He bounces balls at receivers' feet two or three times a game. He slings the ball into traffic when prudence dictates a Plan B. He can perfectly complement an effective offense but rarely create one by himself.
Yet his teammates insist Weber will be missed far more than outsiders realize.
"He's got great stats, but that's not what makes him great," tailback Duane Bennett said. "If people were around Adam Weber every day the way we are, they would understand that he's an even better person and leader than his numbers. We don't have many wins, but Adam Weber is a winner."
See, that's the hang-up that complicates Weber's place in history. He's having another typically solid season, ranking fourth in the league in passing and fifth in total offense. But the Gophers are 2-9 and have never had a winning conference record, never even won a trophy game, during his tenure. As he says himself, "I've played 50 games -- but how many wins?"
"Winning and losing is bigger than any one player. I can tell you he's been tough to compete against for a long time, and we've got an awful lot of respect for him," said Ferentz, the Iowa coach. "It seems like he's been there for eight years."
Sometimes it seems that way to Weber, too. After Saturday's finale -- "It's going to be a very emotional day. It'll be emotional just putting on my shoulder pads, knowing it's the last time as a Gopher," Weber said -- he will move back to Shoreview, decompress for a few weeks at his parents' home, then begin training for a shot at the NFL. He will pursue that ambition for as long as he can, then someday utilize his degree and contacts within the Gophers football community to get a job in business somewhere.
And only then will he contemplate what he has achieved as the face of Minnesota football for almost a quarter of his life.
"When he leaves here, he'll look back and realize he did some really special things. He'll be remembered as a special player, just caught in a tough situation," Gophers interim coach Jeff Horton said. "The truly unique thing about him [is that] he's never once blamed anybody or anything. He's always taken it on himself. And that's just so rare these days."
It even extends to his sense of his place in history. Does he envision his No. 8 retired someday, his career remembered with other Gophers greats, such as Sandy Stephens or Bobby Bell? It's just not in him.
"What made them great was what they were able to do as a team. They won national championships, Big Ten championships," Weber said. "My individual accomplishments fall to the wayside beside our team's lack of success. I don't compare myself to those guys because of what they did that we weren't able to."