ORONO, Maine — Jovan Belcher lives his life as a student-athlete at two divergent speeds.
When striding deliberately around campus, the University of Maine senior is a reserved, thoughtful student who keeps busy in school activities.
When Belcher pulls the No. 9 football jersey over his shoulder pads on Saturdays, he becomes a hard-charging defensive end capable of imposing his will on opponents.
“He’s a high-intensity, high-effort guy,” Northeastern coach Rocky Hager said of Belcher, who is a candidate for the Buck Buchanan Award, given to the Football Championship Subdivision’s best defensive player.
Belcher is the unquestioned leader of the Black Bears’ defense. He has been instrumental in helping UMaine post a 5-3 record heading into Saturday’s noon nonconference game against Iona at Alfond Stadium.
The 6-foot-2, 228-pound dynamo from West Babylon, N.Y., is living up to the hype this fall for coach Jack Cosgrove’s team. The Bears’ co-captain leads the team and ranks fifth in the Colonial Athletic Association with 70 tackles. They include eight for a loss, with four sacks.
“I don’t know as I’ve seen as much attention paid to an individual by opposing offensive lines,” Cosgrove said. “He’s a target. They want to know where he is.”
Belcher, a second-team All-American last year and the CAA Preseason Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, continues to excel after making the switch from outside linebacker to end prior to the 2007 season.
The move forced him to play out of a three-point stance and to learn new techniques. Belcher now must take on 300-pound tackles and use his speed, skill and strength to get around them and make plays.
“He has a special ability to really jump into another gear and turn himself into a bit of a different being,” Cosgrove said of Belcher’s on-field personality. “He plays with such passion and reckless abandon.”
Though a bit undersized, he is a perfect fit for UMaine’s defensive scheme. And while he has mastered plenty of football moves, Belcher also has drawn on his experience as a wrestler.
Though he was an outstanding high school football player, Belcher was a three-time All-American on the mat.
“Once I saw them throwing people around, it attracted me to it,” said a smiling Belcher, whose biggest lesson learned on the mat was to be relentless and never to give up.
“You’re in the trenches, that’s where it all starts,” Belcher said. “It’s basically a fist fight every play.”
Belcher encounters frequent frustration on the field. He is often double-teamed and winds up chasing down the quarter-back or ballcarrier, only to arrive a moment too late.
“It just gets me mad,” said Belcher, whose mouthguard features white Dracula-like fangs on a black background.
Belcher is thankful for the mentorship provided by his coaches over the years, but credits his mother, Cheryl Shepard, and his three older sisters with giving him a strong foundation of love and support.
“My mother is a hardworking woman,” he offered. “To see her overcome some things and succeed, it makes me look at things and say, ‘this isn’t even hard.’ I didn’t really have a father figure, so they provided nice guidance for me.”
Belcher has been busy on campus. He participates in the Male Athletes Against Violence initiative, mentors a local youngster by going on outings with him, and was on the committee that designed the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, which is being dedicated on campus today.
Belcher, who will graduate in December (in 3½ years) with a degree in child development and family relations, has found the perfect balance in maximizing his numerous talents.
“He’s very much in control of himself and comes across very soft-spoken, an absolute gentleman,” Cosgrove said. “He’s able to blend this quiet confidence, this demeanor, with his passion for learning, becoming a better person, a better student, a better football player.”
Belcher hopes to get a shot next year at earning a spot on an NFL roster. Once his playing days are over, he knows where he wants to be.
“I want to work with young adolescents and provide support and the guidance for them, let them know that they can make something of themselves,” said Belcher, who also hopes to do some coaching.
Belcher finished by quoting late UMaine assistant coach Jeff Cole, who said, “You’ve got to give more than you get.”