BOULDER – This was the season Connor Wood had worked for, dreamed of, when he left the University of Texas three years ago. He had earned the starting quarterback job at his new school – Colorado – and earned enough respect from his teammates to become one of their captains.
It was all good . . . until suddenly it wasn’t.
Five games after being so efficient in the Buffs opener, passing for 400 yards and three touchdowns against Colorado State, Wood was pulled in the first quarter against Arizona State after four incompletions for zero yards and one interception.
True freshman Sefo Liufau replaced him, and if Liufau’s overall improvement and command of the offense continue to track in their current direction, Wood might not start again.
But that doesn’t mean he’s stopped working, caring, believing. Still, the pain of being pulled midway through the first quarter on the night of Oct. 12 in Tempe, Ariz., is difficult to push away.
“Initially, it was really tough on me,” he told me after Thursday’s practice. “When you’re a fourth-year guy and you’ve been with the other guys a few years, building up to this . . . it still hurts.”
But here’s what you need to know about Wood: regardless if the anguish lingers for a while, there will be no bitterness. At times the pain of losing his starting job overshadows the euphoria he experienced after CU’s 41-27 opening win against CSU.
In that game, he said, “I saw the fruit of my labor. I had been working for so long, especially through the off-season. We had worked so hard and I think I had done so much individually to be ready for this season and for that opener at Mile High. For us to get that ‘W’ in the fashion that we did, I had a special feeling and I’ll always have it.”
If he lost his starting job, his captain’s role and its responsibilities weren’t touched. He’s been stand-up enough to mentor Liufau, who celebrated his 19th birthday on Tuesday, in whatever ways he can and serve in the leadership role bestowed on him last summer.
“It’s really important for me not to be negative or try to isolate myself . . . I have to be positive for the team and for Sefo especially,” Wood said. “As a young guy, it’s important for him to have my support – and I think he feels that. That’s how we’re going to get better as a team – if we’re supportive of each other, even if we’re competing for each other’s positions we have to know we’re all on one team. We all have one vision that we’re going for.”
Wood has a strong Christian faith, which he has leaned on during the past four weeks “to keep me upright, coming to practice, to Dal Ward and be positive. God has given me that strength. My career here has been up and down. He’s been the only constant in my life. That’s awesome to say. He’s been that foundation, that rock, when the good stuff happens like against CSU or when I’m pulled out of a game He’s always there.”
That he was pulled for Liufau didn’t hit Wood like a lightning strike. Wood knew his passing accuracy was tailing off and his interceptions were mounting. After a pick-free performance in the opener, he threw two interceptions in each of the next three games and his seventh in four games against ASU. His six-game completion percentage – the Buffs have played seven – is 53.2, compared to Liufau’s 62.8 percent in three games (two starts).
“I wasn’t very good in my accuracy,” Wood said. “Look at the numbers. I can see that. I was hurt by getting pulled out, but from a coach’s standpoint I can see the reasoning. I needed to play better. The quarterback position is such an important position. Coach (Mike MacIntyre) mentioned to me that we needed a spark, something else to get us going. Sefo, on his first drive (at ASU), we scored a touchdown. That was good to see.”
Early on, MacIntyre told the Buffs that personnel decisions would be made “for the good of the team,” Wood said. Some outsiders have expressed opinions that the plug was pulled too soon on Wood, but he isn’t going there. “As a player you have to be supportive of that coaching,” he said. “Whether you agree with it or not, you respect it and remain supportive.”
Having already conceded that being benched hurt, I asked Wood if it was difficult to come to grips with MacIntyre’s decision. He answered: “It really wasn’t. This is my third fall here and I felt like I had been a leader in whatever capacity or role I had through the good times and the bad. I have tried to be a team guy with coach (Jon) Embree or with coach MacIntyre. Whatever’s gone on, the decisions they make, I’ve tried to be a guy that unifies the team, no matter if it’s a good decision for you or whatever. It wasn’t that difficult. I’ve been doing this for quite a while – being a team guy.”
Wood’s position coach, Brian Lindgren, can identify with every emotion Wood is experiencing. Lindgren, also CU’s offensive coordinator, was an All-Sun Belt Conference quarterback as a junior at Idaho, then lost his starting job before the opener of his senior season to Mike Harrington, the younger brother of Joey Harrington. Idaho’s coaches, Lindgren said, decided to open the QB competition that spring. The duel continued through August camp and Lindgren finished second – simple as that.
But “four or five games” into the 2003 season, said Lindgren, another QB change was made and he returned as the starter. Of course, that story has been shared with Wood, although the dynamics of this QB scenario appear to be different. Nevertheless, the bottom line for Lindgren then and Wood now is this: Stay ready.
Said Lindgren: “I told Connor to keep working, keep the right attitude and when the time comes again, take advantage of it.”
Lindgren did, and is glad now he can look back and say with certainty that he remained engaged in all that was going on. “I always look back at that and thought I was really pleased with the way I handled it . . . I kind of went out the right way, kind of left everything on the field and was satisfied with that,” he said.
“You can look back years down the road and say, ‘What if I had handled that differently?’ I wouldn’t have felt good about that, and that’s what I told (Wood). I said, ‘Be ready, anything can happen.’ He’s done a nice job of keeping prepared. He’s handled it with class and he’s shown up for work every day in the meeting room and in practice. He’s doing everything just like he was the starter. He’s still a captain; he’s taken that leadership role on and I respect the way he’s responded.”
Since Liufau took over, Lindgren has used Wood on the sidelines as another set of eyes to recognize defenses and relay that to Liufau. “He’s got experience, so when Sefo comes off (the field) he and Connor talk about what he’s seeing out there, the game plan and what we’re looking to do the next series,” Lindgren said. “I think he’s done a nice job of helping (Liufau) get prepared.”
Wood doesn’t see an option to staying engaged, nor is he searching for one. Sure, he’s disappointed that the dream ended so abruptly. But he’s been resilient enough, responsible enough, to put himself second – which in itself should be a personal victory.
“You have to be prepared,” he said. “All this stuff – I’d say it’s a trial for me – would be in vain if I wasn’t ready when the time came again. There’s no time for whining. I’m definitely going to get better from it.”