High School Football

Mason Rudolph’s talk at Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast shows even NFL QBs fight self-doubt

Here was Mason Rudolph wearing a light blue suit, tanned from offseason training in San Diego, standing in front of a crowd of Rock Hill’s finest citizens and speaking about his life. Sure, the former Northwestern Trojan football standout and current Pittsburgh Steeler QB talked about his triumphs and his path to the NFL.

But he also spoke about the self-doubt he’s experienced, the number of times he’s had to start from scratch and prove himself again, and the lingering uncertainty that he could.

“Everyone has that voice inside that you’ve got to learn how to manage it, overcome it,” Rudolph said after the Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast on April 9 in Rock Hill, part of the city’s Come See Me Festival.

Rudolph’s speech was a meandering recitation of his life story to this point, full of interesting tidbits that have rarely seen the light of day, such is his desire to avoid rocking the boat when speaking to media.

Rudolph told the crowd that baseball was his first pursuit. He loved being in command.

That feeling was replicated playing quarterback, something the Virginia native began to do when he transferred from Westminster Catawba Christian School to Northwestern for his sophomore year of high school. Rudolph called that move “a business decision,” the first of many designed to result in a college football future.

Rudolph talked about the self-doubt he felt as a freshman former home school student trying out for the Westminster Catawba football team. And that self-doubt returned in a big way when he transferred to Northwestern to play quarterback -- for the first time in his life -- following in the footsteps of Trojan legend Justin Worley, who Rudolph regarded as an “icon.”

For kids like Rudolph, that put their finger on a life goal and do everything in pursuit of it, there is only one word: “obsession,” he said. “Every decision reflects that.”

And so he joined forces with Kyle Richardson at Northwestern and embarked on three highly successful years with the Trojans, culminating in a 15-0 state championship senior season in 2013.

At the Westminster Hall podium Tuesday morning, Rudolph eventually reached his college decision. He wasn’t offered a scholarship by South Carolina or Clemson and so was headed out of state, regardless of which school he picked. His mom, Jamie, who ran track at Liberty University, loved Ole Miss. Their football program played Christian music during practice and Jamie was enamored.

“This is the one,” she told her son during his recruiting visit to the school.

“That was not the one,” Rudolph joked Tuesday morning, without referencing the ensuing scandals that have clouded Ole Miss’ program in the years since.

Rudolph also considered LSU. But in the end, he made another business decision and nixed the Tigers.

“I wasn’t trying to hand the ball off to Leonard Fournette every down,” he said.

Rudolph settled on Oklahoma State, which used a very similar offense to the one he ran at Northwestern. He joked that he’s opening a separate bank account to pay back his dad, Brett, for the “millions of miles” he flew between Rock Hill and Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Rudolph described the decision to burn his redshirt his freshman year after the Cowboys lost several QBs to injury as a moment to just jump into the deep end. He also talked about Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy using Rudolph to do the heavy lifting for the Cowboys’ offense in 2015, only for the team’s backup QB, senior J.W. Walsh, to get most of the red zone touchdown runs.

“Obviously, I was not a big fan of Mike Gundy’s two-quarterback system,” Rudolph said, smiling.

Rudolph revealed that he didn’t have much of a relationship with Gundy until his junior year. A Cowboys assistant coach greased the wheels between the two, suggesting to Gundy that he make more of an effort to build a relationship with Rudolph, who had enjoyed a very tight bond with his high school coach, Richardson. Rudolph said that after the assistant coach spoke to Gundy, Gundy sidled up to him the next day and said, “how’s it going?” in his country accent.

The prayer breakfast crowd laughed.

Rudolph and Gundy’s relationship improved, to the point where they both stood shirtless in front of thousands of Oklahoma State students during a pep rally in 2017, grinning. According to Rudolph’s telling, Gundy took his shirt off first and Rudolph thought it looked kind of creepy, so joined his coach in a moment of solidarity. Video of the event shows Rudolph’s shirt came off first.

Rudolph’s leadership skills improved too during his junior year. Oklahoma State’s strength and conditioning coach impressed upon Rudolph the importance of words of encouragement, little uplifting messages to offensive linemen, or teammates who seemed in a bad mood. Vocal leadership didn’t come naturally to Rudolph. But he developed in that regard, and graduated from Oklahoma State as a leader in the school’s winningest senior class of football players.

Preparation for pro football took center stage during the spring of 2018. But all of the hard work seemingly went unrewarded when Rudolph -- considered by some to be a first round pick -- slipped to the third round and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“The draft, for me, was kind of weird,” Rudolph told the audience Tuesday.

More than feeling weird, Rudolph said he was furious about his draft slide.

“That was a blow,” he said. “I’ve tried to bottle that up and keep it flowing through these next few years.”

A devout Christian, Rudolph was busy on Sundays during this past NFL season and couldn’t attend church like he wanted to. He watched old Billy Graham sermons on YouTube instead. Rudolph said he liked Billy Graham’s bellowing style, and that the old sermons gave him comfort.

Rudolph didn’t play in a single game this past season for the Steelers, who are well stocked at quarterback. Josh Dobbs and Ben Roethlisberger are in front of him on Pittsburgh’s QB depth chart at the moment and Rudolph is in another one of those phases of his life where he has to prove himself, just like he did at Westminster Catawba, Northwestern and Oklahoma State.

“A lot of experience in doing the same thing I’m trying to do now,” he said. “I’m excited and I’m just waiting for my opportunity.”

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