Dream the Biggest Dream
Josh Heupel leads Oklahoma to an undefeated National Championship season.
By Greg Shepard
Published: Summer 2001
Last January at the Orange Bowl in Miami, Josh Heupel stood in a light rain with family and friends. He had just led the Oklahoma Sooners to a 13-2 championship victory over Florida State. Josh's family got to the Orange Bowl at noon and they didn't stop the celebration until 3:00 the next morning. Said Ken Heupel, Josh's father, “The game was great but the family memories will last forever. We will always cherish those moments.”
“It's a dream come true, a long time coming, and I wouldn't have rather done it anywhere but here,” said Josh. “It's great to have it come to a culmination and have all your dreams come true. There's nothing to describe it, to have one vision, one goal, to set it out before you and have it come to pass. It's just pure excitement, enjoyment, a little bit of relief, such a sense of accomplishment.” Josh Heupel dared to dream the biggest dream and left no stone unturned to make it happen.
Josh's father, the head football coach at Northern State University in South Dakota, marveled as he watched his son grow up. “Josh has always had a special feel. He had from the 5th grade in little league the ability to step up when it counted. His completion rate at Oklahoma was 63%, but what most people don't know that it is 87% in the 4th quarter. Josh always wants the ball, especially when it counts. He can bring eleven athletes together down the stretch.
“The championship game was incredible,” gushed Cindy Heupel, Josh's mother. “I wasn't nervous. I knew they weren't going to lose because Josh wouldn't let them.”
Before the big game in Miami, Ken Heupel said, “Everybody says this is the biggest game of Josh's life and that he has never been in a championship game, and that is false. He has played millions of championship games. There were always a lot of pretend guys around, and he always threw for the winning touchdown. It was pretend play. Most kids do it with a toy. Josh did with athletics.”
Cindy Heupel, who is a high school principal, continued, “When we had family get-togethers, Josh would go back to the bedroom and that was the visiting team's locker room. He would dress up, give introductions, do warm-ups and be the coach. Then he'd be the quarterback and reenact a game, both as a coach and quarterback. He did that from the time he was a tiny boy.”
The beginning of Josh's vision of greatness began at the tender age of four when he asked Santa for some lockers. Josh had accumulated over 100 balls of all shapes and sizes. He logically thought that he needed a place to put them. The lockers were not easy to find. Josh said, “Don't worry Mom. Santa's elves can make anything. They can do it.”
“I found an old junk dealer,” said Cindy. “It took two months to find them.” The offer came none to soon. Three days before Christmas an old cluster of three old lockers were found. The rusted prize was hers for five dollars. Cindy scraped and sanded while the rest of the family slept. She painted them Minnesota Viking purple and gold, which was Josh's favorite team. His two favorite players were Kramer and Rashad. Cindy painted Kramer's name on the left and Rashad's on the right. Heupel's name was in the middle.
With great insight, Cindy sagely revealed, “I realized for a long time how important this was for the vision of his future. Both our children are our most precious gifts. We have truly been blessed.” Josh kept these lockers until his 9th grade year. Those lockers represented what Josh wanted to do. Said Josh about the lockers, “I was a football fan.”
At Aberdeen Central High School, Josh was the 1995 South Dakota Player of the Year. He completed 160 of 254 passes for 2,471 yards and 20 touchdowns in his senior year. Josh had 5,676 yards and 35 touchdowns in his career. He was also a two-year All-conference basketball player, averaging 16-plus points per game. “Basketball was my passion in high school,” said Josh. “My dad actually wanted me to play college basketball so he could see me play. I began lifting hard in my sophomore year. I learned to enjoy it. I did the Power Clean, Bench and Squat. I also did the Dot Drill, which I still do today. You have to condition yourself. You have to have quick feet the entire game. Conditioning is the key to being tough in the 4th quarter. I always ask myself , ‘When do you win? The 4th quarter!’”
Josh had a unique vision. Even though major colleges were not clamoring for his services, he was in control. Josh chose Weber State in Utah, which is a Division 1-AA school. “I felt it was a great situation for me,” remembered Josh. “I liked Coach Dave Arslanian's philosophy of letting quarterback's lead with a game plan of throwing the football. I also felt that I had a chance to play right away.” After his redshirt 1996 season, Josh tore his ACL after only four games. But he was back in just three months and planning to play in May of 1997. However, Coach Arslanian left for Utah State and Josh had a decision to make.
Something basic to Josh's mind frame is to not sit. He decided to play at a Junior College because there are no transfer limitations. Josh stayed in the state of Utah and chose Snow Junior College. “I enjoyed the state and Snow plays good JC football,” said Josh. He earned first-team NJCCA All-America honors after completing 153 of 258 passes (60%) for 2,308 yards and 28 touchdowns. Josh only played in the first half of each of the ten-game schedule. Then Josh had another decision to make: where would he go now?
Many Division I schools do not recruit JC players. The closest college, BYU, was not interested in Josh. Oklahoma needed a new quarterback. Coach Bob Stoops was just in the process of starting a new era of Sooner football. “I wanted to win,” remembered Josh. “The quarterback in Coach Stoops' offense was supposed to be a pivotal guy. His quarterback was supposed to be a key man and make audibles a good percentage of the time.”
Josh wondered about a national title when he made his recruiting trip to Oklahoma two years ago. He asked Bob Stoops, who was then in only his first month on the job, if he felt the Sooners would be able to challenge for a Big 12 and national championship in the next two years. Stoops told him yes, and Josh signed.
Oklahoma was noted for their running game and had only won 12 games in the preceding three seasons. Josh thrived on the challenge to change everything. After all, he had dreamed this dream all his life. Josh dared to dream the biggest dream. He succeeded beyond all expectations by throwing for 6,800 yards and 50 touchdowns.
“I don't know if anybody could have foreseen the level he has played at,” said Coach Stoops. “We figured it would be a winning level, otherwise we would not have gone after him. I think there's no question he'll go down as one of the great all-time Sooner players. And that's saying a lot. Winning the national championship and going undefeated is absolutely what he wanted. Josh is a great leader and he fulfilled his dream.”
As the game ended, several players hoisted Josh, their two-year captain, on their shoulders. He got a hug from Coach Stoops. Josh even led the Oklahoma band in the fight song. From there, he made his way along the sideline where he pulled his high school coach out of the mob. Finally, he headed off to join his teammates and family.
Josh, the Heisman Trophy runner-up, was 25-of-39 for 214 yards with only one interception. He also ran a few option plays, some draws and did what needed to be done. “He took some vicious hits,” offensive coordinator Mark Mangino said. There was speculation that Josh's elbow wasn't 100 percent.
“It was good enough to go on the field, therefore there's no limitations,” said Josh.
Monty Beisel, past BFS National High School Athlete of the Year, who now plays defensiv