HICKORY Josh Justice arrived at Lenoir-Rhyne in 2010 with a litany of accolades as a high school quarterback at Belmont South Point High and a state championship trophy.
However, all he saw for the most part in college was the bench.
Justice redshirted his first season, saw no game action in 2011 and played sparingly in two games for the Bears last season.
Now a junior in eligibility but on track to graduate this year, Justice considered giving up football altogether.
Be patient. Wait your turn.
The advice was getting repetitive from friends, family and coaches.
You never know when your time will come.
And it did. The time is now.
Through a bizarre set of circumstances, Justice who began the season as the Bears third-string quarterback will lead Lenoir-Rhyne (12-1) into Saturdays NCAA Division II national football semifinal game against West Chester (Pa.) at Moretz Stadium.
On the line? A chance to play for a national championship.
Its the dream of every college football player at the start of every year, said Bears coach Mike Houston. And dreams can be special.
Just like this season.
Through the first eight games of the season, Justice had seen no game action. Lenoir-Rhyne was on a roll with a 7-1 record behind the play of talented junior quarterback Miles Freeman.
I just figured I had seen about all of my college football career I was going to, said Justice, who won the 2009 N.C. 3A state championship at South Point. I was going to graduate and move on with my life.
That would be the way I end my college career on the sidelines.
Not so fast.
In the Bears Nov. 2 victory over Carson-Newman, Freeman went down with a season-ending muscle tear in his lower leg. Backup quarterback Teverrius Jones was called into action and Houston notified Justice that he now would be the second-string quarterback.
Houston even put Justice into the Carson-Newman game to get experience in what turned out to be a 37-3 rout.
I told Josh, he was now only a snap away from being the guy, Houston said. My point was to emphasize to him that he needed to always be ready. You never know when youll be needed.
It was sooner rather than later.
Playing Carson-Newman again in the NCAA Division II national tournament on Nov. 30, Jones suffered a neck injury in the third quarter with the Bears trailing 20-10.
Enter former bench-sitter and now starter, Justice.
He completed a Lenoir-Rhyne possession that ended in a field goal, then orchestrated back-to-back scoring drives of 74 and 92 yards, respectively, to send the Bears to a 27-20 victory and into the Division II quarterfinals.
Getting thrown into the game, it was very high intensity and fast-paced, but nobody got caught up in the moment, Justice, 21, said. We knew we were either going to score twice, or we were going home. That was it.
Through the victory, Justice gained some valuable experience, some confidence and learned an important lesson.
When coaches tell you that you need to be ready because anything can happen, it always seemed like something coaches used to motivate players, he said.
Every now and then, it does happen. As players, you need to take coaches seriously, because the worst thing that can happen when that situation does happen is that you are not prepared.
That was not the case for Justice.
With Jones still nursing his injury, Justice got the start in last weekends national quarterfinal game with North Alabama. With Lenoir-Rhyne running its potent triple-option offense, Justice passed for just 19 yards but ran 89 yards for two touchdowns as the Bears won 42-39.
Although Jones has been cleared to play, Houston said Justice will again start in Saturdays national semifinal matchup Saturday with West Chester (13-1).
You always have to be ready when your numbers called. When you have injuries, its next man up and Josh is a great example of that, Houston said.
Josh is a special kind of kid. He was a very good high school quarterback. We thought he fit our scheme, hes an outstanding student and character-wise, hes top notch.
He sat here, always worked hard, always was positive.
But did Houston expect the kind of performance Justice has provided?
I dont think anybody was shocked he played well. Now, he may have exceeded a little of what we expected, said Houston. The bottom line is this is definitely a guy who was ready when his moment came.
Despite the change in fortune, Justice has not wavered from his plan. He wants to become a teacher after he graduates next spring.
His college football career may well end up short in tenure but long in memories.
This is a crazy situation, Justice said. I mean, how many people get to start and go out on top?
Utter: 704-358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter.
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