MORGANTOWN - It didn't take long for the taunting to begin. Ryan Clarke had practiced for one day, in shorts, and already the ugliness was upon him.
"It was mostly from friends, but I got a whole rack of e-mails talking about, 'Oh, he's still fumbling at practice,'" Clarke said, shaking his head. "I dropped the ball in warm-ups. Warm-ups.''
With friends like that ...
But such is the reputation Clarke now carries with him everywhere he goes. If he were spotted in a grocery store and a loaf of bread slipped out of his hands, passers-by would just shake their heads and groan.
"Figures,'' they would mumble. "He's a fumbler.''
Is he miscast? Well, the cold, hard facts say no.
Yes, West Virginia's 6-foot, 228-pound junior fullback has plenty going for him and is, in fact, the most experienced running back on the Mountaineers' roster, by far. In two seasons he has carried the ball 140 times. That's more than twice as many carries as the second-most experienced back on the team, Shawne Alston, who has 62 carries.
With Noel Devine and his 728 career carries gone, the rest of West Virginia's running backs combined have been handed the ball just 33 times. Shoot, Clarke has nearly half that many touchdowns - 16.
But there is also that pesky matter of holding onto the football.
Is it a bad rap?
"Somewhat,'' Clarke said. "It's about 50-50.''
That would be 50 percent of people look at Ryan Clarke and their first thought is that he's a football player. The other 50 percent see him as a football player who fumbles.
It is inescapable, of course, because of his history.
But in truth, there haven't been a lot of fumbles by Clarke. But when he does drop the ball, it is usually memorable.
The most egregious example is the one that sticks with everyone because it was so critical. In overtime at Connecticut last fall, Clarke fumbled the ball on first-and-goal at the 1-yard line, wiping out a near-certain chance for a touchdown. The Huskies went on to kick a field goal five plays later and it was the difference not only in the game, but the season.
Had WVU won that game it likely would have gone on to win the Big East outright and play in a BCS bowl game. Instead, UConn finished in a three-way tie with WVU and Pitt and played in the Fiesta Bowl.
And Clarke is still playing the role of the goat.
It's enough to break a guy's confidence or will, but Clarke lives with it.