A.J. Long deserved better.

He loved playing football. And while growing from boy to young man, he played by the rules, made the right decisions, followed the right paths.

"Football kept me from going into some dark places," he said.

The hard work and dedication paid off in 2014 with a scholarship to Syracuse University. As a true freshman, Long played in six games and started five. He passed for 935 yards and four touchdowns.

Then the devastating sucker punch came.

During training camp in 2015, Long took a helmet to the head and suffered a concussion. The concussion was his first at Syracuse, but he had suffered two while playing high school ball at Pius X in Bangor, Pa., and Friendship Christian Academy in Lebanon, Tenn., where he spent his senior year.

Syracuse never cleared him from concussion protocols and, on Oct. 13, 2015, declared Long medically disqualified from the football program.

Football had been taken away from him.

Early this month, West Chester trailed, 14-3, in the second half at Bloomsburg. The Golden Rams offense, which had averaged 35.4 points over the first five games, needed a spark.

On a third-and-5 play, the quarterback scrambled for 22 yards and kept alive a drive that resulted in a touchdown. With about 10 minutes left in the game, sophomore wide receiver Elijah Hall caught a 26-yard touchdown strike from that same quarterback to give West Chester its first lead.

The quarterback who threw that pass and earlier made that run was A.J. Long.

"I'm trying," said Long, who is from Bethlehem, Pa., and has family in Tennessee. "I've left some plays on the field, but it definitely feels good to be getting back in the groove of being able to play and being a starting quarterback."

Long has taken the helm in his second season at West Chester and is developing into one of the most dynamic players in NCAA Division II.

West Chester quarterback A.J. Long is dangerous running and passing.
SCOTT ROWAN
West Chester quarterback A.J. Long is dangerous running and passing.

Through six games, the redshirt junior has passed for 1,434 yards and 15 touchdowns while completing 65.2 percent of his passes. He has also rushed for a team-high 400 yards with five touchdowns.

If he keeps on his current pace, Long will likely be one of the 10 finalists for the Harlon Hill Trophy, the Heisman of Division II.

"I don't think I've played my best football yet," said Long, who landed at West Chester after a 1½-year odyssey. "I think I've played well, but I have six interceptions and two fumbles. That's not good. That's what I look at. How can I get better from that, make the plays that I've missed?

"Once those plays are being made at a high rate, I'll start to believe I'm playing to a level that I am capable of."

In 2015, Long had no idea what was coming next. He had gotten medical clearance from an independent neurologist, but Syracuse would not change its position.

Long contacted coaches who had recruited him in high school. He got no takers.

"I realized I was not going to get back to Division I," said Long, who is 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds. "Nobody wants to touch a quote-unquote small quarterback that had head issues, regardless of whether I was cleared or not."

In 2016, Long enrolled at FCS program Wagner but did not play.

"My entire time at Wagner, I never came to grasps with what had happened," Long said. "I just couldn't make sense of it.

"It took me a year and a half to say there's nothing you can do about what happened, so go forward with your life."

That's when West Chester entered the story. Long had two cousins — Jarel and Jarey Elder — playing for the Golden Rams at the time, and being around family appealed to him.

West Chester coach Bill Zwaan welcomed Long with the only understood stipulation being that he was going to have to earn his playing time.

"We were going through his medical history; as a coach, you have to say I can't count on this until all of the pieces are in place," Zwaan said. "Then when it was all OK, it was let's see what he can do."

A.J. Long on a breakaway run.
SCOTT ROWAN
A.J. Long on a breakaway run.

Last season, Long played in eight games and passed for 453 yards with six touchdowns. He rushed for 380 yards.

He is at another level this season.

"Just being comfortable," Long said of the difference. "Last year, there were still reservations. It was new surroundings, new coaches, a new offense from any I had played in.

"Now I'm comfortable with everything. You allow someone to get comfortable with what they are doing, and they are going to perform well."

Long could have left football when Syracuse told him he should have.

"I really just love this game," he said. "It kept me out of some dark places, and then as I got older, it opened up a world of opportunities for me in life. I wasn't ready for it to be done, especially when it wasn't on my terms.

"… Now, if this is all that's going to be left, I can look in the mirror and accept that because I was able to be the master of my fate. The decisions on the field and off the field were the ones I made."