The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From the Big 12 to the NFC title game, the legend of Brock Purdy plays on

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy runs during the second half of the 49ers' game against the Dallas Cowboys in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. (Tony Avelar/AP)
10 min

For a long while in the heartland, it was easy to become preoccupied with how the game ended: Coach Matt Campbell’s controversial decision to go for a win-or-die two-point conversion and a massive Iowa State upset against a loaded Oklahoma team. Whether Cyclones wide receiver La’Michael Pettway could’ve — should’ve! — hauled in the go-ahead pass, delivered right to his belly. If Sooners cornerback Parnell Motley had perhaps been a little too handsy with Pettway before intercepting the ball.

“Do you think he was interfered with?” John Walters, the longtime voice of Iowa State sports, asks more than three years after ninth-ranked Oklahoma held on for a 42-41 win. “The immediate reaction was: We got screwed.”

For a long while, it was easy to forget how the baby-faced but steel-nerved Cyclones quarterback had just given his team a chance. An Iowa State win in Norman had occurred four times in nearly a century of games, and this one nearly happened despite a three-touchdown Cyclones deficit, on the Sooners’ home field, and because the Cyclones’ passer outplayed his superstar counterpart, Jalen Hurts, in the second half.

Then, eight weeks ago, two Miami Dolphins defenders pulled down San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who twisted as he attempted to stay upright and fractured bones in his foot before being carted off the field. Starting quarterback Trey Lance had been out since an ankle injury in September, so 49ers Coach Kyle Shanahan had no choice but to rely on his rookie third-stringer, a 22-year-old named Brock Purdy, to save the team’s season.

“It’s football,” Purdy told skeptical reporters later. Not only had he never taken an NFL snap in any meaningful situation, San Francisco had selected Purdy with the 262nd and final pick in the 2022 draft — labeling him last year’s “Mr. Irrelevant.”

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Since December, Purdy’s casual attitude and thrilling play have led the 49ers to eight consecutive wins, with Purdy emerging as one of the league’s most dependable, efficient and exciting quarterbacks. He often scrambles to turn busted plays into dazzling, heart-racing gains. Despite the stress he causes, in particular to his coaches and opposing defensive coordinators, he doesn’t make many mistakes: four interceptions to 16 touchdowns. Purdy’s ability to evade rushers and keep plays alive has pushed San Francisco to the verge of the Super Bowl and Shanahan to the frayed edges of his scarred nerves.

“It definitely makes me nervous,” the coach said after Purdy slipped away from defenders, found impossible throwing lanes and created astonishing plays in the 49ers’ 41-23 win against Seattle in the playoffs’ first round. “He did a hell of a job getting away. He knows his body; he’s out there and can see how close he is to those guys. He tries to never give up.”

It was the same story three years ago, long before central Iowa became Niners Country, before anyone could predict the winner of Purdy-Hurts II — San Francisco at Philadelphia, maybe the league’s biggest surprise meeting one of its brightest young stars — would also claim the NFC championship.

Back then, Hurts was a front-runner to become Oklahoma’s third straight winner of the Heisman Trophy, months after transferring from Alabama. The Sooners, with an offense stacked with future Pro Bowlers and top draft picks, were bound for the College Football Playoff and a showdown with LSU and eventual Heisman winner (and national champion) Joe Burrow.

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Iowa State also had some players, though the program’s only Heisman finalist was Troy Davis in 1996 and its only first-round pick was George Amundson in 1973. Purdy was a celebrity in Ames by 2019, though not quite a legend. Just a sophomore, he had left his native Phoenix to play major college football, emerging as a freshman to stun Oklahoma State just months after turning down scholarship offers from Alabama and Texas A&M for … the Cyclones? Nowadays it depends on whom you ask to explain how and why such a thing happened, because it was either that his low-key family values would easily translate to those of the Midwest or that Purdy prizes loyalty and Iowa State had recruited him longer than the big dogs.

The most plausible theory, at least looking back, is that Campbell, the Cyclones’ coach, had agreed to let Brock be Brock.

Coaches had always tried to tame Purdy and have him run plays as drawn. But when he became the starter at Perry High in suburban Gilbert, the Pumas’ coaches had largely made their peace with letting him analyze the defense, view play-calls as suggestions and do his thing. Most of them, anyway.

“What the hell is he doing?” Steve Axman, Perry High’s former quarterbacks coach, would recall head coach Preston Jones demanding as Purdy scrambled left, then right, then left again before letting the ball go. “Well, let’s see, Coach; he just got you 32 yards.”

Purdy would lead Perry to Arizona’s Class 6A state championship game in 2017, passing for 4,405 yards as a senior and setting a 6A state record with 57 touchdown throws. By the time Iowa State traveled to Oklahoma in 2019, Purdy was one of college football’s most efficient passers, and he would finish the season ranked fifth in the nation with 3,982 passing yards.

He wasn’t the prized recruit Hurts was, though. The Texas native was bigger, stronger, more physically gifted. Hurts signed with Alabama and led the Crimson Tide to the national championship game before Coach Nick Saban benched him at halftime in favor of Tua Tagovailoa, who led the team to a comeback win against Georgia. When Hurts transferred to Oklahoma, Coach Lincoln Riley was happy to let Jalen be Jalen, too. He was smart, strong, instinctive. Hurts led the nation with 11.3 yards per pass attempt and racked up 1,298 rushing yards in 2019.

Against Iowa State, he was dominant in the first half, zipping a 48-yard touchdown pass to future Pro Bowl wideout CeeDee Lamb and pulling back a zone-read keeper for an easy touchdown run and a 14-0 lead. A 63-yard catch-and-run touchdown by Lamb and another scoring run from Hurts gave Oklahoma a 35-14 halftime advantage.

“A lot of people had probably given up,” Walters, the play-by-play man, says. Iowa State rarely got blown out, and two years earlier it had completed the upset in Norman, its first win against the Sooners since 1990. “Maybe today is just not their day. Maybe this is the one time it’s not going to be competitive.”

The Sooners led 42-21 as the fourth quarter began, though the Cyclones put an extra defender on Hurts and largely contained him to the pocket. Purdy found tight end Chase Allen for an easy touchdown on the first play, and Lamb fumbled on the next Sooners drive. Down two scores with less than five minutes to go, Purdy somehow found Tarique Milton near the boundary with two defenders nearby. Purdy escaped pressure for a 15-yard scramble, then read Oklahoma’s defense perfectly for an open touchdown to Sean Shaw Jr. The Cyclones trailed by seven with 3½ minutes left.

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Some of this looked familiar to former NFL quarterback Dan Manucci, watching back home in Arizona. He was Purdy’s private quarterbacks coach, and Manucci had been training Purdy since he was a ninth-grader to trust his instincts (even if it annoyed his coaches), keep the play alive and train his eyes downfield as he avoided defenders. Manucci called it the “move drill,” designed to stress Purdy’s body while taking advantage of field vision that reminds Manucci of a running back’s. He noticed it again last week, when Purdy checked off primary targets as he rolled to his left, ignored a Dallas rusher and lofted a pass to George Kittle, which the tight end bobbled before reeling it in for a 30-yard first down that led to a touchdown that demoralized the Cowboys.

It was in no way the sequence Shanahan had drawn up. The coach is a noted tactician and skilled play designer, with a well-earned risk aversion because of injuries and heartbreak. But once again Purdy made it work.

“I’ve been harping on him: ‘You’ve got this athletic ability, Brock; you can make plays if things break down,’ ” Manucci said this week. “For Kyle [Shanahan], I can see his eyes; he’s a control freak — ‘We want this, we want that.’

“Not every quarterback is going to be vanilla ice cream. Brock is chocolate with chocolate syrup, with some sprinkles and nuts on there.”

Three years ago, with pressure mounting and the clock ticking in Norman, Hurts drifted to his right and tried to create something — a peek at his own instincts and future breakthrough as an NFL playmaker. But this time, he lofted an interception with less than three minutes to play.

Back on the field, Purdy scrambled but lost the ball and somehow got it back. He scrambled again on third and 13, picking up the first down as he juked safety Pat Fields to the ground. Then, on first down at the Oklahoma 8-yard line, Purdy dropped a snap and fell on the loose ball, again making it so fans and coaches on neither side could blink. He was gassed, but Manucci says now that he had a drill for that, too: “Cardio quarterbacking,” in which the player must sprint, drop for a push-up, then complete a pass before a 30-second break and another round.

On third and goal from Oklahoma’s 13-yard line, it was 24 seconds to either overtime or relief. Purdy loves his tight ends, and this time he stepped into the pressure and tossed up what initially looked like a jump ball toward the end zone. But 6-foot-6 tight end Charlie Kolar emerged, somehow open for the touchdown.

“With Brock,” Walters says, “you always felt like you had a chance.”

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What happened next could be debated in Iowa for years. Even at Memorial Stadium, with 83,541 fans mostly wearing crimson bearing down, should Campbell have played for overtime instead of opting for a two-point conversion? Anticipating a safety blitz by the Sooners, should running back Breece Hall have stayed in the backfield as an extra blocker instead of releasing into the flat? Purdy threw the ball a moment before being hit, delivering an on-target pass that Pettway, the Cyclones receiver, briefly had his hands on. Should the officials, watching Pettway pinball off two Oklahoma defensive backs, have thrown a flag?

No one could know, but now, years later and with Purdy playing for a team almost 2,000 miles away, the people in Ames know how to deal with the stress. Watch Purdy take the snap, forget what’s supposed to happen or how a play was diagramed, keep your eyes on the overachieving quarterback, and just hold your breath.