(Photo Courtesy of Iowa State Athletics)

As August turned to September last year and we embarked on the season, I was quite comfortable being the backup. I desperately wanted to play, but I had been humbled to the point that I was happy with just being a part of a team. I was going to help the team in any way I could, and for the first four games, that meant supporting my teammates as the second-string quarterback.

 

I am fortunate that God waited all those years to make me an actual backup, because I had to evolve a lot as a teammate and a person to properly play that role. Someone asked me if I have ever struggled to cheer for a teammate who was ahead of me on the depth chart, as opposed to hoping they fail, and I'll tell you the honest truth...almost anybody who has put on football pads has had to face those demons.

 

But by this point, as a 22-year-old man, I was hungry for my teammates to succeed. And through the first four games, we kind of did. We were 2-2 heading into the Oklahoma game when it became apparent our starting quarterback wasn't going to be a part of the program the rest of that season.

 

From the outside it must have looked like terrible timing. We were getting ready to face the No. 3 team in the country, on the road, against the future Heisman Award winner, and now we had to switch quarterbacks.

 

But it was my time to shine.

 

I remember thinking it was kind of fitting that I started my career against Baker Mayfield, a guy who also bet on himself as a walk-on and proved his critics wrong. By that point, however, he was so good that I thought all the pressure was on him and his team, and that we had absolutely nothing to lose.

 

Even when we were down 14-0, I still recall standing there on the sideline, staying focused. I don't really care if we get blown out by 40 points, I told myself, I'm still going to play the best I possibly can. After waiting five years for this moment, I wasn't just going to quit now.

 

I couldn't hear anything from the crowd, but I sensed the energy in our team. I think we all did. We didn't say anything but we all knew it. Something was happening.

 

We eventually drove down and kicked a field goal to get within 24-16, and after Oklahoma fumbled the ensuing possession, we knew this was our chance. We started the drive from our own 6-yard line, but went all the way down and scored. After we converted the two-point conversion, all of a sudden the game was tied.

 

We actually went ahead 31-24 on another touchdown, only to see Oklahoma respond with a touchdown of their own. But by this point, late in the fourth quarter, our offense was rolling. We had scored on all but two drives that whole game, and this would be no different. With the country now taking notice of what was happening in our game, we drove down again to the Oklahoma 25-yard line with just over two minutes to play.

 

That's when I found Allen Lazard.

 

It was a 3rd-and-7, but with us facing a 42 yard field goal if I didn't complete the pass, this was a huge play. Allen broke down the left sideline, but was absolutely smothered. Here's the thing though: his defender never looked back at me. I lofted the ball into the tight coverage, just over the cornerback's helmet, and sure enough Allen came down with it. We were in front 38-31.

 

And when our defense stopped Baker on a fourth down moments later, we had just shocked the entire nation.

 

We had gone on the road to Norman and beat the No. 3 team in the country, and I made sure to pray about it and thank God. It's a moment I can't put into words. Just being part of a team, celebrating with fans who had waited eight years to even see our team achieve a winning record, that's what made the whole journey worthwhile.

 

The only problem was that since it was on the road, our fans couldn't storm the field. They would get that shot three weeks later against TCU.

 

Our stadium was packed to see the 4th ranked Horned Frogs, who were 7-0, and even though I didn't have my best game, our defense was unbelievable. They made TCU quarterback Kenny Hill uncomfortable all day. They intercepted him early in the game in the end zone, and then with our team clinging to a 14-7 lead with a minute to go, my teammate Marcel Spears Jr. reached up and clinched the win with another pick. I then got to go back out on the field and kneel down as 56,000 people went crazy. Moments later, the fans were pouring out onto the field to celebrate with us.

 

It was incredible to see just what God can do in your life when you persevere. We had believed in our locker room the whole year that we were capable of turning the program around, we just needed to find the moment to flip the script. By the time we were celebrating with all those students and fans at Jack Trice Stadium, I knew we had accomplished our mission.

 
 

(Photo Courtesy of Iowa State Athletics)

This past offseason gave me more blessings. The NCAA granted me a sixth year of eligibility, something I had no expectations of getting at all. It keeps me on scholarship as I finish my degree in computer science. When I started my academic career, a lot of people told me it I wouldn't be able to do football and computer science at the same time, but when I walk across that stage in a few months, I'll have something that I can call mine the rest of my life. Nobody will ever be able to take that away from me.

 

But most importantly, the sixth year of eligibility gave me a chance to find some stability. I've struggled for most of my life to find a place to call home, and even though I considered Massillon, Ohio to be my home, my parents don't even live there anymore. During the last two years in Ames, I developed friendships with teammates that I didn't want to leave. Now that I get to stay here one more year, I have the chance to make those relationships even deeper.

 

The coolest part about telling my story is that I hope it will inspire some of you guys. I've never been great at studying scripture, but I can tell you that when I go to church, I always find something in the stories that I can relate to. And if my testimony can help you guys persevere too, than this journey was all worth it.

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Thomas Hager7 Comments