STILLWATER — We know J.W. Walsh is tough because of an 8-foot fence, a shoelace and a slice of pizza.
Here's the story.
As a first-grader, a buddy challenged Walsh to a race to his mom's car while at a local track meet. The gate to the parking lot was about 20 yards away, while a fence was right in front of them.
“I just thought I was gonna outsmart him and climb the fence and beat him,” Walsh said.
Walsh started climbing the fence before his shoelace got caught. After hanging there for a couple seconds, his shoe untied and he tumbled to the ground, bracing his fall with both hands.
No one thought he was seriously hurt. That night, he even did his best to pick up that pizza slice to eat for dinner.
It wasn't until the next day that Walsh's mom, Amber, took him to the hospital for X-rays.
Turns out both of his wrists were broken.
“I still won (the race),” Walsh makes sure to mention today. “But it was a painful victory.”
When teammates and coaches list Walsh's best qualities as Oklahoma State's starting quarterback, toughness is almost always near the top. It's a mental and physical trait, a grit that can outshine areas of the sophomore's skill set that are still largely unpolished.
Walsh showed that toughness after that fall as a youngster. He's already shown it at OSU, playing virtually an entire game with a fracture on the side of his kneecap and returning a few weeks later from the injury that was originally identified as a season-ender.
And he's going to need more of that moving forward, as the Cowboys' offense continues to work through the struggles that have plagued them in Big 12 play.
“Human nature for all of us, not only athletes, is when things start to get tough, we fail,” coach Mike Gundy said. “We struggle mentally. We can't persevere.
“I don't think that's ever crossed (Walsh's) mind.”
Walsh credits his father, John, for first instilling that toughness in him. John, a longtime high school football coach in Texas, told his son that leaders couldn't be quitters. That you have to finish what you start.
But John says J.W. really didn't need much of a nudge in that direction. Even as a third-grader, he would jump in line at high school football camps and try to keep up with guys who were twice his age.
“The good Lord wired him that way,” John said. “He's always a pleaser. And to the extent that he was a pleaser, he didn't have to be pushed.
“Whether he was or he wasn't (the best), he was always trying to be. And even at a young age, he was always trying to outwork the next person.”
That mentality continued in the Denton Guyer strength and conditioning program, where J.W. developed his reputation of always finishing first in wind sprints. By his senior year, he could power clean 300 pounds.
When asked about the worst football physical pain he's endured, J.W. settled on a small fracture on the growth plate of his throwing elbow he sustained during a 7-on-7 tournament before his sophomore year.
“That hurt” is all J.W. would say about it.
John remembers the injury caused J.W. to go to his knees. But he immediately popped back up and attempted to throw again. Then he tried to return for Guyer's season opener, but re-aggravated the injury in that game and sat out six weeks.
Still, J.W. came back earlier than expected — sound familiar? — even though he wasn't allowed to throw the football for two more weeks. Instead, Guyer just called run play after run play, with J.W. taking hits while opposing defenses stacked the box.
“No matter how physical the pain is, it's always a mental thing,” J.W. said of dealing with injuries. “It can hurt as bad as it wants, but you always just gotta tell yourself it's gonna be fine. You're gonna get better. You can push through it.”
J.W. has always welcomed that need to be strong inside. Why else would he have played three of the most visible positions in sports — quarterback, pitcher and point guard?
“He always put himself like that in front,” John said. “I think when you fail in athletics in front of everybody, he's always handled that with great mental toughness.”
Charlie Moore knows he can stay with J.W. for the first six trips up and down the Boone Pickens Stadium steps.
Then the OSU receiver needs to take a break. And J.W. just keeps going.
“It is really unbelievable,” Moore said.
Those work habits quickly elevated J.W. into a popular teammate, a guy coaches wanted on the field and, two series into the 2013 season, the Cowboys' starting quarterback.
J.W. showed some of that toughness during spot duty last season, when he started three games in place of an injured Wes Lunt and later became a change-up quarterback in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
He frequently took on bigger defenders with the ball in his hands, even though former offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Todd Monken would have preferred for him to get his pads down.
And then there was that time he played nearly the entire Iowa State game with a fractured kneecap, an injury he still claims didn't hurt that badly. Gundy originally said it would end J.W.'s season. He returned for the Cowboys' final four games.
“He doesn't say nothing,” receiver Josh Stewart said of J.W.'s ability to play with pain. “He'll be a warrior for the team no matter.
“He can use that example for other players to fight through stuff, stay strong. And people listen to him because of what he's built his name to be.”
Now, J.W. is also fielding the mental hits, as the Cowboys' offense has sputtered during the first two games of Big 12 play with him behind center. Boos rained down at BPS when OSU did not pick up a first down in the second half until the final six minutes of the fourth quarter against Kansas State.
J.W. knows he needs to be more consistent — particularly as a thrower — as the OSU offense attempts to becomes one of the nation's best.
But he's already trained himself to handle all the blows.
In other words, he's tough.
“He's conditioned himself for anything,” John said. “For adversity, for success. He handles it all the same.”
WHAT THEY'RE SAYING ABOUT OKLAHOMA STATE QUARTERBACK J.W. WALSH'S TOUGHNESS
Walsh: “We're all banged up out there. They're all hurting, and those guys are still playing. If those guys are still doing that for me, then I'm gonna go do that for them. I'm gonna put it all out there for them because at the end of the day, I don't want to walk off the field going I left something out there for those guys next to me. You don't want to play with regrets, and that's just something I wouldn't be able to live with.”
Coach Mike Gundy: “J.W. has an uncanny ability — and always has since he arrived here — to put aside pain and fatigue. He's got a tremendous cardiovascular system, and up to this point, he's shown the ability to think fast and to compete. That's the greatest asset he has going right now is his ability to lead.”
Father John Walsh: “I know for a fact he's not gonna let (any struggles) eat him up. It's just not in him. And he knows what he's gotta do. And then on the flip side, when they have a big game, he's gotta to make sure he handles it the same way.”
Receiver Josh Stewart: “Coach Gundy said all the time the quarterback's gotta be the toughest guy on the team, and that he is.”
Offensive lineman Brandon Webb: “I always ask him when we're running, I'm like, ‘Do you want to run some for me, since you've got so much effort left?'… It's actually pretty amazing how hard he works consistently. I'm in awe of him.”
Receiver Charlie Moore: “I kind of even want to come back this offseason just to watch him work out. That's how hard he works.”