HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- He was once an unabashedly confident 17-year-old boy who stared into a camera on ESPNews and told the college football world on National Signing Day in 2005 he was going to take his talents to West Virginia University and become a 2,000-yard rusher as a true freshman.
Months later, shortly after his 18th birthday, he sauntered down a street in Morgantown and stopped to stare through a campus bookstore window, where a WVU football jersey was draped over a mannequin in the storefront.
The uniform had 14 screened on the front - the number then-West Virginia Coach Rich Rodriguez promised him if he would shun Southern California and Ohio State.
Jason Gwaltney, a five-star, blue-chip running back who had navigated life with great aplomb, suddenly felt the burden of Old Gold and Blue expectations before playing a down for the Mountaineers.
"It was way too much way too fast," Gwaltney told the Daily Mail last week.
Gwaltney, a native of Wyandanch, N.Y., on Long Island, made 45 carries in his one injury-shortened season at WVU.
Since then, the now 23-year-old has been working toward his dream of playing professional football, a quest that prompted him to follow the country roads back here to West Virginia.
He is preparing at the H.I.T. (High Intensity Training) Center in Huntington for Pro Day, the scouting combine and April's NFL Draft.
Last month, Gwaltney spent a week at the HBCU All-Star Game in Atlanta talking to representatives from 25 of 32 NFL teams.
He was candid about his unconventional, circuitous route to the NFL. He talked about his shortcomings as a teenager, the temptations for a star athlete and how he came to shed the bravado that accelerated his descent into anonymity.
"Most of the teams know his story," said Taber Small, a mentor to Gwaltney and CEO and President of Team Player Management LLC. "They wanted to know if he would tell the truth. He really impressed people and you can see he really appreciates where he's at in life.
"He looks you in the eye. You can feel that he knows the road it took him to get here. He had adversity and injuries, but he stuck with his dreams. You can see he appreciates how everything helped mold and shape him into who he is today."
GWALTNEY ENDURED a precipitous fall - from ballyhooed prep prospect to playing at WVU to pay-your-own-way student-athlete at Division III Kean (N.J.) University - but today, a week shy of National Signing Day and six years after his national TV appearance, the 233-pounder is free of anger, jealously and regret.
"I would never take anything back," he said. "Some people mess up in life and they sit there and dwell on it, but I would never do that. Everything I've done, positive or negative, I've learned from."
He said he "didn't realize the magnitude" of appearing on ESPN to announce his college destination, but he later learned from opponents that it was used against him as a motivational tool by opposing coaches.
"Everybody knew who I was and wanted to destroy me," he said. "That made the transition to college football more difficult. Confidence is good to have, but it's also about using it at the right times."
Gwaltney played in the first six games of his freshman season before being injured in a win at Rutgers. He said rumors of his lack of commitment to his rehab at WVU were not far-fetched and he never returned that season.
He fell 1,814 yards shy of his rushing pledge, then left WVU to follow an elaborate plan that he hoped would lead him to USC and Coach Pete Carroll after a three-semester stop at Nassau Community College on Long Island.
Instead, Gwaltney compounded bad decisions with poor judgment, bailed on his aspirations to return to Division I football and ended up at Division II C.W. Post for the 2008 season.
"The grass isn't always greener on the other side, but I thought it was," he said.
Gwaltney found himself back on Long Island among the riff-raff that had steered him wrong countless times before. He got kicked out of his home and was forced to find odd jobs in construction to make ends meet.
"I never had to develop responsibility on my own," he said. "I had to get an apartment of my own, get a job, support myself. From 9 years old, everybody looked at me as a football god and all of a sudden nobody knows who I am and I'm just one of a million going to fill out a job application so I could pay for a place to live."
Although he was back in his old neighborhood, he felt a long way from his days at North Babylon High School, where he became Long Island's most prolific running back in history.
"Even though I was from a poor neighborhood I never felt poor because of all the attention I got from football," he said. "Who knows how many uncles or relatives or friends of the family threw me $100 after the game? I didn't have to work for anything."
That, he said, had an indelible impact on him through his only season at West Virginia.
"Where do you develop being a responsible, accountable person?" Gwaltney said. "Talent-wise, there's no doubt I should have been playing for West Virginia in 2005. Mentally, I should not have been playing.
"It's not about athleticism; it's about developing a student-athlete as a man. But my jersey was selling in the Book Exchange, so let's play him."