Nothing has come easy, on or off the football field, for members of Kent State head coach Paul Haynes' first recruiting class.
Four 2013 recruits who have played a huge role on the squad since arriving on campus -- offensive lineman Wayne Scott, defensive end Terence Waugh, and linebackers Elcee Refuge and Darius Redmond -- will be among the 16 Golden Flashes seniors honored before today's 2016 season finale against Northern Illinois at Dix Stadium.
Together with the fifth-year seniors, final-year transfers, and suspended star safety Nate Holley, they've seemingly spent as much time blocking and tackling adversity as foes over the past four seasons.
They've lost tough games -- four by four points or less this fall alone.
They lost a beloved teammate in Jason Bitsko, who died in his sleep from an undetected heart ailment just days before the start of the 2014 season.
They've lost bizarre battles with Mother Nature.
Kent State's late November 2014 contest at Buffalo was never played after its equipment truck got stuck on the highway during a blizzard and never made it to the stadium.
The Flashes' 2015 opener at Illinois was first delayed, then ultimately moved from Friday night to Saturday morning due to lightning.
Earlier this season, their home contest against North Carolina A&T was delayed for over two hours due to inclement weather. Early the next day, over six hours after the scheduled 6 p.m. kickoff, the Flashes dropped the longest contest in program history 39-36 in four overtimes.
Ah, the memories.
Through it all the Flashes' seniors did manage to win the enduring respect of their coaches for the way they've handled themselves when the going has gotten tough repeatedly over the course of their respective KSU careers.
"These guys have done a lot of things on and off the field to help set the foundation, which really started in year one when they came in," said Haynes. "There have been some highs, some lows, and some really low lows, a lot of things going on. But no matter's what's happened, these guys have still come to work every day. They do it the right way. They represent this university very well."
Today the Flashes will start their fourth quarterback of the season, redshirt sophomore and former Aurora High School standout George Bollas. The first three starting signal-callers all suffered season-ending injuries -- freshman Justin Agner (groin), redshirt freshman Mylik Mitchell (wrist) and junior Nick Holley, who injured his knee last week against the Falcons.
Despite the instability at quarterback, Kent State earned three victories and had chances to win six others games in the fourth quarter but fell short. The Flashes were in the thick of every Mid-American Conference contest until falling flat last week at Bowling Green (42-7).
"The way that this team played and prepared all year is a testament to these (seniors) learning how we want things done, how things need to be done," said Haynes. "Really the only reason we were in any game this year was this senior class."
Kent State's four-year seniors have made a huge impact on the program.
Redmond has played in 38 games. Scott will make his 40th consecutive start today when he mans the left guard post. Refuge will play in his 46th contest, and has three fumble recoveries and an interception this season. Nate Holley has been ranked among the nation's top tacklers the past three years, and finishes his career eighth in KSU history with 426 stops -- right behind Haynes (440).
No player has progressed any further since arriving on campus than Waugh, who has amassed 17 of his 18.5 career sacks over the past two seasons while piling up 25 tackles for loss over that same stretch.
"He's developed like crazy," said Haynes. "Just learning how to study the game, learning how to prepare to play games, learning how to play at a high level week in and week out, that was a process with him."
Waugh arrived on campus as a tremendous raw athlete. The Georgia native bulked up about 30 pounds to 264, adding power to compliment his tremendous speed and length, and learned that athleticism alone only takes you so far at the Division I level.
"My high school didn't really prepare me for the mental part of college football -- running plays, reading formations," said Waugh. "The coaching staff since I've been here has harped on that big time. It helps when you know what's coming. It's easier to play. It doesn't matter how athletic you are, if you don't know what's coming you're just going to be out there running around like a chicken with his head cut off."
Waugh, who currently ranks 30th in the nation with eight sacks this season, is preparing to spend a bittersweet final day on the field with his KSU teammates.
"I'm going to miss my brothers," said Waugh. "It seems like I just came in yesterday. We have a lot of pictures of ourselves from when we first came here, especially with me because I live with a lot of my teammates I came in with. Just to see how we've all grown together ... I know I'm going to cherish this forever. You always want to do more, but I'm very fortunate for what I've done here. Hopefully people that know me look back and say I was a good player, that I contributed to the team."
Kent State's fifth-year seniors and final-year transfers have also made major contributions to the cause.
Defensive tackle Chris Fairchild is the last remaining contributor to Kent State's record-setting 11-win 2012 campaign that's still with the program. He returned better than ever after losing the 2014 season due to academic ineligibility, both on the field and in the classroom, and has 31 tackles and a pair of sacks this fall.
Former walk-ons Ernest Calhoun (wide receiver) and Nick Cuthbert (running back) have stepped up as seniors. Calhoun, the son of former Michigan star running back and current Buchtel High School football coach Ricky Powers, is fresh off a career-high 112-yard receiving performance at Bowling Green. Cuthbert has picked up the slack since Nate Holley was suspended, amassing 37 tackles in Kent State's last two games, and will soon become a two-time Academic All-American.
Reno Reda has been a fixture at left tackle for the past three seasons, and will make his 39th start today.
Another key fifth-year senior, Najee Murray, will likely not be able to play in today's game due to a shoulder injury. Murray, a transfer from Ohio State, switched from cornerback to apache this season and has shined at a demanding position that features a wide variety of responsibilities -- from rushing the quarterback and stopping the run to covering wide receivers deep down field.
Murray has picked off two passes and recovered a pair of fumbles this fall, returning one for a touchdown against nationally ranked Western Michigan.
"Najee has worked his tail off. He's played at a high level, prepared at a high level," said Haynes. "If he can go he will go. He's played through shoulder, wrist, and hand injuries (this season), an ankle (injury) last year. It's really unfortunate if he can't go. You wish you had everyone on board, but we're going to be short a lot of guys (today)."
Sending the seniors out as winners will be a difficult chore for the short-handed Flashes.
Northern Illinois has appeared in the last six MAC Championship games, capturing three titles, and has recovered from a shaky start to the 2016 season by winning three of its last four games. The Huskies have not lost a regular season matchup to an East Division opponent since 2009, and they're averaging 242 yards rushing per contest.
"They're rolling. It's going to be tough," said Haynes. "We're going to have to be disciplined as heck, and unfortunately we're (missing) some key guys as far as just the leadership part of it is concerned. They do so much misdirection, then they just pound you like crazy. It's going to be a physical football game. We'll fight as long as we can fight.
"But no matter what happens (today), nothing can take away from what this senior class has done for this program and this university."
Haynes is admittedly hurt by the fact that his seniors haven't celebrated more victories as Flashes. But he believes the onslaught of obstacles they've endured together has prepared them for life as well as any program in the country.
"That's the fun thing about coaching, you see them come in as young men and leave as men," said Haynes. "You hope that we have done a good job with teaching them how to be better men. There are a lot of things that the game of football teaches you through adversity, and we've had a lot of it. These guys are going to be better for it down the road. They may not know it right now, but five, 10, 20 years down the road, they'll know how to handle a lot of different things."
Waugh doesn't believe it will take that long.
"I learned a lot of life situations from being here that I probably wouldn't have anywhere else. It was definitely not just football here," said Waugh. "There have definitely been some hardships. People that are no longer with us, Lord rest their soul. You'll always remember them and have them in your heart for the rest of your life. It's been tough, but I've learned you can't keep stuff on your back. Win or lose, you've got to let it go and just prepare for the next week.
"Things that happened here, I'm going to remember and cherish forever. There are countless things I've learned that I'm going to take with me throughout my life."