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.