For decades, the most iconic image of America came from Texas.
Hollywood loved the cowboy, silently toiling in the heat and cold, staring down danger and prepared to answer any challenge that came his way.
But over time, industrialization and modernization, cowboys drifted from the national consciousness, or at least from the movies and television screens.
As things shifted, however, another Texas icon emerged: the quarterback.
Friday Night Lights, first as a book, then a movie, and later a TV show, made the country care about small town Texas high school football. The sophomoric Varsity Blues helped too.
As that mythology grew, one real life QB emerged to fit the storybook casting: Colt McCoy.
With blue eyes and a humble voice, McCoy came from tiny Tuscola, Texas, a town of fewer than 800 people about three hours west of Dallas. He went on and excelled as the starting quarterback at the University of Texas, becoming the winningest Longhorn QB ever.
Then the storybook ended.
In 2010, he was drafted by a terrible Browns team. In two seasons he started 21 games, but went 6-15.
His career stumbled, he landed on a few bad San Francisco teams after that. He battled injuries, often, and didn’t play all that well in spurts.
His chance at NFL stardom, like he’d found in college, faded. Eventually, he caught on with the Redskins in a weird situation.
McCoy joined the team in 2014, the same year Jay Gruden took over as head coach. Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins were already on the roster, and a multi-year awkward dance ensued.
All three QBs got starts in 2014, but by 2015, Cousins got the starter’s job, McCoy became the backup and RG3 hit the bench. In 2016, Griffin went to Cleveland, with McCoy firmly entrenched as Cousins’ backup.
For two years, Cousins took every snap in Washington, and McCoy worked hard on the scout team to press the defense.
Things seemed to be coming to a head as Cousins’ contract situation reached a breaking point in 2018. Finally, maybe, McCoy would get his chance.
And then Washington traded for Alex Smith.
McCoy again seemed destined to the bench, but much like fictional characters Johnny Moxon or Matt Saracen, the backup got thrust into the spotlight.
After 10 games and a 6-3 start, Smith went down with a broken leg last week in a loss to Houston, and now, after a long, long wait, it’s McCoy’s team.
“For me, now is not a time to really kind of think about what got me to this point right here,” McCoy said Tuesday. “Now, it’s time to play.”
That said, a small town upbringing is a big part of his story, and for McCoy, he can’t forget it.
“I certainly wouldn’t change where I grew up, where I came from,” McCoy said. “Everyone there means so much to me and that’s a special part of me. Right now, my focus is on this team and how I can help this team this week because I know they’re counting on me.”
What McCoy might not know, or realize, is that his story is part of what makes him so appealing.
The small town hero, the Texas gunslinger, McCoy fits all those bills.
Redskins running back Chris Thompson tried to describe the intangible trust that comes from playing with McCoy, and the best he could muster was labeling it that “Texas thing.”
Watching McCoy enter the game for the Redskins last week at FedEx Field, there was an undeniable electricity that shot through the stadium. It was palpable, and multiple Redskins players said they felt it, too.
And now, after four starts in four years in Washington, McCoy has the chance to lead a good team into the NFL playoffs in a league where a backup quarterback got named Super Bowl MVP last season.
“This opportunity is a great one for him,” Gruden said.
“We don’t have to change a thing with Colt at quarterback. We just go on as scheduled. I know the players all have a ton of respect for Colt and they’re going to play hard for Colt and they know the ball’s going to be thrown in the right spot.”
Of course it starts on Thursday, on national television, and of course it starts in Dallas with the Redskins installed as big underdogs.
McCoy found success once before playing against the Cowboys in Dallas on national television. It was a riveting win, down to the wire, and the Redskins entered the game as big underdogs, too.
That came in 2014, in the middle of a lost season for Washington, but the victory still resonates for a lot of fans, in the same way Colt McCoy resonates with a lot of fans.
The story is easy to root for and the person makes it even easier. McCoy, despite some circumstances where other players would complain, publicly or privately, never did. He never really got his chance to start, but kept soldiering on.
“It’s not easy but at the same time, I’m thankful for where I am and for the things that I’ve gone through. Hopefully some of the ups and downs that I’ve been through in my career will help me now, help me in this situation. I think if I didn’t enjoy football, if I didn’t love football, I probably would have maybe been through. But I love the process. I love the challenge each week.”
This week’s challenge is much different than it has been for McCoy.
The challenge is no longer staying engaged in meetings or practices when playing time isn’t on the horizon.
The challenge is the Dallas Cowboys, on a short week, with a surging defense and a vicious pass rush.
The challenge is a beat-up Redskins offensive line and the pressure of maintaining a one-game lead in the NFC East.
For years, the challenge has been mental. Now, the challenge will be very, very real.
This game is huge for the Redskins. For their playoff hopes. For their coach’s job security. For the organization’s direction in 2019.
And it’s also huge for McCoy. To validate his hard work. His patience. To validate Tuscola.
“I’m thankful for the opportunity but I think it’s even more than that. It’s time to just go play and put everything else aside,” he said.
“We have a huge game this week. It’s a huge game.”
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