STILLWATER — One day when J.W. Walsh was in fourth grade, his father, John, discovered a fill-in-the-blank worksheet on decision-making in his son's school folder.
J.W.'s answers were all about the right time to throw the flat route and how to correctly read a defense. To him, a “bad decision” was when he tossed an interception.
“Every blank he filled in had something to do with football,” John recalls. “That's when I knew I had a kid that loves football.”
This spring, J.W. Walsh is competing for Oklahoma State's starting quarterback job as a redshirt freshman. He has an athletic skill set that allows him to make plays with both his arm and his legs. But coaches and teammates also gush about an “it factor” that makes J.W. a unique quarterback.
J.W. can't pinpoint exactly what that “it factor” is. But he believes much of that extra quality — and his love for football — was fostered while growing up as a high school head coach's son.
“It might have something to do with … being able to grow up around the game and grow up around some great quarterbacks,” he said. “Being able to watch them on the field and how they are off the field.”
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J.W. was actually first exposed to football by learning how to catch, not throw. John played wide receiver at McMurry University, a Division III school in Abilene, Texas, and he started playing catch with his son at an early age.
John said he was always careful not to “force-feed” football to J.W. But when John began coaching quarterbacks at nearby Brownwood High School when J.W. was 6, the son immediately gravitated toward that position and embraced being a part of the high school football atmosphere.
He spent games on the sideline and was the ball boy for a trio of Division I quarterbacks in Colby Freeman (Texas A&M, Abilene Christian), Kirby Freeman (Miami, Baylor) and Jarrett Lee (LSU). When his dad settled in to watch film at home, J.W. wanted to sit right next to him. He listened closely to coaches and players and quickly picked up the game's terminology.
“When I was a little kid, I was way ahead of the curve, just because I was able to listen to how they talked,” J.W. said.
So it was only natural that J.W. would grow into the starting quarterback for Guyer High School in Denton, Texas, where his dad is now the head coach.
And that's where this mysterious “it factor” started to show.
J.W. gained respect from teammates when his dedication in the weight room made him strong enough to lift more than some linemen. His sophomore season, he accounted for about 500 yards of total offense in a state semifinal game against Longview before a crowd of about 30,000 at Texas Stadium. Less than two years later, he drove his team 71 yards in the final minute of a contest against Mesquite Horn and tossed the game-winning touchdown with two seconds left.
“When things get down to the wire and when the game's close and we're in the final couple minutes, he gets better,” said Dominic Ramacher, J.W.'s former teammate at Guyer and future teammate at OSU. “He takes his team above the other team and just finds a way to win. That's what he does.