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.
“He wins and he doesn't fold under pressure. I don't even think he feels pressure.”
And through the ups and downs of their time together on the field, the bond between J.W. and John continued to grow.
“When everything's going good, everybody can coach their kid,” John said. “But when things went bad — he threw an interception or we lost a ballgame and he felt like he could have made a few plays that could have got us over the hump — we learned how to handle things together.
“I think that just helped our relationship.”
J.W. became a national recruit in 2011, a season where he passed for 3,200 yards, rushed for more than 1,400 yards and accounted for 35 touchdowns and just six interceptions. Rivals rated him as the No. 4 dual-threat quarterback and No. 77 overall prospect in the nation.
He wanted to go to a school where his grandparents could drive to watch games. He also wanted to play for a head coach who was very unlikely to take another job during his time in college.
OSU fit into both of those categories.
And even though Brandon Weeden was sure to be the Cowboys' starter in 2011, J.W. enrolled early at OSU and participated in spring practice last year.
The thought was those extra practices, and the time spent with offensive coordinator Todd Monken, would prove valuable during this spring's quarterback derby.
Coming early also gave J.W. more time to learn from Weeden. Just like his days spent carefully watching those top-notch quarterbacks at Brownwood High, J.W. shadowed Weeden. Studied him. Even played golf with him from time to time.
“Everything he did on and off the field — interviews, just how he carried himself with people — I was taking mental notes,” J.W. said. “Since I had the opportunity, I needed to take advantage of it. That's something I think is going to help me throughout this process.”
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Now that John is no longer J.W.'s coach, their relationship has changed.
But only slightly.
They still talk on the phone every day to discuss the highs and lows of each practice. When J.W. comes home, he'll get on the white board and diagram some of OSU's plays for his dad to learn. John is enjoying just being a fan, but he also notices and appreciates that Monken has helped J.W. get his throwing release point higher and has improved his presence in the pocket.
“I was really worried about me and how I'd handle (J.W. having a new coach),” John said. “But just listening to J.W. talk about how Coach Monken coaches him, the coaching part of me is extremely at ease.”
OSU is likely a few weeks away, at least, from naming its next starting quarterback. But those close to J.W. believe he is capable of leading the Cowboys in 2012.
That school worksheet, which John now has laminated and tucked away in his desk drawer, serves as evidence.
“His desire, his passion for the game,” John said. “He loves playing football. He's got a great skill set. And what I think a lot of folks don't know unless you're in the room with him is he's extremely intellectual about the game.
“His desire to win drives him to learn as much football as he can.”