Commentary

Colt Hero

Five Longhorn fans make a pretty strong case Colt McCoy is superhuman

Updated: August 18, 2009, 10:37 AM ET
By Alyssa Roenigk | ESPN The Magazine

This article appears in the August 24 issue of ESPN The Magazine as the cover story.

Colt, do not let us down. Seriously. because we are doing something we almost never do. We're abandoning snark and cynicism and writing an honest-to-goodness love letter. We always like a little dirt, a fault, a misstep. And we asked lots of folks who track almost every move you make to give it up. But no one had anything. If not for the burly shadow cast by that goody-two-shoes Tebow, everyone would already know this stuff about you, too. In fact, like Tebow, you've even got your own man-on-a-mission legend.

Let us tell the readers, since you'd never think to.

Last spring, McCoy traveled to Iquitos, Peru, on a volunteer mission organized by a nondenominational Christian camp in Texas. The children he met over his 10-day stay had never heard of American football, much less the Texas Longhorns or their star QB. These were kids who slept on dirt floors in the Amazon jungle and considered running water a luxury. But when McCoy returned to Iquitos for a 10-day mission this past spring, the children and local translators knew the Longhorns had finished 12-1 and won the Fiesta Bowl. McCoy had left an impression; each week during the season, the translators pooled their money to rent a motorcycle so one of them could ride to a neighboring village with an Internet café and check game results.

Nathaniel WelchColt McCoy, standing at the beginning of what figures to be a magical ride for Texas football.

See what we mean, Colt? Now imagine what it's like for people who know you, who love the Horns the way they love their mama. You inspire them. In a way VY, the man you replaced, never did. And it's not that you read Scripture and recite the Lord's Prayer before running out of the tunnel. It's not even that you've beaten up on the Sooners. It's bigger than churchgoing and winning. It's positively heroic. But if we tried to explain it, we'd get so mushy they'd take away our press passes.

Instead, your biggest fans are ready to testify.

THE NEIGHBORS: KEN AND PATINA HERRINGTON, GRAHAM, TEXAS

GAME DAY RITUAL: Dressed in matching No. 12 jerseys, the Herringtons walk the neighborhood an hour before kickoff, mingling with other UT fans in a tradition they call the Victory Walk. Back at home, they play "Texas Fight," fill their frosty UT mugs with beer, pop popcorn and flick on the TV.

THEIR TESTIMONY: Around 9 p.m. on Memorial Day 2006, Colt and his father, Brad, were fishing behind their home in Graham -- where they'd moved after Colt graduated from high school -- when they heard screaming from across the lake.

Courtesy Petina HerringtonColt McCoy with Ken Herrington.

Dad and son kicked off their shoes, removed their shirts and dived into Timber Ridge Lake for the 300-yard swim to the other side. When they arrived, out of breath, they found Patina screaming and her husband, Ken, lying on a dock, suffering one of 12 grand mal seizures he would have that night. Another neighbor had heard the screams and called 911. The ambulance was unable to navigate the steep 575-yard rocky path that led down to the lake. Colt charged up the hill, without his shoes and with a flashlight, to guide the EMTs down to Ken, a former NASA engineer who helped put Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon. Once Ken was stabilized, Colt, Brad and several neighbors helped the EMTs carry Ken's stretcher up the path. It wasn't until Ken was in the medevac that Patina realized who had helped her husband.

"It was so dark," she says. "I heard someone say Colt, and thought, That was Colt McCoy?" Ken survived the ordeal, and once the couple were back at home, Patina, a Longhorns fan, e-mailed the local media to tell the story. She knew the McCoys never would. "I'd like to think everybody would do what he did," Patina says. "But let's face it, not everybody would." Now it isn't Christmas at the Herrington house until the lights on the UT Christmas tree are lit.

"Colt saved a life," Patina says. "What better describes a hero than that?"

THE SURVIVOR: SERGIO GONZALES, AUSTIN, TEXAS

GAME DAY RITUAL: Sergio wears a Colt jersey; Rupert the Bear wears a UT hat.

HIS TESTIMONY: On July 27, 2008, Veronica Orozco checked her 12-year-old son, Sergio, into the Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin for tests. The next day, the doctors diagnosed acute biphenotypic leukemia, a rare form of cancer that affects fewer than 200,000 people in the U.S. Sergio spent a month in the hospital and was in and out of Dell for the next four months. He missed most of seventh grade and had to quit football. "I played safety," Sergio says. "I'm really fast." During those months, he got his weekly football fix by watching his favorite team, the Longhorns, on TV.

Before the season began, a nurse told Sergio that the UT football team visited the hospital on Fridays before home games. He was psyched. Especially when he found out his favorite player, You Know Who, never missed a visit. But Sergio was discharged before getting a chance to meet his hero. He was crushed. What he didn't know was that the nurses made sure McCoy knew about him.

Two weeks later, Sergio was at a nearby clinic for tests. After making his rounds at the hospital, McCoy made the 10-minute walk to meet Sergio. "It meant so much," Orozco says.

Courtesy Veronica OrozcoColt with Sergio Gonzales.

For the rest of the season, McCoy checked on Sergio's status and stopped by his room if he had been admitted. On UT Fridays, Sergio always wore his hat and autographed Colt McCoy jersey and dressed his stuffed bear, Rupert, in a Longhorns hat. "Colt always remembers Rupert's name," Sergio says. According to the staff at Dell, McCoy remembers everyone's names, from children to nurses to front office folks. "He has an incredible gift," says Ashley Davis, special events coordinator at Dell.

At the end of November, Sergio traveled to San Antonio to undergo a bone marrow transplant, after which he spent six months in the hospital recovering from complications. During that time, the memory of McCoy's visits meant more than ever to Sergio and Veronica. "Colt treats me like I'm not sick," says Sergio, who is now cancer-free and plans to return to school part-time in the fall. "Colt told me to keep fighting, to never give up," he says.

"A lot of celebrities and professional athletes come through here," says Davis. "But no one reaches these kids like Colt. When he is visiting, you can feel his presence."

THE TEACHER: KAY WHITTON, JIM NED HIGH, TUSCOLA, TEXAS

GAME DAY RITUAL: Whitton dons her No. 12 jersey and sets the DVR to record. "That way, I don't miss a minute if someone calls or comes to the door," she says. "But everyone knows not to call me on game day."

HER TESTIMONY: Shortly after watching the 2008 Heisman ceremony at home in Tuscola, Whitton, McCoy's high school business teacher and his self-proclaimed No. 1 fan, got a phone call from a certain somebody who was visiting New York.

Courtesy Kay WhittonMcCoy with HS teacher Kay Whitton.

"Hey, Miss Whitton! It's Colt. I'm in the limo, and we're about to go under the Hudson River." Whitton was giddy. During the show, ESPN ran a segment on Tuscola, and McCoy was calling to thank his favorite teacher for helping with the logistics. "I can't tell you what a feeling that was, knowing he took time out of his crazy schedule to call," she says.

Whitton, like most of Tuscola's 714 residents, believed Colt was shafted out of a Heisman. But that hasn't stopped assistant football coach Vince Lavallee from talking about erecting a Colt McCoy statue in front of the school. Whitton has even bigger plans. "If -- when -- he wins this year, we are going to paint the town water tower to say, 'Tuscola: Home of Colt McCoy,' " she says. Bigger still, she's lobbying to permanently add an eighth letter to the town name. Welcome to Tuscolta.

THE TEAMMATE: JORDAN SHIPLEY, WR, TEXAS LONGHORNS

GAME DAY RITUAL : Catches (132), yards (1,706) and touchdowns (20).

HIS TESTIMONY: One day during Shipley's freshman year, coach Mack Brown asked him if he thought a prep QB from West Texas was good enough to play in Austin. "I'd known Colt since we were 8," Shipley says. "I knew he was gifted, but, really, I wanted a good friend on the team."

Three years later, the off-field friendship -- they're fishing buddies, do charity work together, play Tom Petty songs on harmonicas -- has helped them on the field, too. "We know each other's tendencies so well, and that goes a long way in football," Shipley says.

Getty ImagesShipley and McCoy have been tight for over a decade.

Take a play during the first quarter of last year's Oklahoma State game. It's first down from the OSU 14, and McCoy calls a run in the huddle. "At the line, he looked at the defense and audibled to a screen to the outside receiver," Shipley says. "But then he gave me a nod and changed the play again. It was spur of the moment, and he didn't say a word. But I knew exactly where he was going." McCoy took the snap, stepped up and threw a fade to Shipley. Fourteen yards. Touchdown.

"I don't know if anyone else in the country can do what he can," says Shipley, who, along with Brandon Collins, Malcolm Williams and James Kirkendoll, is part of one of the strongest receiving corps in college football.

"He's the best there is."

THE EDITOR: CHRIS BEREND, DEPUTY EDITOR, ESPN THE MAGAZINE

GAME DAY RITUAL: "Saturday is stressful," says Berend, whose wife leaves their Brooklyn pad to him, his four UT friends and the couple's poodle, Barkley, dressed in a Colt McCoy sweater.

HIS TESTIMONY: The Mag's college football brain trust thought this story was their idea. That's what Berend, 34, wanted them to think. Truth is, he began planning this three years ago, when the UT alum joined The Mag. He needed them to believe they were the ones who saw something in the kid under center at Texas. Them. Not the guy with the burnt-orange No. 12 rubber ducky on his desk.

Courtesy Chris BerendMcCoy is a hero to UT-Austin expats everywhere, like Mag editor Berend.

He was patient, methodical. He proselytized at morning meetings and on e-mail chains, journalistic objectivity be damned. He erected a small shrine at his desk, subliminally planting images of Colt McCoy in the minds of the entire staff. He played inspirational highlight videos on his Mac and retold stories he'd read online about the guy he calls "America's only safe hero." It was all so transparent, so diabolically effective. You're reading this story, aren't you?

Last summer, Berend and The Mag were looking to pick the brains of some college players. Always obliging, Colt agreed to help. Little did he know, Berend's other motive was to get McCoy face time with one of our college football editors, just to seal the deal on this story. But then, in the presence of Colt, Berend clammed up. "I was speechless," he says. "I wanted to ask him what it feels like to run out of the tunnel, if he still talks to Vince Young, if he wanted to hang out with me. But I froze up. Not a word came out."

So, Chris, this is for a job well done: He gets nervous in the tunnel. Yes, he still talks to Vince. And, sure, you can hang anytime you're in town. Isn't it obvious? This man won't let you down.

Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. For last year's college football preview issue, she also wrote the cover story -- in that case, about then-Georgia RB Knowshon Moreno.

Alyssa Roenigk

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com whose assignments covering action sports, Olympics and football have taken her to six continents and caused her to commit countless acts of recklessness. In 2012, she joined the X Games TV broadcast team and ordered additional pages for her passport. Follow her on Twitter at @espn_alyssa.