NORMAN — Following Oklahoma's loss to Notre Dame, wide receiver Jalen Saunders sat at breakfast with his parents with little to say.
His father, Walter, had been around a quiet Jalen many times before. He coached his eldest son in everything from basketball to track since he was age 4.
Walter knew now was the time to be dad — to see how Jalen was liking classes and Oklahoma, to talk about non-football things.
That night, back home in California, Walter sent his son a few text messages about things he could improve.
Talk to Jalen Saunders about his performance that night against Notre Dame — when he turned out 15 receptions with a record eight catches in the first quarter — and he refuses to glorify himself.
Talk to Jalen about his father — who's raised him not to be a good football player but also a good man — and he talks of a person who is not only his father but his coach, his brother and his best friend.
Jalen and Walter shared a lot of time together over the years. There are a lot of times they won't talk about because they prefer to not relive the days, but it's an integral part of who Jalen Saunders is and how he came to Oklahoma.
It started when Jalen was 4. He'd just finished playing a basketball game with a bunch of 7-year-olds. Jalen scored “something like 38 points.” His dad was shocked as he drove the car home. Walter was staring out the front windshield, trying to pay attention to the road but also comprehend what just happened when he felt Jalen's tiny fingers tap his shoulder.
“Daddy,” Jalen said. “Can you start a track team for me?”
OK, Walter said. He'd give his son anything he wanted if Jalen showed dedication to it. “Why? What's up?”
“I need you to start a track team because I need to get faster, because in a couple years I'm going to play football,” Jalen continued. “And I'm playing football so I can go to the NFL.
“Just that matter of fact. Just point blank,” Walter said. “I almost crashed the car because I was welling up with tears. My wife grabbed my leg. I don't get very emotional, but when I heard that, I thought, ‘Oh, my baby! Oh my gosh!'
“It was that moment that I knew and I told him, ‘If that's what you want, it's my job to prepare you for it.'”
A few months later, Walter — a former track runner and wide receiver at the University of Idaho — began to coach Jalen's first track team.
Walter and Jalen began to travel across America — to Texas, Florida, New York, Maryland, Nebraska — to see different levels of speed. Walter took Jalen to compete in seven junior Olympics. He taught him how to dribble a basketball and play more than one position on the football field. Walter taught Jalen how to catch a football.
He'd run with Jalen and beat him to show him how he needed to still improve.
Jalen used to ask him, “Dad why are you still training?”
“I told him, ‘Son, I'm not just training to be what I once was,'” Walter said. “‘I'm training for life.'”
When Jalen was 15, the relationship between father and son was almost cut short.
In a course of six months, Walter had gone from having severe headaches, to being diagnosed with San Joaquin Valley Fever before dropping 100 pounds lying in a hospital bed.
San Joaquin Valley Fever is an airborne fungal infection. The fungi grow in soil and end up airborne when farmers cut their crops and till their land. High winds can carry the spores of the fungi for hundreds of miles. When they're inhaled, the spores stay within the lungs and reproduce causing chronic dehydration, high blood pressure and nausea.
A priest came in one day to read Walter his last rites. Jalen sat by his bed as Walter came in and out of the medication.
“It made a big difference,” Walter said. “That's the kind of young man I certainly hoped I was helping to build, was one that recognized how important his family is and that if something ever came up that he'd be willing and able to step up.”
Walter did begin to start getting better. The illness is something he still deals with today.
But Walter doesn't want this story to be about him. He doesn't want his son to have to spend every day of the rest of his life answering questions about the time he sat beside his father's bed and watched Walter slowly wilt. Walter does think it built an even bigger bond between the two of them because it taught Jalen just how fragile life is.
“Who would want to relive that at his age?” Walter said. “My son thought about me like I thought about my dad.
“He saw me as Superman. It crushed him to watch all that happened to me.”
That's what led Jalen to Oklahoma. He had to get away. When the Saunders family found out that Fresno State was part of an area that made Jalen susceptible to the suffering his father is going through, they knew he had to leave.
Then came Bob Stoops, Oklahoma and a shot to prove to a state and all of college football that what his father helped him worked toward since age 4 was still possible.
Walter's last trip to the hospital due to the Valley Fever was the week before the Red River Rivalry. The NCAA cleared Jalen's transfer waiver days later. He was pulled off the scout team on Wednesday of OU-Texas week to prepare for the game as an active player.
Jalen finished that game with two receptions for 54 yards.
Two weeks later, Walter and his wife made the trip to Norman to watch their son play live in an Oklahoma jersey for the first time.
Walter said when Jalen got those text messages the next day, he probably rolled his eyes. But Jalen has said he loves his father's advice — the way he breaks it down and tells it to him straight.
Jalen and Walter share a bond built on football and family. It began two days after Jalen was born when Walter scored three touchdowns in his college game at Idaho. It grew stronger over a hospital bed in Sacramento, Calif., and it's continued to grow, even today, through the catches Jalen made on a short-grass field at Oklahoma.
“My father pushes me to get better every day toward school, toward life and toward football,” Jalen said. “He motivates me to help my family because I never know when he could go.
“That's why I'm out here on the field. He's fighting something and I'm fighting for him.”