FAITH & TRUST: How ISU QB Brock Purdy grows through adversity and eludes the “expectations” trap

Iowa State University quarterback Brock Purdy throws passes to the kids who attended the first Empowered Youth event at The Well Covenant Church in Des Moines. The faith-based event for sixth- to 12th-grade students featured music, fellowship and testimonials from Purdy and his Cyclones teammate Rory Walling, among others. © Lee Navin/For the Register via Imagn Content Services, LLC

Brock Purdy sat in the locker room and emptied his mind.

He shrugged off stress and buried the painful memory of three first-half interceptions in last season’s eventual comeback win over Baylor.

Iowa State’s record-breaking quarterback just breathed, then felt peace.

“For real, I actually leaned into my faith,” said Purdy, who will make his 34th-consecutive start for the No. 7 Cyclones in Saturday’s 3:30 p.m. season opener against Northern Iowa at Jack Trice Stadium. “This is who I am. I was trying to do a lot of things for some people, like just teammates and coaches and their expectations that really weren’t there. I felt like they were there, but they weren’t. So once I flushed that and leaned into who I was as a person and my faith, then I just started playing free, like myself again.”

 At halftime of that fraught and fateful game against the underdog Bears, Purdy nursed a 7-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio, but his belief never wavered. He just needed a reboot of sorts; a deep breath and a moment of prayer.

“That was, I think, the turning point in the season where we just went really smooth and everything started to flow on offense,” Purdy said.

 He tossed three touchdowns in the second half of that game alone, helping ISU craft a 38-31 win out of the detritus of that disastrous first 30 minutes.

 How. Does. That. Happen?

 For Purdy, it comes naturally when he focuses on forces much larger than himself. He enters his senior season already possessing 25 program records and ranks second in career passing yards, total offense and completions, but the last thing he’s defined by is statistics.

 Purdy just wins. No other quarterback in school history can match his 23-11 record behind center, nor his current 19-7 mark against Big 12 foes. Faith and belief help to explain Purdy’s success, but trust and respect complete his highly competitive profile.

 “I said something to him after the (Baylor) game,” senior cornerback Anthony Johnson said. “To come back, to keep pounding away from something like that, that just shows you the kind of competitor, the type of quarterback (he is). He’s the guy that I’ll go out there and sacrifice my body for each and every day — and he knows that. Like, I’ll be telling him, ‘No matter what happens, no matter what he does, I’m going to play hard for him.’”

 That’s because Purdy has proven he’ll do the same for everyone else.

 “I think from the time that Brock Purdy went in against Oklahoma State (in 2018), he’s given Iowa State football a chance to win and be successful in every game,” head coach Matt Campbell said during last season’s historic 9-3 run through the Fiesta Bowl last season.

 That will once again be the case against the defense-driven Panthers, who went 3-4 in their COVID-19 delayed spring season, but as usual feature players on both sides of the ball who have a chance to eventually play on Sundays.

 “You’re talking about maybe one of the most veteran teams we’ll play this fall and a team that’s got dynamic playmakers in critical positions,” said Campbell, who is 2-1 against UNI. “I think that’s the thing that’s been exciting for our kids because they’ve got their attention right away because of who is at those position groups. … There’s some great players, so I think really a unique challenge for all of us.”

 Aren’t they all?

 Purdy will have to be at his best — as he was in the 2019 season opener against the Panthers when he pounced on a fumble to help save the Cyclones from an upset defeat. Same for All-Americans Breece Hall, Charlie Kolar and Mike Rose. Same for everyone else who will contribute for the Cyclones as they embark on their most anticipated season in program history.

 But Purdy helps turn all of those “unique challenges” into springboards to ever-greater heights. Just like that Baylor game, where bad luck and one bad ball sent him on a locker room-based search for answers, which he found in his faith … and himself.

 “Coach (Tom) Manning has been using a term in fall camp — ‘competitive endurance,’” ISU quarterbacks coach Joel Gordon said. “And when you’re challenged physically, mentally, emotionally, there’s a lot of opportunities to be challenged at this position every single play. The second half that he had in the Baylor game and then, if you take that and roll with it for I think it was the next five games or whatever that was, that shows you, man, the guy is extremely tough. And he’s accountable. His teammates know he’s gonna bounce back. I remember being on the phone with him and being in disbelief up in the box as that was happening, like, you’ve got to be kidding me. He got a tipped ball. He got a contested ball and you’ve got a forced ball — and they all went the other way. And we turned it around. It wasn’t just him, but I think the belief that he came out there (with), we hit Chuck (Kolar for a touchdown) early on in the third quarter and there it goes. We were rolling for a long time after that little stretch and I think, man, just the ability to instill that belief in your team is huge, and it showed right there in a really tough stretch.”

 That touchdown pass to Kolar was Purdy’s first of 12 over the final five and a half games of the  2020 season. He threw just three interceptions down the stretch last season — and all of those were confined to the narrow Big 12 title game loss to Oklahoma.

 So it’s game on. Again. Purdy will run out of that tunnel before (finally!) another sellout crowd at Jack Trice Stadium. Same guy as he was as a true freshman third-stringer in 2018, slapping then-starter and now quarterback whisperer Kyle Kempt on the back, just happy to be there. Same guy who made his first start six games later. Same guy who always keeps the faith and through it believes anything is possible.

 Like coming back from a 14-point halftime deficit in that Baylor game, which he called the stage for his biggest growth last season.

 “Obviously, you throw the three picks in the first half, but understanding mentally what I have to do from there: being able to just go out and play the game. Flush it. Have some poise to myself and my game,” Purdy said. “My teammates and everybody are looking at me like, ‘Hey, you’re the guy that we’re supposed to be leaning on and everything through all of this.’ So for me, I feel like I matured a lot in that moment.”