It's difficult enough being away from home for the first time, trying to adjust to college life both on the football field and off. Then, Alex Derenthal saw his entire world come crashing down. On both him and his family, some 1,500 miles away. And just like that, he wasn't a freshman anymore. He had become the man of the house.

It happened during Temple's spring practice 2 years ago. He had redshirted the previous fall and was still trying to find his way when tragedy struck. His father, James, died suddenly of a heart attack in Davie, Fla. That quickly, midterm exams and earning playing time weren't the least bit relevant. The only thing that mattered was being there for his mother Lynn and younger brother Kurt. So he flew back, and stayed for a week. The toughest time of his life.

"I was really close with my dad," Derenthal said as the Owls prepared for tomorrow's Cherry-White game at their Ambler campus. "He used to take me to practice, spent extra time working with me, stuff like that. He was always there for us, no matter what. That's the way he was. It meant a lot. You never think he's not going to be around. Then, when he's not, you have to deal with it. But it's not easy.

"My mom took it really hard. She spent weeks in bed, doing absolutely nothing. She's doing better now, but it's been pretty rough. It was hard coming back here. I wanted to stay for as long as I could. But as much as I wanted to, it might have been the best thing for me. It helped take my mind off it.

"My grades went down a little bit that semester. But after a while, you learn to cope. You go day by day. It doesn't mean you forget. You never forget. But at some point, you have to keep going. The hardest thing for me was knowing that my mom and brother were by themselves, struggling. I wanted to take care of them. It makes you think about a lot of things, about how you have to step up and take responsibility. It turned out that the best thing I could do for everyone was to come back and take care of what I had to, to see this through.

"There were times when you wonder what's best," he went on. "But I'm not a quitter."

The 6-4, 280-pound center started every game in 2005, one of two Owls to do so, and played virtually every snap. Last season he was named the team's MVP, the first sophomore in program history to win the award. Derenthal graded at 90 percent or better in every game, but that's hardly the only reason he was honored.

"The voting's done by the staff," said coach Al Golden, who will open his second season Aug. 31 at home against Navy. "I think he's a special young man. From the time we got here, he's embraced the approach we have to the game, and being a student. He's a kid who prepares, studies film, finishes every play. He's tough, and unselfish. You have to be, to be a center. Even though he's quiet, he's got leadership abilities. In the weight room, in the community. He's a unique individual. We're blessed to have him for another two seasons."

Then, he paid Derenthal the ultimate kudo.

"If you could get five or 10 of these guys on your team, you'd be in business," Golden said. "True leaders multiply. We're starting to develop more. We have to get this core group to impose their character traits on the decision-making of a lot of the younger guys. He's been at the fore of that."

The Owls won once last year, which was still one more than they won two seasons ago. They're talking about MAC championships, even though chances are they might not win a whole bunch more this season. But at some point, who knows? It's OK to think big, even for a program that's been wandering in the desert for decades.

Derenthal believes it has to start somewhere. Why not now?

"It's been tough," he said. "I never had to deal with losing like that. But since coach Golden's been here, he's trying to keep everything positive. It just takes time. You can see where we're getting better, every day. But still not seeing the results hurts. We know how hard we work at it. You want to see it pay off. We're hoping it's this year, but definitely by next year. I take each loss personally."

Until then, he's going to keep doing what he does, and hope it makes a difference.

"I was totally shocked when I heard my name called at the [team] banquet," he said. "When you hear you're the hardest worker and best, quote-unquote, warrior, they had so many seniors who'd stuck it out for 4 years. For me to get that over them . . . I've always taken a load on my shoulders, but I've got something to shoot for now. Because I don't want to lose [that title]."

Whatever happens, he knows he's not in this alone.

"My dad's looking down and enjoying what he's seeing," Derenthal said. "He's definitely proud. I just wish he could be here for it." *