Mason Rudolph rocketed into the college football spotlight last fall when he took over as Oklahoma State’s quarterback.
But during a trip to Israel in May, the Northwestern High graduate made more headlines for being a fan, just like anybody else. Rudolph, who led the Trojans to a state championship his senior year, snapped a photo with 1990s pop music icons The Backstreet Boys, and it rippled through the media after a posting on Instagram.
The chance meeting was a reminder that Rudolph still straddles the line between ESPN college football mainstay and regular college student. Faith, family support and high school preparation have helped him navigate the transition between the two states of being.
Rudolph was in Israel with his grandparents, Jim and Carole Logan, and other members of the Logans’ church. Visiting the historical sites – which Christians believe were made holy in many cases by the presence of Jesus Christ thousands of years ago – helped the 6-foot-5, 230-pound sophomore further solidify the perspective he’s kept amidst the cyclone of attention swirling around him in Stillwater, Okla.
“In Israel, it was cool to just kind of blot out football and everything else,” Rudolph said. “To be on a vacation in a cool place with my grandparents, it was fun.”
Redshirt cut short
Christian faith has been a bedrock in Rudolph’s life. That’s especially true now when it serves as a thousand-year-old limestone pillar of sorts that he can lean on in uncertain times.
Those uncertain times include when Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy – down to only Rudolph and a freshman walk-on in the wake of injuries to other quarterbacks – opted to end Rudolph’s redshirt season last year and toss him into the fire with three games left in the season.
A redshirt season is designed to give a college athlete the opportunity to develop his skills by practicing with the team, but not playing in any games – preserving a year of college eligibility.
“I wanted to finish my redshirt year,” Rudolph told The Herald in a recent interview. “My family and I were real nervous headed into that week, especially with Baylor, so I was praying a lot. Spiritually, it was kind of a rough one, because you weren’t sure this was the right thing to do.”
Mason’s father, Brett Rudolph, played football for North Carolina in the 1980s.
“When he finally got the call, there was actually a little disappointment,” Brett Rudolph said. “For him, it was a combination of excitement and disappointment all wrapped into one.”
Adding to the family’s uncertainty, was the experience of Rudolph’s friend – and predecessor as quarterback at Northwestern – Justin Worley. His redshirt season at the University of Tennessee was abruptly lifted his freshman year. He went on to endure a series of unfortunate, mostly unconnected circumstances in a college career tinged with frustration.
Maybe things could have turned out differently for Worley if he had been redshirted? Rudolph never found out for himself.
‘Bad at the beginning, but turned out great’
Rudolph’s first test as a starter was a big one – on the road at No. 7-ranked Baylor.
When Brett and Jamie Rudolph told their son they were coming to Baylor game, he immediately bristled. Enough nerves were dancing around his gut already.
“I told him, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’re not coming,’” Brett Rudolph said. “And I hung up the phone and told (Jamie), ‘We’re going.’ And we went.”
The family shared a phone call before the game, Rudolph unaware his parents were in a restaurant not 15 minutes from the Baylor campus in Waco, Texas. He didn’t discover the ruse until after the Cowboys’ 49-28 loss. He was jogging off the field when he saw his parents and brother waving from the stands.
“He was pretty excited at that point,” Brett Rudolph said, ...because not only were we there, but he had played fairly well and they had a chance (to win). They were in the game.”
That first start was encouraging. Two weeks later, after leading Oklahoma State past bitter rival Oklahoma with a late comeback – a win that made the team eligible to play in a postseason bowl game – Rudolph’s legend among Cowboys fans swelled further.
“God had a bigger plan,” he said. “It kind of looked bad at the beginning, but it turned out to be great. That’s kind of the way I’ve looked at it.”
Something to lean on
Football was far from Rudolph’s mind during his two weeks in Israel. The trip was partly a result of his growing Christian faith, but also of a long-held desire to go on such a trip with his mom’s parents.
He spoke at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes dinner in Stillwater in April, and going to Israel with his grandparents – Jim Logan is a preacher at New Covenant Community Church in Harrisonburg, Va., and former state director for the Virginia FCA – was a deeper exploration of something very important to Rudolph.
“A trip to Israel gives credibility to your faith,” Jim Logan said. “You can actually see the things that you’ve been reading about, for the most part, since childhood.”
Israel was also a well-received change of scenery. Rudolph described the group on this trip as “all older people, no one really young like me.” But he was buzzing after visiting the cradle of Christianity.
“It wasn’t a whole lot of relaxing, because we were up every morning really early,” he said. “We had a big schedule every day. It wasn’t a true vacation, but it was a lot of cool sightseeing.”
And, of course, there was the random meeting with the Backstreet Boys.
Under the microscope
That photo opportunity was ironic, because that kind of thing is happening more and more to Rudolph himself.
He still doesn’t get recognized too often in Stillwater or back home in Rock Hill, though that will probably continue to change this coming fall.
“He’s getting recognized, and I think he’ll get more recognized this fall because he’ll be the opening starter,” predicted younger brother Logan Rudolph, who witnessed Oklahoma State fans’ adulation of his brother firsthand after the Oklahoma upset.
“It’s not a big deal,” said Rudolph, who can still walk to class somewhat unnoticed. “Parts of it are fun, especially after Oklahoma, but it’s not too bad.”
Rudolph’s coolness in the college football inferno – on and off the field – made the hemming-and-hawing over whether to burn his redshirt season look silly in hindsight.
“Even my kids at home were on me about it,” Gundy said last season. “The little one (said), ‘Really? We could have played (Rudolph) six weeks ago.’ I said, ‘You need to worry about your spelling test on Friday.’”
Handling attention isn’t completely new for Rudolph, who was a high school star in Rock Hill. The preparation and training he received while wearing Northwestern’s purple and gold has paid off at the college football level.
“We kind of worked at it, from knowing the position that he played and what was gonna come about with that, especially with success,” Trojans coach Kyle Richardson said. “We kind of try to do that with all our kids, especially the ones we know are gonna be in front of the microphone. So we coach them up a little bit.”
The high school training, the humility that Christianity espouses, all help explain why Rudolph sounds like a veteran pro player when he’s interviewed by reporters.
“Mason’s learned to give God the credit and his other teammates credit,” Jim Logan said. “That’s a sign of maturity, really. To take the spotlight off one’s self.”
‘Place yer bets’
Father and son credit Rudolph’s on-field success last season in part to the support of family and faith, but also to lessons learned at Northwestern, as well as his decision to enroll at Oklahoma State a semester early in January 2014. All of these things enabled the young quarterback to play like a much more experienced hand, and all should help him moving forward in Stillwater.
“Now there are high expectations, crazy stuff, crazy stuff,” Brett Rudolph said. “But he’s also dealt with that thanks to Northwestern, so I don’t think it will be too big for him. But we’re excited. How could we not be?”
Much like his senior year at Northwestern, Rudolph enters his sophomore season at Oklahoma State essentially the uncontested starting quarterback. That change in status requires a much different outlook than his freshman season.
“You know you’re gonna play, so it’s more exciting, there’s even more motivation to work,” said Rudolph, who still has yet to play a home game in Stillwater.
College football fans, writers and analysts nationwide noticed his performances out of the bullpen, and expectations of a breakout sophomore season continue to mount as the summer wears on.
Rudolph’s experience in three games – along with Oklahoma State’s returning all of its top receivers and eight offensive linemen, and the team’s propensity to produce big offensive statistical numbers, have combined to make the former Trojan a trendy dark-horse pick for the Heisman Trophy. Rudolph’s odds of winning are 40-to-1, which might sound long, but simply being mentioned even as a longshot contender for college football’s most prestigious award is a sign of how high a three-game cameo boosted his profile.
“It’s not my job to think about that,” he said. “I’m just trying to take it day-by-day and have a good summer. But after the season starts, it’s just gonna be natural. I’m not gonna worry about that.”
Heisman odds were offered on just 31 players, the rest of whom played at least five games last season. Rudolph played the fewest games of any player on the list, making his indifference to the attention all the more surprising and impressive.
“I joked with my wife that I’m sure he’s been a pretty hot, big hit on campus,” Gundy said before his team’s Cactus Bowl appearance in January. “He’s really handled himself well.”
Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer gave Rudolph that most nebulous of compliments for a quarterback, saying before the team’s bowl game that Rudolph’s “got it.” And Daily Oklahoman newspaper columnist Jenni Carlson wrote earlier this year that the quarterback “looks like a program changer.”
But when Rudolph looks in the mirror, he still sees a regular guy, one that would geek out about meeting the Backstreet Boys just like anyone else.
Bret McCormick 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T
Baylor showed Mason Rudolph no mercy in his first college start just before Thanksgiving in Waco, Texas. The Bears beat Oklahoma State 49-28, sacking the former Northwestern High standout three times and intercepting three of his passes.
Rudolph set a school record for most passing yards in a debut game with 281, showing the potential that began to bloom two weeks later during the “Bedlam” rivalry game at Oklahoma.
Oklahoma State had to beat its rival to become eligible to play in its ninth straight bowl game. The Cowboys fell behind 28-14 to the 18th-ranked Sooners, but scored 21 points in the fourth quarter – including Rudolph’s 43-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Sheperd – before a game-winning field goal in overtime sealed a 38-35 victory for the Cowboys.
Instantly, Rudolph was a legend to those who bleed black and orange in Oklahoma.
In the Cactus Bowl about a month later, Rudolph completed 17-of-26 passes for 299 yards and two touchdowns as his team jumped out to a 24-0 lead, before holding on for a 30-22 win over Washington. A season in which Oklahoma State lost five straight games at one point ended on a bright note – thanks in large part to a quarterback who was not expected to play a down.
“He stayed focused during the season and he worked daily just in case that opportunity came,” Kyle Richardson, Rudolph’s Northwestern High coach. “And when it came, he was ready to jump on it.
“A lot of redshirts, it’s just hard to stay as focused on everyday showing up like you’re the starter.”
Rudolph’s college coach was even more emphatic in his appraisal of Rudolph’s readiness.
“The best thing we did last year,” OSU’s Mike Gundy told reporters several months ago, “was play him at the end of the year.”