He saw focus and determination, anxiety and eagerness.
But when Syracuse football assistant coach David Walker’s eyes met Keith Belton’s, Walker saw something he had never expected.
Tears. Belton — the fullback known as “Thump” for his whole life — was crying.
“It was last year right before the Georgia Tech game,” Walker said. “I was like, ‘What the … Are you all right?’ ”
Belton was more than all right.
“Coach,” Belton told the running backs coach before SU’s 2001 season opener, “I’ve been waiting for this my whole life.”
“Some guys,” Walker said, “take things for granted like having an opportunity to play on TV and a big stadium. He’s so appreciative of being in that type of scenario.”
Belton’s journey from an obscure junior college in Mississippi to Syracuse — where he’s played in every game the past two seasons — made him humble.
Four years ago, Belton was one of the hottest recruits in North Carolina after rushing for 1,327 yards and 18 touchdowns during his senior year at West Charlotte High. Baylor and Syracuse recruited him.
“We liked what we saw from a physical standpoint,” said Walker, who recruited Belton. “He was a ‘Yes-sir, No-sir,’ type of guy. I liked how polite his manners were, and he was the type of young man we wanted to bring into this program.”
But after Belton verbally committed to Syracuse, he bolted to Baylor. That’s when things started unravelling. One week into college, Belton was declared academically ineligible because of his SAT scores, which never topped 820.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t try on the SATs,” Belton said. “I’m not a guy for standardized tests. I just wasn’t getting it.”
Dreams of playing in front of a huge crowd and on television were replaced by the reality that Belton would spend two years at Northeast Mississippi Community College before he could play Division-I football.
Things got worse.
“I got to junior college, and being the person I am, I was very cocky when I got there,” Belton said. “I didn’t care who you were or where you were from. I was trying to run everyone over. It got to the point where I had more enemies than friends.”
So many that during a scrimmage, one of Belton’s teammates, fed up with the cockiness, took a cheap shot at him, Belton said.
The player targeted Belton’s knee, tearing his ACL and ending his first season at junior college.
But even with a torn ACL and lost season, Belton remained positive and kept Syracuse in mind.
Walker’s phone would ring once every two weeks, with that familiar Southern twang on the other line.
“Thump Belton here,” he’d say. “I was thinking about you guys. I saw you last week.”
“The kid,” Walker said, “wanted to be here.”
To try boosting his grades, Belton concentrated less on football and more on his reading.
“You’d be surprised,” Belton said. “I’m a history major, and I like to read. I like to read a lot.”
When Belton was younger, his grandfather, Willie Flemming, instructed him to read the newspaper every day.
“His reading ability wasn’t what it should have been,” Flemming said. “That was his study habit.”
Belton continued to read the paper, and it paid off. He took 23 credits during three semesters at Northeast Mississippi and graduated half a year early.
In January 2001, after 18 months of uncertainty, he transferred to Syracuse.
Upon arrival, Belton immediately noticed the difference between the junior college and college levels. He spent the entire season getting acclimated to the pace of the game and learning the Syracuse offense.
At times, it was difficult.
“Everyone is 6-foot-2 in high school,” Belton said. “Here, you see linemen that are 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8, and you’re like, ‘Hold on, and they can run too?’ That ain’t fun.”
Belton saw action in every game his first season and rushed for 57 yards on nine attempts. His best game came against Rutgers on Oct. 6, when he rushed for 50 yards on two carries, including a 48-yard scamper.
Belton finally felt he belonged last spring, when he began practicing with the starters. As he became more comfortable, more of Belton’s personality started to show.
“He loosened up more and more,” teammate Charles Simpson said. “He’s a happy guy all of the time. He likes to joke and play around a lot.”
That comes from his grandmother, Magdalene Flemming.
“He loves to call Granny everyday,” Belton’s mother, Rhonda, said. “He’ll say ‘G, what did you cook today?’ She tells him all the things he doesn’t eat. This family is very comical.”
Belton’s family also taught him morals.
“When he was in high school, people were picking on this girl who wore the same clothes all of the time,” Rhonda said. “He had two shirts in the car, gave them to her and called around to see if there is anything that girl could wear. Thump is a very caring person.”
How, then, did he earn such a tough nickname?
“He was always kicking a lot (in the womb), like he was running before he was born,” Rhonda said. “He was thumping. We’ve called him that ever since he was born. The name is perfect for football.”
Belton has followed his moniker. He feels he’s finally adjusted to Syracuse.
“He always comes in to watch extra film,” Walker said. “You only need to tell him something once. I love the enthusiasm that he plays with.”
Said Belton: “The fans (here) are definitely loud, and I love that. Football is football. It’s still a game, it’s still a sport. If you’re a good player, you’ll be able to adjust.”
This story originally appeared in The Daily Orange on September 20, 2002.