"T hey also serve who only stand and wait.”
John Milton wasn’t talking about backup quarterbacks when he penned his poem sometime around the birth of Joe Paterno. You know, the 17th century.
But the poem fits the clipboard-holding, ballcap-wearing, easy-breathing quarterbacks who stand on the sideline not knowing if or when they will be summoned to duty.
Grab your helmet, son. This team is yours.
The call comes early for some, late for others and never at all for the unfortunate few. Joey Halzle waited 25 games. Charles Thompson waited nine, Jamelle Holieway waited four games and Eric Mitchel waited forever, God rest his football soul.
Landry Jones waited a first half before he was handed the scepter of Oklahoma football. Asked to command the huddle and lead the Sooners to victory and become a state icon.
Asked to finish off a fairy tale, penned not just by Sooner legends like Thompson and Holieway and Jimmy Harris, but the likes of Earl Morrall, the patron saint of backup quarterbacks.
Saint Earl twice took over epic NFL teams in need of relief for fallen quarterbacks. He replaced the injured Johnny Unitas and took the 1968 Colts to a 15-1 record before a Super Bowl loss to the Jets. Morrall was named the NFL player of the year. Four years later, with the ’72 Dolphins, Morrall took over for Bob Griese and quarterbacked unbeaten Miami to 11 straight victories, including the AFC Championship Game, before Griese returned for the Super Bowl.
Some backups get the glory all the way home. Six Super Bowls have been won by quarterbacks given the job by the fate of injury: Jim Plunkett, Doug Williams, Jeff Hostetler, Kurt Warner, Tom Brady and Trent Dilfer.
Holieway did the same, college version, in 1985, leading the Sooners to the national title after Troy Aikman suffered a broken ankle.
But Jones, for now, is being asked to drive down Earl Morrall Boulevard. Care-take this OU football team. Keep the huddle warm until Sam Bradford’s shoulder heals. Just win, baby.
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Landry Jones is in the right place to make it happen. Oklahoma is the kingdom of backup quarterback success stories.
As backups, Holieway won a national title, Harris fortified a winning streak that reached an historic 47 games and Thompson won a game of the century.
"He’s got to gain the confidence of his teammates, that he can get the job done, that he can lead them to victory,” Thompson said of Jones.
Thompson was a redshirt freshman in 1987 when Holieway suffered a severe knee injury in November. Thompson finished off a victory over Oklahoma State, led a tight win over hapless Missouri and then prepped for the showdown at Nebraska, in a game matching 10-0 teams that were ranked No. 1 and No. 2. Game of the Century II, it was billed, and the Sooners sported a quarterback with one college start to his name.
But Thompson’s confidence in himself inspired confidence in his teammates.
"I came in with the mindset I was as good as anyone on campus,” Thompson said, and he includes Holieway, who in 1987 was a junior running the wishbone as sharply as it had ever been optioneered.
Personalities differ. The low-key Jones is not as brash as Thompson was and is. That doesn’t mean Jones can’t rally the troops. Bob Stoops says he looks for "toughness” in a backup quarterback.