Stony Brook sophomore running back Donald Liotine rushed for 521 yards and three touchdowns over the final three weeks of the football season.
Not all that long ago, those numbers seemed impossible.
Liotine came to Stony Brook as a walk-on. After becoming a Seawolf, he missed two seasons with shoulder injuries. Coming into this season, Liotine was buried on a depth chart that featured star running backs like junior Stacey Bedell and freshman Isaiah White.
“I mean everybody dreams, right?” Liotine said of playing college football. “I hoped it would happen. I prayed for it. I dreamed about it every day since I realized I could play college football.”
The sophomore began this football journey at The Stony Brook School in eighth grade, a private boarding school located less than a mile from Stony Brook University.
Because the school was so small—only 346 students were enrolled there last year—its sports programs were unconventional.
“Students are required to play a sport there because the school doesn’t have gym,” Liotine said. “And we had a lot of international kids there who’ve never heard of football. So we had kids who were on the field in helmets who had never seen the game before.”
Despite this, Liotine carried the team to relevance during his senior year. He served as the team’s captain and rushed for 1,666 yards, and the Stony Brook School went to the Suffolk County Division IV Playoffs.
“We played well that year,” Liotine said. “We had a bunch of seniors who played from ninth grade up and we just developed into a team.”
That year, he was recruited primarily by Division II and Division III schools. However, Liotine managed to catch the eye of one Division I team that played nearby. Stony Brook head coach Chuck Priore wanted him to come to the school as a walk-on rather than go to a smaller school on scholarship.
“We recruited him, he was a good football player,” Priore said. “We wanted him to come but we just didn’t have a running back scholarship.”
Liotine said that he always wanted to play against “big competition,” but his dreams of the big stage were put on hold for quite some time. Two weeks into his first training camp, he suffered a torn labrum, forcing him to miss the entire season. The following year, Liotine suffered the same injury in spring practice. Recovering from the first injury was difficult, but the second one proved even more laborious.
“First [injury] you’re just thinking that you got to get back,” Liotine said. “But the next one, you’re finally starting to feel good again then all of a sudden it’s over. You got to go through it all over again.”
After the second shoulder injury, Liotine was finally healthy for this year’s season opener. He began the year as a third-down running back, splitting secondary carries with White while Bedell served as the primary back.
“Every great starter needs a good backup to keep going,” Liotine said. “I think I fit that role really well in the beginning of the season.”
Bedell then suffered a torn labrum of his own in late September. White then went down with a foot injury in October. Priore decided to make Liotine the starter after both backs got hurt.
All of a sudden, Liotine—a walk-on—was in line for substantial playing time.
“Experience,” Priore said of his reason for starting Liotine. “He’d been in the program for two years, so [he] understands what we’re doing. He plays physical.”
Liotine recorded mostly lackluster statistics during his first month as the starter, as Stony Brook was in the midst of a five-game conference losing streak in the Colonial Athletic Association.
He then recorded a program-record 38 carries for 204 yards and two touchdowns against Howard, lifting Stony Brook to a 14-9 win. This marked only the 13th occurrence in school history that a Seawolf rushed for over 200 yards.
“The Howard game shows up and I get the most carries I’ve ever had in my life,” Liotine said. “I was definitely still a little rusty from starting for the first time since high school.”
Proving that this was no fluke, Liotine followed that game up with a 114-yard performance in a 19-7 win against Rhode Island. He then rushed for 203 yards and a touchdown in Stony Brooks’ season-ending 20-2 victory over Albany.
“It felt surreal,” Liotine said. “It didn’t really set in until you start getting interviews after practice.”
As the starter, Liotine is now up against enemy defenders rather than the odds of playing Division I football, a shoulder injury or a depth chart.
“I’m happy for him,” Priore said of his running back. “When you work hard, you want to have something to show for it, and I think now he’s got something to show for it.”