John Talley has made an impact on hundreds of students at Oklahoma State over the past decade-plus.
Still, his name was largely unknown outside Payne County.
Until Tuesday morning.
A much-anticipated Sports Illustrated investigation pointed to Talley as the Oklahoma State booster who made the biggest of illegal payments to Cowboy football players. One player said Talley gave him $1,500 or $2,000 every two weeks to do work on his horse ranch one summer that was far more than the job was worth. Another player, who has since said his quotes were taken out of context, said Talley allowed him to live at his ranch one summer rent-free.
If true, those allegations and others would constitute major NCAA violations.
So, who is John Talley?
Several former Cowboys say he is not the man who he was portrayed to be in the Sports Illustrated story.
“John Talley is a guy I will go to bat for,” said former Cowboy offensive lineman Charlie Johnson, who now starts for the Minnesota Vikings. “He is a tremendous human being.”
Talley is the area representative for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He has worked for the faith-based organization for two decades, and over the years, he has become a behind-the-scenes fixture at OSU.
Andrew McGee remembers hearing about Talley before he ever moved to Stillwater. When the defensive back was on his recruiting visit, he mentioned to some of the coaches that he had been heavily involved in FCA.
“You've got to get with John Talley,” they told McGee.
Soon after he arrived on campus, Talley reached out to him and quickly became a mentor.
They discussed their faith and did Bible study, but then, McGee says that Talley would do the same with anyone who was trying to grow in their faith.
“I've never seen someone who serves and gives his time like John did,” said McGee, now a graduate assistant at West Virginia. “Every single person, no matter who you were, John was definitely not biased.”
Well, McGee admits, Talley did have one bias.
“The big-time recruits or the big-time guys ... he was a little bit skeptical of those guys and what their hearts were,” McGee said. “If a (big-time) guy came in and said, ‘Yeah, John, I want to work, I want to work,' ... he'll give 'em the hardest job out there.”
Talley often had manual labor that needed to be done. Some of it was on his spread outside of Stillwater. Some of it was work that had been requested by people he knew around town. Mowing lawns. Moving furniture.
Players would often ask if he had any odd jobs they could do to make some spending money.
Contrary to the SI story, many players say Talley made them earn it.
Johnson remembers one summer Saturday that he paved a driveway for Talley. The job took all day, about eight hours.
“It may have been $50,” Johnson said. “I know it was less than $100. I know that for sure.”
Corey Hilliard, another former Cowboy offensive lineman, remembers a summer job he once did for Talley. Along with Lawrence Pinson and Pagitte McGee, they spent three or four hours digging a ditch.
They got $50.
“We thought that was absurd,” said Hilliard, now a starter for the Detroit Lions. “We thought, ‘This is all we're getting paid for this?'”
Former Cowboy defensive end Cooper Bassett said, “By no means did John give money freely. In fact, a lot of guys didn't want to work for John because you worked your butt off and a lot of times it was harder work than guys wanted to do.
“I think that's pretty comical and pretty funny to hear how John Talley, of all people, was handing out money because John Talley made everyone earn every single dime that he gave out.”
Talley paid in cash, something the SI piece quoted OSU compliance director Kevin Fite as saying was a concern.
Still, a good number of former players say Talley did things by the rules. That he was implicated as the biggest payer of players touched a nerve.
“That's the thing about the article that really upset me the most,” said former Cowboy defensive end Jamie Blatnick, who now plays for the Buffalo Bills, “because he's a hard-working guy and an honest man. I know him, and he would never pay somebody for not doing something.
“That's just not him.”
Several attempts to contact Talley went unreturned, but FCA state director John O'Dell issued a statement Tuesday.
“I believe in John as a man of integrity who has made a tremendous impact for Jesus Christ on the lives of countless coaches and athletes during his career,” O'Dell said. “The outpouring of support from both current and former coaches and athletes for John during this time has not only been a blessing for John but a testament to his character.”
McGee saw Talley's character up close. In his three years at OSU — two as a player and one as a volunteer assistant — he became so close to Talley that they would see each other almost every day. Even though McGee moved to West Virginia, they still talk or communicate nearly every day.
He struggles with the notion Talley broke rules at OSU.
“He never gave handouts,” McGee said. “That was something that he wouldn't do.”
He paused, thinking of the allegations, searching for words.
“That just blows my mind.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.