Don't expect a free pass when you stroll by the tight ends' meeting room at Oklahoma. Not when you've pulled the kind of stunt Josh Heupel pulled a few days before the Big 12 title game, in which the Sooners defeated Kansas State 27-24 to earn a berth in the Orange Bowl national championship game. Heupel, the unquestioned leader of the Sooners, the lefty quarterback who threw for 3,392 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior second-team All-America this season, lay motionless on the practice field. His feet had become tangled while he was executing a bootleg pass, and down he'd gone. "The first thing to make contact with the ground was his face mask," says tight end Trent Smith. A hush fell over the squad. From his prone position, Heupel grinned, and a hundred Sooners exhaled.
When Heupel walked past the tight ends' meeting room the next day, they happened to be reviewing video of his Gerald Ford moment. "Hype, get in here!" came the cry. While good-natured abuse rained down on him, Heupel was forced to look on as he repeatedly sacked himself. "He laughed with us," says Smith.
No surprise there. Has any player in the country taken more abuse—or shown more resilience—than the 6'2", 210-pound Heupel? We're not only talking about the innumerable shots he has taken after releasing the ball. We're talking about the detours and disappointments he has endured in his journey to the national title game.
Rent a car at this time of year at the Aberdeen (S.Dak.) Regional Airport, and you're likely to be handed what looks like an extension cord. "It's a block heater, for the battery," the Hertz agent told a recent visitor. "If it gets colder than 15 below tonight—and it's supposed to—plug it in."
People in this part of the country must be tougher than people elsewhere, otherwise they'd have left by now. (Josh's father, Ken, has always called the Dakotas home. Josh's mother, Cindy, relocated from Oregon after marrying Ken in 1976.) "This is just a little Alberta Clipper," said Gene Brownell of the bitter cold blanketing the Great Plains in early December. Brownell is the athletic director at Aberdeen Central High. His office is down the hall from that of Cindy, who's both the school's principal and the mother of its most famous alumnus.
Early in the morning of June 13, 1988, Cindy, then 33, woke up with a terrible headache. Within hours she could not walk or talk. She was hospitalized and then flown to Minneapolis. For reasons unknown to her doctors—she neither smoked nor drank and was in great shape—a blood clot had formed on the right side of her brain. "I didn't have a real strong chance of surviving," she says. After surgery at the University of Minnesota, and three months of therapy and rehabilitation, she was back at work as an assistant principal.
Since then Cindy hasn't had any further troubles with clotting—but she hasn't exactly led a cosseted existence. For each of the Sooners home games over the past two seasons, she has driven the 1,890-mile round trip from Aberdeen to Norman, Okla. She leaves after work on Friday and travels through the night, arriving around 5 a.m. She hits the road again by five on Sunday morning to be home by evening.
In his third year as head football coach at Aberdeen's Northern State University, a Division II school with an enrollment of 3,000, Ken makes it to fewer of Josh's games. Earlier this month he returned a phone call from the recruiting trail. He was in Rochester, Minn. How cold was it? "Four degrees—short-sleeves weather," he said, joking (we think). Josh says he started sitting in on his father's meetings and film sessions "as soon as I was old enough to shut up, and that was pretty early." Says Ken, who at the time was an assistant coach at Aberdeen Central (he would move to Northern State in 1987), "He was four or five. He could've been playing with trucks, but he loved being around the team."
Ken reminisces in this cordial vein until a reporter offers condolences on Josh's Heisman Trophy disappointment. (In a tight race the award went to Florida State quarterback Chris Weinke.) Now Ken gets a little worked up. "What people who don't know him don't understand is that, for Josh, individual goals aren't the ultimate," says Ken. "Team goals are the ultimate."
He recalls a basketball tournament in Watertown, S.Dak., when Josh was in fifth grade. "Josh scored three or four baskets in the last few minutes," he says, "and his team won the tournament." When it came time to hand out the awards, says Ken, "they were one trophy short. Josh took his and gave it to a kid who hardly ever played. He said, 'I'll get mine later.' For him, it's always been about the team."