ARLINGTON, Texas — Clint Chelf learned plenty in five years at Oklahoma State. The biggest lesson was on display for all to see with just over a minute to play in Friday’s 41-31 loss to Missouri in the AT&T Cotton Bowl.
Life isn’t fair.
In the middle of the 2012 season, the Oklahoma State quarterback was a junior stuck at No. 3 on the depth chart. Was his time coming? It seemed doubtful with rocket-armed freshman Wes Lunt looking like the program’s future. Chelf was considering a transfer, and sat down with Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy to talk about moving on from Stillwater.
"You never know if you’re right as a coach, but I said ‘Clint, there will be a point at which you’ll wish you didn’t do that,’" Gundy told FOX Sports Southwest outside Oklahoma State’s locker room after the loss. "’I know you don’t want to hear that right now, but you never know when you’re going to be back out there.’"
He stuck it out and got his chance, finishing the season as the Cowboys starter and seemed likely to reclaim the role when Lunt transferred after the spring. But he was relegated to the sidelines early in the season opener and once again had a hard time seeing his career ending anywhere but on the bench.
He got another chance in the middle of the season and carried Oklahoma State to an unlikely 10-win season, highlighted by a 370-yard night against Baylor that put OSU in the driver’s seat for a possible Big 12 title.
"He busts his butt all the time and his demeanor was good. He never acted like a big baby and all that. At times he had limitations and at times he’s real good," Gundy said. "I think the people from Oklahoma State will always have great respect for him and just the way things transpired."
So back to Friday night under the bright lights in the last game of Chelf’s career. You do things the right way, good things should happen, right?
Trailing 34-31, Oklahoma State faced a 3rd-and-7 at Missouri’s 23-yard line. It would have been easy to run the ball, settle for three points and play for overtime. Gundy and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich expressed their trust in Chelf, though. They were going for the win.
"We were going to take a shot at the end zone," Chelf said. "I was trying to get rid of it, about to throw it away. Don’t know what happened."
The SEC Defensive Player of the Year happened. Missouri defensive end Michael Sam caught him from behind, stripping Chelf of the football, which bounced into Shane Ray’s hands. Ray raced 73 yards for the game-sealing touchdown.
That’s not how careers are supposed to end for guys who don’t shake their fists at misfortune and stick around when the depth chart doesn’t look like they want, rather than chase playing time at the expense of their teammates.
"That (play) doesn’t define his career," safety Daytawion Lowe said.
Chelf’s roommate, linebacker Caleb Lavey pulled him aside in the locker room to remind him how proud he was of him.
"You’re disappointed for the young man," Yurcich said. "He wanted to throw the game-winning touchdown, instead of that play."
Gundy met him in the locker room for a handshake and a hug.
"I appreciate young men who compete and don’t throw in the towel, and he had that opportunity," Gundy said. "I think he feels like he did the right thing and people respect him for it, because at the end of the day, we only have that and our character."
The pain of watching Ray coast into the end zone while Sam collapsed to the ground, overcome by the emotion of the moment, will pass in time for Chelf and the rest of his teammates.
"Clint is a guy that the fans and everybody in general can’t make their mind up about," Gundy said. "In most cases, when a guy like that leaves, when something happens the next year, they’ll say they wish we had him back."
This group of Cowboys won 10 games with only one player, cornerback Justin Gilbert, who’s likely to hear his name called early in next May’s NFL Draft.
"Where we were at this year as a group overall, we really overachieved," Gundy said. "We got a lot out of these guys to get to double digit wins. That’s just a fact."
For now, the memory of a fumble that took with it the chance for an exclamation point on a season and the end of a five-game losing streak for the Big 12 in the Cotton Bowl is fresh. Oklahoma State’s senior class won’t boast four bowl wins in four years, including a Fiesta Bowl.
Life wasn’t fair for Chelf on this night. He deserved better. Even Gundy admitted his career ending like it did was "probably" unfair.
"People don’t want to hear it, but it’s the greatest teaching tool there is. Adversity makes all of us stronger," Gundy said. "I know I can’t change what just happened."
As the pages of the calendar flip, so will what’s seemed like crummy luck for a kid from Enid, Oklahoma who seemed to handle every bad break the right way.
"He’s going to be very popular in the state of Oklahoma," Gundy said. "Whatever he chooses to do, he’s going to be successful."