Cobourne Makes Inspiring Journey To WVU Hall of Fame
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In a way, when Avon Cobourne got the phone call to tell the all-time leading rusher in West Virginia University football history that he had been elected to the school’s sports Hall of Fame, he had to pinch himself to see if he was alive.
“I thought you had to be dead to get into the Hall of Fame. It wasn’t until Amos (Zereoue) got in a couple of years ago that I realized you didn’t have to be dead to go in,” Cobourne said from his office in Charleston, where he currently is working with kids at the Charleston Family YMCA.
And there is no one anywhere who has more to offer children than does Cobourne, whose journey from the mean streets of Camden, N.J., to WVU, the NFL and the Canadian Football League is a movie waiting to be filmed.
“By all rights I shouldn’t be here,” Cobourne said as the discussion turned to that journey.
It started as a nice kid in a tough area, his situation complicated when his mother became addicted to crack — a battle she eventually fought and won — which left him looking for a better surrounding, taken in by his Pop Warner coach.
As a high school back at Holy Cross in Cherry Hill, he was nearly unparalleled, right up until when he suffered a severe tear to his ACL that had all the schools courting him run off in other directions … except Don Nehlen at WVU.
Nehlen understood what he had if Cobourne could be nursed back to health.
And just what was that?
Well, seven years ago, NBC in South Jersey did an article on the Top 10 running backs to ever come out of South Jersey.
Here are the first four on the list:
And No. 5 was Avon Cobourne.
“Cobourne, a Cherry Hill native, is one of the most accomplished college tailbacks in NCAA history,” the article said. “He went to West Virginia because every other college recruiting him bailed out when he tore his ACL as a high school junior. By the time he left Morgantown, he had rushed for a staggering 5,164 yards, which was ninth-most in NCAA Division 1 history when he finished in 2002 and still ranks 12th all-time and a Big East record.”
“Cobourne played briefly with the Detroit Lions and the Cologne Centurions of the World League before finding a home in the CFL, where hes rushed for 4,262 yards in six seasons, including 950 or more yards in each of the last four seasons. Cobourne also has 244 career receptions for 2,173 yards. In his last four years, he has 6,161 yards from scrimmage more than 1,500 per year.
“In his all-CFL 2009 season with the Montreal Alouettes, he rushed for 1,214 yards and 13 touchdowns and was named MVP of the Grey Cup in Calgary, which the Alouettes won 28-27 over the Saskatchewan Roughriders after trailing 27-10 early in the fourth quarter.”
It didn’t mention that Cobourne also played linebacker in Canada, as if all that weren’t enough.
“I was just honored to be on that list with those guys. I’m not saying I wasn’t talented, because I was talented, but … I was hurt, I was fighting uphill all of my career. It’s been a glorious run.”
Glorious probably misstates it some, for Cobourne wasn’t a glorious runner. He was a tough runner, a tireless runner, he was Jevon Carter with a football in his hands the way he worked.
At West Virginia, he carried the ball 1,050 times in his career. That’s the record. Zereoue is second with just 786 carries.
He gained a record 5,164 yards, but got them the hard way, averaging 5.0 per carry.
“I know I took more bumps than any other back there,” he said.
His career, he notes, was an interesting one, for he played for Don Nehlen his last two years and Rich Rodriguez during his first two years.
When the change was made, he stayed rather looking to start over even though the offense would be completely different.
“West Virginia is infectious,” he said. “Honestly, we didn’t have a choice to go anywhere else but we didn’t want to go anywhere else. For me, I love West Virginia. It’s my home.”
In truth, Cobourne welcomed the change.
“I had coach Nehlen at the end of his career and Rich Rod at the beginning of his career. I’ve always been able to adapt and adjust. That’s the story of my life,” Cobourne said. “I lived with so many different people I was able to do that.”
Cobourne took each year as a new challenge. “I always try to reinvent myself every year,” he said.
And Rich Rod coming in gave him all the incentive he needed.
“When Rich Rod came in it, was great because I had to reinvent myself. I can’t be the same person because it’s a different offense and those people don’t know me,” he explained.
“I started for two years, but they don’t care. They want to win. For me, it was awesome. I had to go prove myself to these coaches and I don’t know what they thought. For me, it was a breath of fresh air.”
He blossomed even more under Rodriguez, even though the first year was a 3-8 disaster.
“I do think think about the players I played with,” Cobourne admitted. “The seniors who were there with Rich Rod, they couldn’t adjust. They were there four years with Don Nehlen. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.
“It was lot easier for me because of the way I was raised. I had another year to play, but it was tough for those guys, it was their last year. It was a tough situation for the coach to be so hard on them and me have the success I had. I understand his philosophy, but I feel so bad for them.”
The only thing Cobourne worried about with the switch was whether he’d get his carries. After all, he was the centerpiece of Nehlen’s running attack.
No need to worry.
Here is how it broke down in his two years under Nehlen and two years under Rodriguez, all four 1,000-yard rushing seasons:
Nehlen — 20 games, 448 carries, 2,156 yards, 16 TDs, 4.8 average
Rodriguez — 24 games, 602 carries, 3,008 yards, 26 TDs, 5.0 average
As a senior he carried a school record 335 times, gaining 1,710 yards, which now is just 34 yards of Steve Slaton’s single-season school record.
During that season, he had 260 yards against East Carolina and in 1999 he had 210 yards against Pitt, which is the fourth-best game ever against the Panthers.
Cobourne is taking his induction into the Hall of Fame as the honor it should be.
“Everything I’ve been through, it’s an awesome honor to be in there with the other greats. Coming from where I came from, I never thought it was a possibility,” he said.