Always Walking Tall

GO KNIGHTS A.J. Rompza concluced his UCF career in March.
A.J. Rompza concluced his UCF career in March.

May 6, 2012

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By Marc Daniels

ORLANDO, Fla. ( - It sometimes can be hard to stand out on a campus with almost 60,000 students, especially when there's a good chance more than 30,000 are taller than you are. But that was never a problem for A.J. Rompza. At 5-foot-9, the Chicago native was arguably the most recognizable student during his time at the university. As Rompza graduates and moves on from his time at UCF, he leaves with the same smile and positive attitude from the first day he arrived.

I remember the first time I met Rompza. I saw a short basketball player with this edge that he was out to prove something. I would soon learn that has been his life motto - doubted by most and yet positive in everything he does. Over his four years at UCF, I got to know the fiery point guard fairly well.

For every turnover that made me cringe, he'd dive for that loose ball to keep a possession alive. For every over-aggressive play, he'd pick the pocket of his man and become one of the all-time steal leaders in Conference USA history. From his game-winning shot against Southern Miss in 2011 to the final time he donned a jersey this past March, A.J. Rompza truly bled black and gold.

Even during the time Rompza was forced to sit out almost half his senior season and had plenty of reasons to lose faith and turn on some of his supporters, he perhaps grew up more than he had ever before. Rompza turned a negative into a positive and refused to see his basketball career at UCF end like that. He dealt with what that issue and when he returned played some of his best basketball of his time as a Knight.

A.J. Rompza graduates with academic honors and is a great example of someone who used athletics to create opportunities that will lead him on many paths in his life. His college basketball days may be over, but the journey for AJ Rompza is just beginning. And if you hear Rompza on what his future holds, he will tell you that he doesn't know what lies ahead, but he can't wait to find out.

On the eve of his graduation, Rompza sent a message to the UCF fans and many supporters that have cheered him and guided him through some rough waters at UCF and many wonderful moments:

"Dear UCF Fans, Student-Athletes, Students, Faculty and Staff:

I want to take this opportunity, before I graduate tomorrow, to let everyone know that these past four years have been the best years of my life. To my professors, advisors, coaches, teammates, and President Hitt, I cannot thank you enough for the life lessons that you have taught me and for all the things that I will take with me throughout my entire life.

I have learned so much these past four years attending UCF and the people there have become my family. I owe the community the most sincere thank you for accepting me with open arms and being my biggest support system through the good and the bad; the laughs and the cries. You were always there to get me through anything.

As I begin a new chapter in my life and embark on different opportunities, I will always and forever have UCF in my heart and I will be proud to say I am an alumnus of the University of Central Florida! Thank you for everything. Once a Knight, Always a Knight!"

A.J. Rompza

Never without time for a smile, picture or autograph for a fan, Rompza was more than a basketball player at UCF. He was an ambassador of sorts. While he may have been the fan favorite for home games, he took verbal abuse on the road at a level no person would ever want to endure.

I remember when UCF played at UTEP in 2011. We had returned for the game after it was originally cancelled due to the snowstorm of the century in El Paso a few weeks before. The student section was all over Rompza with signs and chants that would drive anyone crazy. Rompza has seen and heard it all before. He didn't start, but came off the bench to play 31 minutes in one of UCF's best road wins in their Conference USA history. Rompza had nine points, four assists and two 3-pointers during a key first half run.

After UCF's 74-68 win, two of the UTEP students who had been riding Rompza all game walked by as I was packing my broadcast gear and told me how much they are going to miss hating Rompza, but loved watching him play. For A.J. Rompza, that's exactly what he would have wanted them to say. Dish it out, watch me play and respect me when you leave.

Respect is something A.J. Rompza has been earning from the playgrounds in Chicago to his time at UCF to whatever lies ahead.

I will miss Rompza. I will miss the hard hustling player who often faced bigger, stronger opponents and yet left everything on the court. I will miss the player who kept screaming that victory was possible, no matter the score. I will miss the guy who always bought a huge bag of candy at the airport before a flight to a game and never failed to offer every teammate, UCF coach, trainer, equipment manager, sports information director and broadcaster the option of taking a handful. I will miss A.J. being kind to my daughters after a game, whether it was in victory or defeat. A.J.'s mom came to many UCF home games. She always had the kindest words to me about my broadcasts and making it easy for her to close her eyes and see how her son was playing through my words. I will miss my "Chicago mom" and miss seeing her cheer on her son.

In the end, A.J. Rompza leaves with many memories. He left a mark on UCF basketball and he walked across a stage earning something far more valuable than any victory from a game. He earned a college degree and he earned the admiration of many fans and those things are priceless.

Knights notes: UCF's baseball team continues its march towards a 40-win season and hopes it can attain a goal of hosting a regional. Last week UCF found itself in another tight game and this time with rival Stetson in DeLand. If you fans ever wondered if coaches care about the black and gold and defending it, get the video of Terry Rooney in the 10th inning of UCF's 5-4 win last Wednesday. The 13-inning affair lasted almost five hours. In the 10th inning, a close play at home gave UCF a 4-3 lead and Stetson coach Pete Dunn came out to argue the call with the umpire. Rooney, who once worked as Dunn's pitching coach at Stetson came out to check on second baseman Travis Shreve who was banged up on the play at the plate. Dunn's beef with the ump turned to his beef with Rooney. Rooney barked back and in the spirit of the moment, the two close friends had one of the classic verbal showdowns you'd ever see. Let me say this Knight Nation, you want Rooney on that wall protecting you at night. Not backing down for a second, he argued his point and let it be known, "mess with the Knights, be prepared for battle." Rooney would tell me later he was sorry that he and Dunn got into the jaw session, but in the heat of the battle, things happen. Trust me Knight fans, Rooney's got your back...If you have not heard UCF Vice President and Director of Athletics Todd Stansbury speak at one of the stops on UKnight Tour 2012? You are missing something good. One of the things I really like is his view of UCF before he came aboard and the current view. Don't miss the point here, it's not that Stansbury knew little about UCF, it's how much he did know about our teams and their successes. I have said many times, sometimes the view of UCF from afar is better than those who see it up close...Football season tickets are on sale. Mother's Day is coming. Give mom something she will love...Final thought: On the way home from that UCF baseball win at Stetson I stopped to get a celebratory milk shake at one of those fast food places. Going through the drive thru lane after placing my order, I advanced to the pay window where the cashier repeated my order. "Double burger, fries and large drink...that will be $6.87." After I said that was not my order she replied: "Are you sure?" I have to admit, for a brief second I wondered that maybe I did order that. But it was a brief moment. By the way, I enjoyed the chocolate shake, and don't tell my wife I had a shake that late...That was pointless because my kids have probably already sent the link to this column to their mom. I'm in big trouble.

Marc Daniels' columns run several times per month on Listen to Marc during UCF football, men's basketball and baseball radio broadcasts on the UCF IMG Sports Network. Each weekday, Marc hosts The Beat of Sports on ESPN Radio 1080 in Orlando.