STILLWATER — Derek Branson used to change clothes in the back set of the car as his family drove from Jenks to Stillwater on Saturdays, trading his muddy Little League football uniform for orange and black Oklahoma State gear.
Saturday night, Branson bolted untouched through the line for the Cowboys and dashed toward Texas Tech punter Ryan Erxleben.
“I can't believe they didn't block me,” he recalled. “The only thing in my head was just, ‘Please block this kick.'”
In that one moment, Branson didn't just put the Cowboys in prime position to grab a 21-0 lead in a hostile road environment. He went from unknown walk-on to impact playmaker, causing folks in the press box to scramble to locate their roster and even the most dedicated Cowboy supporters to ask “Who was that?”
It's the latest feel-good walk-on story for an OSU program that has had tons of recent success in that area. Brandon Weeden is perhaps the most famous example. But several current contributors, such as defensive end Tyler Johnson, safety Shamiel Gary and fullback Jeremy Seaton, were not scholarship players when they arrived on campus. OSU even has a wall dedicated to walk-ons inside its football facility.
But for Branson, a lifelong Cowboy fan, getting the chance to make a highlight-worthy play was particularly special.
“It's kind of been a dream come true to play for Oklahoma State,” Branson said.
Branson's father, Kim, and mother, Patti, both attended OSU in the 1980s and became season-ticket holders. So that love for the Cowboys was naturally passed on to Derek.
He rushed the field after the 16-13 Bedlam game in 2001. He grinned from ear to ear as Dad snapped a photo of him in front of the Cowboys' team bus at the Marriott hotel on the River Walk in San Antonio before the 2004 Alamo Bowl.
Even as Kim's job in medical sales required the family to move to Nashville, Louisville and McKinney, Texas, Derek remained a loyal OSU supporter.
“I've been going to games since I was four years old,” he said. “I know the campus like the back of my hand. I've been listening to (Dave) Hunziker and Robert Allen for years on the radio, suffered through the tough seasons where we were just trying to make a bowl game.”
Derek eventually became a quarterback at McKinney Boyd High “about 25 pounds ago,” he jokes. But he tore his anterior cruciate ligament just before his junior season, a critical time in the recruiting process.
By his senior season, Derek, who was also an excellent student, drew interest from Ivy League schools like Cornell and Brown. But he didn't want to go to school that far from home and wanted to be part of a culture that truly cared about college football.
So he decided to try to walk on at OSU. If he made the squad, super. If not, he was content to be a normal college student.
“Wherever you need me,” he told coaches. “Wherever I can get a spot, I'll do it.”
That was at fullback, where Derek first primarily worked on the scout team. The junior was supposed to get in the Cowboys' September blowout of Lamar in the fourth quarter, before the Cardinals ate up the final 7:34 with a long drive.
But when Seaton sustained a head injury before the TCU game about three weeks ago, Branson took his place on special teams.
Branson admits he was nervous on his first play. But in that game, he came up with a critical early block that helped spring Josh Stewart's 95-yard return for a touchdown.
And the punt block in Lubbock wasn't the only key play he made on that night. He also had a downfield block on Stewart's 46-yard return that set up an important Cowboy score.
“People sleep on walk-ons and don't really realize how good they really are,” Stewart said. “Derek Branson is one of those guys where he can make a play at any time like he did on that punt block.
“That's special. That's the type of stuff that people are gonna remember that can be a game-changer.”
After the game, Branson estimated he had about 100 text messages, including some from folks he hadn't heard from in years. Same for Kim and Patti — who were sitting in the OSU section at Jones AT&T Stadium — as family and friends from Boston and California and Texas offered their congrats.
Derek said his dad even got a bit teary-eyed when they met after the game. But Kim most remembers Derek's smile, and how his teammates kept acknowledging his big play.
“A lot of kids would have packed it in after the Lamar game or any other opportunities that didn't surface,” Kim said. “But he's pretty resilient.
“He was gonna stick it out no matter what, and to get rewarded for that was I guess a relief for me to, from just a happiness for him perspective.”
Derek knows that Saturday night in Lubbock will become a lasting memory. Though he does wish he had finished off the scoop and score.
Moving forward, he expects even more out of himself, both on special teams, and, someday, on offense.
Which is why he doesn't exactly want that block against the Red Raiders to be his one shining walk-on moment.
“I think there's bigger things that I can accomplish, for sure,” he said. “But I think that's a good steppingstone into that direction. Gives me a little more confidence for every Saturday from here on out.”