IOWA CITY - The whispers turned into gossip. And the gossip hit the Internet message boards.
Could it be true? Had Shonn Greene ballooned to 300 pounds?
Greene had flunked out of school in June 2007 and had become a local curiosity. Once a promising running back at Iowa, he now assembled furniture and unloaded trucks for $8 an hour.
He lived with Iowa's leading rusher, Albert Young of Moorestown, and took classes at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa City. The graduate of Winslow Township High ate more often than he jogged, and that led to rumors that his 5-foot-11-inch frame was carrying three bills.
"As the year went on," coach Kirk Ferentz recalled, "the legend grew."
Nationally, few cared. All Greene had done in two seasons at Iowa was rush for 378 yards.
But there were flashes. As a freshman in 2005, he sent a bolt through Kinnick Stadium when he blew up Michigan's Steve Breaston on kickoff coverage.
"We all knew what he had," Young said.
Now they worried that he was throwing it away. That's part of why Young and other Hawkeyes joked with Greene about his flab.
"We fooled around with it," Young said. "We had bets and all that. It was out of fun - but also to motivate him."
It worked. Greene regained his standing at Iowa and rejoined the team after spring practice.
On Aug. 1, he still wasn't listed on the Hawkeyes' two-deep roster. So when the Big Ten Network came through Iowa City and asked to interview Greene, Ferentz said no.
"He hadn't played a snap in the last year," the coach explained.
Greene had no expectations, other than to make the team and survive fall camp. The coaches didn't spare him in conditioning drills.
"I'd be laying on my back, gasping for air," Greene said. "Guys were saying: 'Shonn, you all right?'"
Once the season began, he was far better than all right. He ran for 109 yards in the opener against Maine, then 130 on just 13 carries against Florida International, 120 vs. Iowa State and 147 at Pittsburgh.
His best work was yet to come - 217 yards and four touchdowns against Wisconsin and 211 against Purdue.
No Big Ten team on Iowa's schedule was spared. Greene became the nation's only back to top 100 yards in every game this season. His 1,729 yards are second only to Connecticut's Donald Brown, who carried 60 more times.
"The consistency of how he has played is amazing," Indiana coach Bill Lynch said.
Added Illinois coach Ron Zook: "We were beat up when we got done playing him."
Greene made such an impact on Big Ten coaches that when it came time for them to vote for the Tribune Silver Football, given to the league's best player, it was no contest. He captured seven first-place votes, with Ferentz and other coaches not permitted to vote for their own players.
Then last Thursday, he was named winner of the Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back over Michigan State's Javon Ringer and Georgia's Knowshon Moreno. On Saturday, he finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
"It's crazy," Greene said of his remarkable turnaround. "This is a big surprise to everybody, as well as me. A big surprise."
Greene returned home to South Jersey as if nothing had happened. As if he had not gone to a tattoo parlor in his boyhood home of Sicklerville.
But it didn't take long for his father, grandparents and five thematically named younger siblings (Shonnece, Shonte, Shonreke, Shonray and Shontray) to notice the ink on the left side of his neck, a heart with "Cheryl" written in cursive.
"Typical Shonn," said his father, Reginald. "He doesn't make a big fuss about anything."
The object of Greene's affection loved it - his grandmother.
"That's the love of my life," Greene said. "She basically raised me."
Reginald split with Greene's mother in 1997 and moved into his parents' home. It was tight. But it was for the best.
"My mom is Shonn's safety blanket," Reginald said.
Greene first donned shoulder pads at age 7, playing nose guard before shifting to his natural position.
Reginald said Greene's upbringing basically consisted of three things: football, Sony PlayStation football and school, probably in that order.
Greene never got in trouble, but did just enough to get by in high school, getting mostly Cs.
"I got on his case because I had a B average in high school and expected the same from him," Reginald said.
"I told him, 'Football can't take you everywhere.' I challenged him, but at a certain point, he knew I wouldn't pull him off the team."
Greene had to beef up his transcript at Milford Academy before enrolling at Iowa.
Then, after Greene injured his knee as a sophomore, he lost playing time, focus and structure. For a man who considers sleeping his main hobby, that was a dangerous combination.
Greene began spending more time on the couch than in classes.
"I really don't like school now," he said. "I shouldn't be saying this, but it's the truth."
He loves schooling defenders, though. And after he passed his 10 classes at Kirkwood and earned the rent money at a furniture store, he forged his new identity as a Big Ten beast.
Using power, speed, toughness and dogged determination, he carved up every opponent he faced.
"He runs angry," Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio said. "And he runs with an attitude."
Greene said he always has loved the toughness and roughness of football, but he's anything but a goon off the field. In fact, most describe him as shy.
"What the public has seen of Shonn is what we see too," Ferentz said. "He's very soft-spoken and humble."
Greene turns 24 in August and would appear to be a lock for the NFL draft. But he insists he doesn't know if he will give up his final year of eligibility.
What he does know is that his year away from football made him a better man. And a better player.
"Sometimes a mistake is a good lesson," Reginald Greene said. "Sometimes you don't miss things until they're gone."