Tai Felton entered 2019 after an All-State sophomore campaign at Stone Bridge High School that drew coaching attention from Virginia Tech’s coaching staff. The Hokies were Felton’s first college offer and captured the Ashburn, Virginia native’s heart.

Virginia Tech asked Felton if he was ready to commit on Oct. 3, 2019. Felton and his parents agreed he would make his decision official that Monday after the fifth game of his junior season on Oct. 4.

Then, disaster struck.

Felton zig-zagged around defenders and evaded countless tackles on a punt return. Coaches yelled at him to “get down” from the sidelines, but he kept going. The play ended with Felton pulling up awkwardly in the open field. He tore his ACL.

News of the injury reached Virginia Tech, which faced Miami on the road the next day. Felton’s parents, Iteago Felton and Shannon Felton, reached out to the Hokies’ coaching staff, who informed them they had to rescind the offer, but still wanted to recruit Tai Felton. Head coach Justin Fuente was on the tarmac waiting to exit his plane during the conversation. He told Felton’s parents he would call them back.

“I’m still waiting on the phone call from him,” Iteago Felton said.

That’s when Michael Locksley and Maryland swooped in.

Locksley told Tai Felton the story of his own daughter, Kori, tearing her ACL. Locksley “revived” him, Shannon Felton said, and the Terps emerged as the receiver’s new top choice.

Shannon Felton was a fan of Maryland from the very beginning. Iteago Felton became fully on board when Locksley called the two “out of the blue” to check in as parents, rather than for a recruiting discussion.

“My biggest thing is loyalty,” Tai Felton said. “It’s about what you do behind my back when I’m at my lowest or when I’m at my highest.”

Locksley and the rest of the Maryland football staff “showed their loyalty” to Tai Felton, he said. The receiver committed in November, one month after suffering the injury that could have derailed his career.

“When he tore his ACL, I’m not a guy that worries about a guy having an ACL injury,” Locksley said. “We’ve got great medical staff, medical people here … if they say it’s not an issue, we’re not afraid to take a guy like that.”

[‘Hopefully it ignites him’: Maryland football hopes Tai Felton’s career day leads to more]

Tai Felton enrolled at Maryland in January of 2021 and played sparingly his freshman season, totaling just five receptions for 51 yards in four games. The 6-foot-2 wideout was stuck behind more experienced players at his position — he finished the season eighth among receivers in catches.

Opportunities appeared more abundant in Tai Felton’s second season. Four players previously ahead of him left the program, and Maryland brought in just one transfer receiver in Jacob Copeland.

Still, Tai Felton couldn’t climb the hierarchy and was behind Rakim Jarrett, Dontay Demus Jr., Jeshaun Jones and Copeland for time on the field.

Tai Felton finished his sophomore year with 23 catches, 309 yards and his first two career touchdowns, improvements from the previous season, but still behind Jones, Jarrett and Copeland.

Jarrett, Copeland and Demus’ exits after the season made Tai Felton the Terps’ second-longest tenured receiver entering 2023. He was set up for a breakout junior campaign, but another roadblock presented itself: Kaden Prather and Tyrese Chambers transferred to the Terps.

Tai Felton prevented their arrivals from hindering his own development. This season, he was finally rewarded for his patience.

“When you have guys of that caliber coming in, they’re gonna elevate you regardless,” Tai Felton said. “It just makes you want to elevate, it makes you want to put in more work, and at the end of the day we’re gonna push each other.”

After a quiet two-catch, 15-yard outing in Maryland’s season opener, Tai Felton crossed the 40-yard mark in consecutive weeks for the second time in his career. He improved the following game with 67 yards on three receptions against Michigan State. Then came the Terps’ Big Ten home opener against Indiana.

Tai Felton took a screen pass 13 yards to the end zone for his first touchdown of the season less than 30 seconds in to kickstart a career day. He broke wide open up the seam on a bust in the Hoosiers’ secondary for a 29-yard score nine minutes later. In the first quarter, he set a new career high in touchdowns in a game. He wasn’t finished.

Holding an 18-point lead, the Terps searched for a score before halftime to widen their advantage. Tai Felton was the lone receiver on the boundary side of the field. He hauled in a slant and fought through the cornerback’s inside leverage for a 9-yard touchdown.

Tai Felton counted with his fingers — one, two, three — in celebration of each first-half touchdown.

He added 46-yard and 19-yard receptions in the second half and finished with seven catches, 134 yards and three touchdowns — all career bests. He finally had his breakout game.

[Michael Locksley and Josh Gattis’ late-game decisions cost Maryland in Illinois loss]

The day had a heightened meaning for Tai Felton. It was Shannon Felton’s birthday, but she couldn’t be in attendance because Tai Felton’s sister had a cheerleading competition. She made sure to watch the game on an iPad.

“I had an inner-body experience … I knew that it had to happen the way that it happened for him to do what he did,” Shannon Felton said. “I feel like that day, all of the work ethic, all of the practices, all of the mental toughness and all of the adversity just all came together and he had a breakout game.”

Tai Felton’s high school coach, Mickey Thompson, remembers how good the receiver was as a sophomore. Thompson called him “the best player” he’s coached at that young of an age.

“It’s just now starting to blossom at Maryland, but this is just the start in my opinion,” Thompson said. “You’re gonna see some electric plays from him moving forward.”

Tai Felton is second on the team in targets entering Maryland’s bye week. He’s already notched career highs in receptions, yards and touchdowns in a season with five games to go.

The breakout campaign hasn’t changed who Tai Felton is. He loves the attention and spotlight but doesn’t voice frustrations when the ball doesn’t come his way. His family instilled a mindset of valuing team success over individual accomplishments. At a position where quiet players are rare, Tai Felton is thriving as one.

“Some guys are alpha-males and some guys kinda ease their way into situations,” Locksley said. “Tai’s one of those guys that doesn’t say a lot, but he walks and runs routes, he’s explosive as a receiver … I know he’s capable because I see him do it all the time.”

For Tai Felton, Maryland’s success is more important than his own. That’s what makes him happy. It all goes back to the first weekend of October in 2019.

Tai Felton’s catastrophic injury days before he planned on committing to Virginia Tech drove him to the Terps. Locksley displayed a loyalty to the Felton family that’s stuck with them.

Locksley and Maryland’s commitment to him is why, after multiple years of being overshadowed by other receivers, Tai Felton didn’t leave. Instead, he used that as motivation to rise from the bottom of the depth chart and become a star in his junior season.

Tai Felton has finally arrived. He’s not going anywhere.

Tai Felton reaches for the ball during Maryland football’s 37-17 loss at Ohio State on Oct. 7, 2023. (Rohan Pandit/The Diamondback)