NORMAN, Okla. | So this is what it’s like to be the man.
Paul Thompson is running late to his Persuasion Principles class, and instead of trudging across campus with his iPod-toting classmates, Thompson gets a golf-cart escort. He’d never ask for it, but he’s not going to turn it down either. He’s certainly due a few perks.
Thompson scoots through the Oklahoma campus, from Memorial Stadium to the South Oval, where a gaggle of students barely notices him. It’s a quick ride to the Communications building, much quicker than the one Thompson took to being the Sooners’ quarterback. He ponders that four-year journey on this sunny Tuesday morning. The amazing thing? Thompson can smile and laugh as he tells the story.
"I was always right there," Thompson explains. "I always felt like the next year was my year."
It turned out that only this, his fifth year, would be his. But Thompson shows no bitterness. He knows he’s not the only quarterback who’s had to wait his turn. He’s aware that his opponent in tonight’s Big 12 championship game, Nebraska’s Zac Taylor, had quite an odyssey himself.
Taylor spent his first two years on the bench at Wake Forest and played a year at Butler County (Kan.) Community College before joining the Huskers.
"Now we’re kind of in the same spot," Thompson says. "He’s got his little story going as well. I can definitely relate to that."
Shoot, Norman used to be Taylor’s town. His father, Sherwood, walked these sidewalks as a starting safety at Oklahoma under Barry Switzer. Zac grew up in Norman with a backstage pass to Sooner athletics. He quarterbacked Norman High for three years, but Oklahoma never showed interest in him.
You’d think that would bother a kid.
"It’s every kid’s dream to play for the hometown team," Taylor says, "but I knew they weren’t going to recruit me. It wasn’t a big deal for me. I knew I’d get an opportunity somewhere else."
Boy, did he. Still, there was enough hardship along the way that Taylor could be Thompson’s soul mate. When their friends and family describe them, they use many of the same words: He’s patient. He never complained. He just wanted to play. He never felt entitled.
"Yeah," Taylor says, "we both just kind of hung with it."
The story begins in the office of Texas football coach Mack Brown. It was there, in the summer of 2001, that Brown sat Thompson down and told him he’d like him to play receiver for the Longhorns.
Brown had already offered a scholarship to Vince Young, a quarterback from Houston. He’d made a promise to Young that he wouldn’t offer one to another quarterback that year. Thompson, who grew up a Texas fan in nearby Leander, was still tickled. Thompson told Brown he’d think about it.
Oklahoma offered Thompson a scholarship to play quarterback. That sold it. The Sooners were coming off a national championship in 2000, and Thompson wanted to be a part of the magic.
Zac Taylor had heard about Oklahoma’s interest in Thompson, so when the Oklahoma summer camp arrived, he wondered whether Thompson was going to be there.
"You wanted to see what guys they were bringing in," Taylor says. "I never got to meet him."
Taylor wasn’t getting interest from Big 12 coaches, except for Les Miles at Oklahoma State. Taylor committed to Oklahoma State that summer, so it looked as if Thompson and Taylor would be bitter rivals. But as the fall wore on, Taylor started to wonder whether he could crack the depth chart in Stillwater. The Cowboys were being led by a true freshman, Josh Fields, who looked pretty good.
"I saw myself sitting behind him," Taylor says. "When not many Big 12 schools recruit you, you start to think the coaches know what they’re talking about."
Sherwood Taylor’s old friend, Brad Lambert, was an assistant at Wake Forest. Lambert called often that fall and eventually persuaded Zac Taylor that Winston-Salem, N.C., was the place for him.
Taylor and Thompson’s recruitment was simple: They just wanted to play. Only now, with Taylor’s choice to go east, it wouldn’t be against each other.
Taylor redshirted his freshman year at Wake Forest, while Thompson appeared on the fast track at Oklahoma. Thompson threw 20 passes backing up Nate Hybl and took the final snaps for the Sooners in their Rose Bowl victory.
The only problem was that there was this guy named Jason White who would be returning from injury the next year. White and Thompson competed for the starting job, and White won. White would go on to win the Heisman Trophy that year and lead Oklahoma to the national championship game.
Thompson and his parents were sitting at the team’s postseason awards banquet in December 2003 when Mr. Heisman stepped to the podium. White shocked everyone in attendance -- especially Paul’s parents, Marc and Felecia Thompson -- when he announced he would be returning for his sixth year (White had received a medical hardship year). Thompson could only shake his head. What was he going to do about it? The guy won the Heisman.
"I’m like, ‘Damn,’ " Thompson recalls. "Of all the places I could have chosen, I choose to back up the Heisman Trophy winner who comes back for his sixth year."
Thompson immediately decided he would redshirt his junior year so that he could have two years as the starter. It would be a year and a half before he could play in a game.
Across the country in Winston-Salem, Taylor was getting bored holding a clipboard. He had a new offensive coordinator, and the plan was to run the football. The Demon Deacons wanted a running quarterback, and they had recruited Ben Mauk for that purpose. Taylor knew he wouldn’t see the field at Wake. He called his dad and told him to find him a place to play. Zac said he’d play anywhere, and he meant it.
"That’s when he realized that he wanted to play football really bad," Sherwood says. "He didn’t care where."
Sherwood visited a few Kansas junior colleges and settled on Butler. Zac trusted his father and agreed to play at Butler without even visiting the campus. For Taylor, it was time to play some football.
While Thompson kept waiting, Taylor was having the time of his life in El Dorado, Kan.
"It was a blast," Zac’s mom, Julie Taylor, says. "It was the most fun he ever had."
That’s because he was actually playing. Zac was the boy in the neighborhood who recruited the other boys for pickup football and basketball games. He lived for competition.
"He’d always call us," says Brett Baptist, one of Taylor’s best friends from Norman. "And he was always first captain."
Taylor led Butler to the national championship game in 2004 as a redshirt sophomore. He was getting looks from Marshall and Memphis, and he was excited about following in the footsteps of Byron Leftwich and Chad Pennington at Marshall.
Then, on the eve of the title game, Taylor got a phone call from Nebraska offensive coordinator Jay Norvell. He wanted to visit Taylor the next Tuesday.
When Zac called Sherwood, ecstatic, it all made sense to his father. He was at the Oklahoma-Nebraska game that fall and noticed that Bill Callahan, in his first year at Nebraska, was content to run out the clock in a 30-3 loss. Sherwood figured Callahan didn’t have much faith in quarterback Joe Dailey.
Sherwood knew that Zac could handle Callahan’s complicated schemes. After all, he’d been preparing Zac since flag football. He told little Zac technical stuff, like how to beat zone coverage, and advised him about the intangibles, too.
"Never," Sherwood told him many times, "show the defense that you’re in pain."
The Taylors visited Nebraska soon after Norvell’s call. They sat in Callahan’s office, amazed at the $1 million worth of electronics he had at his disposal. At Butler, three coaches shared one office. While Zac and Sherwood were awestruck, Julie Taylor got straight to the point.
"I want you to tell me he’s going to start," she said to Callahan. Zac squirmed in his seat.
"I was like, ‘This is it,’ " Julie says. "This is the last shot."
Callahan laughed. He couldn’t promise Zac would win the job, only that he’d have every chance to. That was enough for Sherwood. Zac committed later that night, after a child approached him at the Nebraska basketball game and asked, "Are you Zac Taylor?"
"Nebraska was in a transition year," Taylor says. "They needed a dropback guy to come in. If it had been a year later, that wouldn’t have come up. Who knows where I’d be today?"
It was finally coming together for Taylor and Thompson. When the season opened in 2005, they would be juniors, starting at quarterback in the Big 12.
Oklahoma just had to recruit the No. 1 quarterback in the country. His name was Rhett Bomar, and he had redshirted the 2004 season along with Thompson.
Still, despite the hype around Bomar, Thompson held him off enough to be chosen the starting quarterback for the home opener against TCU.
But that day would not be Thompson’s, nor Oklahoma’s. The Sooners were upset by TCU 17-10. Thompson completed 11 of 26 passes for 109 yards and fumbled the ball on a potential game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter. Bomar played several series in the fourth quarter and was selected as starter the next week. After waiting three years, Paul Thompson had three quarters to prove himself.
"That TCU game was a joke," Paul’s father, Marc, says. "It didn’t go well, and then it’s over, done." Paul had always been thoughtful, even-keeled, maybe to a fault. Sure, he was mad, but this wasn’t just about him.
"I never really felt as if I were the starting quarterback," Thompson says. "With the status that Rhett was at, if he wasn’t getting on the field, he was going to leave here. I was aware of those things."
Thompson knew he could help the team at wide receiver, so he made the switch.
"My dream wasn’t just to be a quarterback here," Thompson says. "No one likes to be the starter and have someone take their job, but I still felt I could help the team."
As Thompson struggled to learn a new position, Taylor’s year was going as planned in Lincoln. The Huskers started the season 4-0, but they were still a work in progress, particularly on the offensive line. Taylor was running for his life on every play. He took hit after hit, but as his dad had taught him, he didn’t show any weakness.
Nothing was going to stop Taylor. During spring practice that first year, a parasite had attacked Taylor’s body. He lost 20 pounds and couldn’t hold down any food. But Taylor refused to let his teammates know. Only the coaches and his parents knew, and Taylor continued going through full-contact practices.
"Jay Norvell told the story later," Sherwood says, "one day Zac was walking to the field, and he was coughing. He had to lean over and hold himself on the fence. He couldn’t stand up."
Taylor and the Huskers struggled at times in 2005, but finished the season 8-4 with consecutive wins over Kansas State, Colorado and Michigan in the Alamo Bowl.
Back in Norman, Paul Thompson kept his frustration inside. He worked his way up the depth chart at receiver, catching Bomar passes. One day, his father prodded him. "Son," he said, "talk to me."
"Well," Paul said, "yeah, it hurt."
That’s all Marc was going to get out of Paul. His son was focused on a new goal now. He’d caught 11 passes for 106 yards ending that season, and he was impressive in the spring game. Paul Thompson had become what Mack Brown had originally thought: a wide receiver.
The Sooners were a preseason top-five pick in most publications, and Athlon Sports claimed they’d win the national championship. That is, until Bomar ruined everything. Bomar, a sophomore, was receiving improper benefits from a local car dealership, and Oklahoma reacted by kicking him off the team.
The entire state of Oklahoma was in mourning for a season lost before it started. An ESPN.com poll showed 71 percent of voters didn’t believe Oklahoma could make a BCS game.
Thompson didn’t even think about returning to quarterback until the coaches asked him. It was not an easy sell. Thompson had started thinking that maybe he could play receiver in the pros. He certainly wasn’t going to play quarterback there. In the end, though, his love for Oklahoma outweighed his love for himself.
"I felt I could be the guy to get us where we needed to go by having the ball in my hand," Thompson says. "I was one of the leaders of this team."
He showed that when he met with his offensive teammates for the first time as their quarterback.
"Y’all gonna listen to what everybody’s saying?" Thompson asked, "Or y’all gonna get behind me?"
They got behind him, and Oklahomans still maintain the Sooners won their first big game at Oregon. The books, however, say they lost 34-33. That same night, Taylor and the Huskers fell at USC 28-10. Taylor and Thompson would not finish their careers with a national championship.
But there was still work to be done. Taylor, now with a full grasp of Callahan’s hieroglyphic offense, led Nebraska past all five Big 12 North foes and a comeback victory over Texas A&M to clinch the division for the Huskers. Taylor threw 24 touchdown passes and only four interceptions and was selected Big 12 offensive player of the year.
Thompson wanted nothing more than to join Taylor in Kansas City. But the Sooners lost to Texas, so it seemed unlikely. Oklahoma could have imploded from there. Instead, the no-name Sooners rolled off seven wins in a row, six without Peterson. Going into the last weekend, they still had a shot at the Big 12 South. They needed Texas A&M to beat Texas. On that Friday afternoon, Thompson refused to watch.
"I was too scared," Thompson admits.
But the text messages started coming with 40 seconds left, imploring him to turn on the game. He did, and he couldn’t believe his eyes. A&M 12, Texas 7. Thompson and the Sooners held serve against Oklahoma State 27-21 and won the Big 12 South.
Now, there’s a large group of Taylor supporters in Norman who don’t know what to do tonight. All of his buddies either went to Oklahoma or are Sooner fans.
"I don’t know how to reconcile this," says Baptist, an Oklahoma grad. "I want Zac to play like Peyton Manning, and OU to win."
Even Julie Taylor, also an Oklahoma grad, has wished the best for Thompson and the Sooners all year.
"I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be a great story if Paul came out in the end and did great?’ " Julie says. "And now I’m like, nooooo."