By Andrew Holman | Sports Editor
Greatness — it’s something every athlete strives for, but few achieve. It is the fruition of hard work, passion and commitment to one’s craft.
In one season at Duquesne University, A.J. Hines not only achieved greatness at the collegiate level, but he was also honored by a man that defines the word greatness — Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice.
Hines and Rice shared the same stage for a few moments as Rice presented Hines with the 2016 FCS Stats Jerry Rice Award, given to the nation’s top freshman at the FCS level.
“It was the best thing that happened in my life,” Hines said. “He is a character and he is a big inspiration in my life, and he showed me the way, and how to be great. He pushes me to be great just by what I have seen him do and his accomplishments.”
Hines began playing flag football at just five years old and football has been an important part of his life ever since. He finds his motivation from a familiar place.
“I use my family back home to motivate me,” Hines said. “I want to show them that I can be the best that I can be, and that I am doing it for them.”
Hines attended Fike High School in Wilson, North Carolina where he was named an All-State performer and a three-time All-Conference player. He accumulated over 2,000 yards rushing and 33 touchdowns in just his final two years at Fike alone.
When his high school days became numbered, he originally verbally committed to the University of Richmond, but in June of 2016 changed his commitment to Duquesne. After one year on the Bluff, Hines was already able to accomplish something he never could at the high school level — winning a championship with his teammates.
“It was special,” Hines said. “I’ve always been wanting a ring and I didn’t get one in high school, so I got one now and I’m waiting on three more.”
With a dynamic, powerful runner like Hines in the backfield, don’t count the Dukes out to be a force once again within the NEC Conference. The Dukes, under the direction of head coach Jerry Schmitt, won the conference outright in 2015 and followed that up with a share of the NEC title in 2016.
This season began with a 45-10 rout handed to the Red & Blue by Youngstown State, and in that game the Dukes managed just 34 yards on the ground. That is when Hines was given his chance to prove himself.
“When I played my first game ever, we played Youngstown State, and I got in for five carries, [Coach Schmitt] said I never gave up even though we were down so much,” Hines said. “I guess he just saw that in me — that I will do my best out there on the field with every carry I get.”
Following a five rush, 19-yard performance in the opener, Hines took over the Duquesne rushing attack on his way to 1,291 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns in just 11 games in his rookie year.
The numbers he was putting up certainly caught the attention of coaches, fans and media personnel in the NEC Conference and across the country. Hines was named NEC Rookie of the Week a school-record 10 times as well as receiving First Team All-NEC and NEC Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Hines was just one of 13 Dukes to receive postseason NEC honors. Additionally, teammates Christian Kuntz and Ben Huss were named to the FCS Stats All-America teams. Huss was one of the offensive linemen who helped carve a path for Hines to rumble through all season long.
Even with all the accolades, receiving the Jerry Rice Award is something Hines will never forget.
“When I got that call, I was speechless,” Hines said. “I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know who to call. I was just talking to coach and he told me. I was coming out of one of my classes and it just surprised me. I was so excited and I just started calling everybody, my parents, my friends, everybody.”
Hines secured the award by just a single point in the voting but that one vote was monumental to the Duquesne football program.
“It’s huge for our Duquesne program here to have a young man get awarded for his work, and for the work of the team,” Schmitt said in an interview. “He is a humble young man and he knows his teammates helped him gain that award and we were so happy when he got through the summer and decided to join our family here.”
Hines still has plenty of goals he’d like to achieve in the near future including playing in an FCS Championship with his teammates and becoming the first to win both the Jerry Rice Award and the Walter Payton Award, which is given to the best offensive player in the FCS each year.
And finally, Hines has his sights set on following the footsteps of the great Jerry Rice by making the jump from the FCS to the NFL.
“That is a dream. I am pushing to do that — to play football on Sundays. I want to get my education first and graduate from Duquesne. But if that does happen, it will be a great opportunity and I will take it, and ride with it.”