STILLWATER — Randy Chelf sat in Row 1 of the end zone at Bill Snyder Family Stadium, binoculars fixed on son Clint, who was suddenly realizing an unlikely dream shot of leading the Cowboys.
Stunned and excited all at once by the development, one look was all it took for dad to relax.
“I could tell by looking at him that it was what he'd been waiting for a long time,” the father said. “As long as he wasn't nervous, I wasn't nervous.”
Never mind that Chelf had been thrown into an unenviable situation, with Oklahoma State trailing then-No. 3 Kansas State, on the road, 38-17 in the second half.
Never mind his limited reps in practice to prepare.
Never mind all that could go wrong.
“I looked at him through the binoculars,” Randy Chelf said, “and I could just tell by his body language he was ready to go give it a try.”
Try he did, rallying OSU back into the game, before the Wildcats eventually prevailed 44-30. Still, the train was on the tracks, so to speak — the Chelf Choo Choo, an unintended tag that started as a Internet joke but continues to gain steam as the junior quarterback extends his wild ride from former third-team quarterback to Bedlam starter.
An afterthought until the Kansas State game three weeks ago, Chelf is now a national feel-good story, rising to the top of the depth chart due to injuries and now entrenched there, even with OSU's other quarterbacks — winning quarterbacks — again available. He's got the moniker. He's got teammates who adore him. He's even got a T-shirt saluting him that is circulating among fans.
“For me, I don't really feel like it's any type of feel-good story,” Chelf said. “There are a lot of stories around college football that are better than mine. I'm just a player who got beat out and stuck with it and got a chance. I'm happy it happened.”
Chelf can deflect the feel-good aspect all he wants, but the good feelings surrounding his opportunity, and what he's done with it, are unavoidable.
Back home in Enid, where his parents went so far as to help him work on his game in the summer heat, and the locals — Cowboys and Sooners alike — send well wishes; on the practice field and in the Cowboys locker room, where teammates shower him with “Choo Choo” chants; and in the coaches' offices, where those who once slotted him No. 3 on the depth chart admire his dedication and his performance.
“It's a neat thing for him, because never in his wildest dreams, probably, did he think it would ever get to here,” said OSU offensive coordinator Todd Monken. “This is why you have to keep reminding people that perseverance and keep competing and be ready when your opportunity comes. You don't always have a chance for those samples to come about. But you've got one right here.”
Chelf's wildest dreams must have involved something like this, or he wouldn't have worked and prepared for the moment. There was a short period when he sulked, back in April when Wes Lunt and J.W. Walsh were slotted ahead of him on the depth chart.
But soon after, he was going to work on the shortcomings outlined by Monken, technical details like footwork and keeping his front shoulder down in the pocket. Clint would recruit anyone he could find to help: his brother Colton, a Cowboy senior a year ago; former teammates; even mom and dad.
“I would go by the stadium and they'd be up there, numerous times, throwing on the turf,” said Enid assistant principal Tommy Parker, who was Clint's prep coach. “Clint throwing into a quarterback net, mom snapping, Colton running routes. It was kind of a neat deal to see.”
But for what? There were no promises from Monken of a renewed quarterback competition. And there would be few opportunities to prove himself in practices, with the bulk of the work going to Lunt and Walsh.
“The first part of it was a little tough, a little disappointing in the spring,” said Randy Chelf. “It was a long summer and a long fall, just watching him go through it. It's part of life. You've got to learn to deal with adversity. But it was tough watching him go through it.
“It eats you up to go through it as a parent. He never said a lot, but you could tell at times when he was really quiet. The day they announced it, I went over and saw him, visited with him. I just told him, ‘Things happen for a reason. Keep working hard and hopefully your day would come.'
“I didn't know if it would come, after we got going into the season. It looked like a long ways away for a while.”
And now, it's on, full frontal intense.
After the K-State game, Chelf started against West Virginia and Texas Tech, directing victories in both games. Then the choo-choo thing broke, started by a fan who, in fun, pretended to be Chelf boasting, with a bit of profanity, about climbing aboard the train.
Clint and Colton were sitting together at home, each following Twitter, when the link popped onto their screens.
“All of a sudden, we saw it at the same time,” Colton said, “looked at each other and started laughing.”
Way out of character for Chelf, which only added to the quirkiness, the “Choo Choo” nonetheless sprang a life of its own, quickly embraced by teammates and others.
“I saw it on Twitter and it just kind of blew up after that,” said receiver Isaiah Anderson. “I've seen people with conductor hats on and train whistles. It's ridiculous, but I'm happy that he's kind of getting out there like that. And I'm pretty sure he's enjoying it, too.”
“Whatever train he's driving,” said Cowboys coach Mike Gundy, “I'm getting on.”
Then there are the T-shirts, which proclaim “CHOO! CHOO!” in white letters, with an orange 10 — Chelf's jersey number — attached to the H.
“I like the shirts. It's a neat idea,” said Colton, admitting that he, too, has one and plans to wear it to Norman on Saturday.
“It's exciting,” Clint said. “I grew up in Oklahoma. Playing against them, it'll be fun.
“There were a lot of times when I said, ‘I hope that can be me someday.'”
Suddenly, Clint is realizing all sorts of somedays.
“For the thing to fall the way it did,” Parker said, “it's kind of a fairy tale story, really. But he's certainly making good on it.”