Graduating to stardom: After a semester in Stillwater, OSU's next QB Wes Lunt gets a diploma
BY KELLY HINES World Sports Writer
Monday, May 28, 2012
5/29/12 at 5:00 PM
Kelly Hines on the OSU Blog: Wes Lunt's high school coach: 'He’s Brandon Weeden'
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - On Sunday afternoon on the campus of the University of Illinois-Springfield, the 163 members of Rochester High School's Class of 2012 reflected on the past and looked ahead to the future.
Valedictorian Cameron Monari will attend Liberty University in Virginia and plans to become an anesthesiologist. Another senior, Dylan Shomidie, won a national art award and will soon display his work in an exhibit at Carnegie Hall.
And then there's Wes Lunt, who seems destined to become the most well-known Rochester alumnus. Somewhere between being crowned homecoming king and attending his senior prom, he was named starting quarterback at Oklahoma State University.
"Who knows - maybe in a few years someone sitting here will be in New York on national television, waiting for his name to be called to receive a trophy that looks like this," Monari said during his commencement speech, striking the Heisman pose while another classmate held up an orange No. 11 OSU football jersey next to him.
The audience laughed and Lunt blushed, surprised by the spotlight.
In fewer than 100 days, Lunt is expected to put on his No. 11 jersey and make Cowboy history as the first true-freshman quarterback to open the season as starter, the reward of a difficult decision to leave high school a semester early.
"If you could go back, what would you change?" class president Aspen Williams asked her fellow seniors. "You can't change it no matter how much you want to, or how much you try.
"Besides, you wouldn't want to change it. You are who you are today because of each of those defining moments from the past."
A competitive drive
Just outside Springfield in central Illinois, Rochester is a community of about 3,300 people and two square miles, where everyone knows everyone and a handwritten note on a gas-station newspaper bin reminds patrons that taking extras prevents the owner from feeding her kids.
For more than 20 years, the Lunt family has lived around the corner from the high school in a picturesque two-story white house that was built in the 1880s and is bursting with charm. More than a dozen old-fashioned cross-stitched phrases like "Home Sweet Home" adorn the kitchen walls.
Andy and Jane Lunt are down-to-earth and hospitable enough to welcome a stranger into their home but seemingly even less comfortable with attention than their quiet 18-year-old son, who adhered staunchly to OSU's policy of first-year players being off-limits to media, to the point that he looked away before meeting eyes with a reporter.
A 52-year-old convenience-store general manager, Andy is a lifelong Rochester resident and one of the top basketball scorers in school history. He's very involved in the town, from fundraisers to blood drives, as evidenced by the blue bandage on his arm.
Jane, also 52, is a regional medical-lab director who grew up on a farm in Virden, about 30 miles away. They met on a softball field and passed on a love of sports to their three children.
Anne, a 24-year-old nurse, was a standout softball pitcher in high school and at Springfield's Lincoln Land Community College, where her dad played basketball. Wil, 22, is the all-time leading career passer in Illinois high school history and is vying to become starting quarterback as a senior at Western Illinois.
"We're the most competitive family in the world," Andy Lunt said. "It's nuts. Everything is a competition."
When the kids were growing up and their parents would have to take separate vehicles to church because of their schedules, there was always a race home.
Wes (short for Weston) inherited his father's basketball skills, and like most boys who grew up in the 1990s idolized Michael Jordan.
"He was always running around with a ball," Jane Lunt said. "He'd throw it against the wall and break the plaster, and we'd have to replaster certain areas of our house."
As Wil was becoming a talented football player, the Lunts enrolled Wes in youth football as a first-grader. He played that season but not again until eighth grade.
"He didn't have a bad experience his first-grade year," his dad said, "but being parent of the year, I probably forced him into something he wasn't ready for."
Said his brother: "I just didn't think he wanted to play football when he was little. I always loved football; he always loved basketball."
Turning on with a switch
Rochester doesn't exactly have a tradition-rich football history. The high school didn't field a varsity team until 1996, making it younger than most of last season's players. Derek Leonard, son of an Illinois high school coaching legend, took over the program in 2005 and has developed it into a quarterback mecca - one of the biggest contributors to his success.
A former QB, Leonard has always had an eye for talent at the position. At Rochester, his first pupil was Wil, and three more Division I quarterbacks followed: Sean Robinson (Purdue), Riley McMinn (Iowa) and then Wes.
But before Wes evolved into a nearly 6-foot-5, 200-pound scoring machine, he was a short kid playing back-up quarterback in junior high and also was used at wide receiver.
"He was not a receiver in any sense," Leonard said during an interview in his office inside the $5.5 million athletic complex, which was completed in 2010.
"We ended up changing (the quarterback and receiver) as freshmen. Everyone was kind of like, 'What are you doing?' "
The quarterback, Zach Grant, became a wideout, and the move benefited him as much as it did Wes. Last season, he led the nation in receiving yards (2,310) and will continue his career at St. Ambrose in Iowa.
While capturing Class 4A state titles in 2010 and 2011, the Lunt-to-Grant chemistry was as potent as what Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon shared in Stillwater.
"It was unreal," said Grant, one of Wes' lifelong best friends. "Freshman through senior years, he progressed as I did, so we both just kind of had that connection.
"It didn't matter what I'd run or what he wanted to throw, it was always there where I could catch it."
A lucky Cowboy break
Wes was always a starting shooting guard on Rochester's basketball teams, but once he got into high school, football became a priority, simply because of his startling talent.
After throwing for 3,136 yards and 30 touchdowns with only four interceptions as a junior, his recruiting escalated. Offers came from Illinois, Boston College, Iowa, Michigan State, Wisconsin and others.
"It really should have been bigger than it was," Leonard said. "He is the best I've ever seen. He should have been one of the top three best in the nation.
"(When people) came to watch him, they'd look at you after three throws and say, 'Oh my gosh.' "
OSU rarely recruits in that region - no native of the Prairie State has played for head coach Mike Gundy - but offensive coordinator Todd Monken heard from his brother, a high school coach in Illinois, about a legitimate pro-style quarterback in his home state and came to see for himself.
"Oklahoma State in a way got lucky," Leonard said. "I don't know if they would have heard about him if he didn't have that connection. Coach Monken really got the process started. Once he came and saw him, it was a no-brainer."
Said Andy Lunt: "With coach Monken, that was an instant fit. When we got to know coach Gundy, he was top-notch as far as we were concerned. And the system was kind of the same as what they were using here."
As the Lunts visited schools, they made a pro and con list for each. After driving to Stillwater last May, they didn't discover many cons.
"It felt like home even though it was eight hours from where we are," Jane Lunt said. "I just had a good feeling about the town, the university. We were just very comfortable with everything we saw and the people we met."
Wes verbally committed a few weeks later.
Choosing an early exit/entrance
Later that summer, Wes broke his right foot during a workout. He missed the first four weeks of the season but returned to lead the Rockets to another title, throwing for more than 500 yards in the championship game.
The following week, the entire Lunt family attended OSU's 44-10 Bedlam victory in Stillwater - an "unbelievable" experience, Andy Lunt said. During the visit, Cowboy coaches asked Wes about enrolling in January and going through spring drills.
The Lunts were aware of the possibility, and Wes was taking an extra class in case he decided to leave early. But it would mean giving up his final season of basketball and the remainder of his time with his high school friends.
"We supported whatever he wanted to do," Andy Lunt said. "I think he understood that he was going to get an opportunity to compete.
"He's a bright kid. He knows those kinds of opportunities at that level don't come along that often."
The potential payoff was too good to pass up, and several days after Christmas, Wes had his decision made. But before leaving, he wanted one final memory. He got baptized alongside his brother and sister at Rochester Christian Church, where they have always attended, with only family and closest friends there.
"I think Wes wanted to do something as a family before he left," Anne Lunt said. "It was just something that we did, the kids together."
Two days later, the Lunts moved Wes to Stillwater.
"It was such an awesome opportunity, and I wanted him to feel excited about it," Jane Lunt said. "We didn't ever get teary-eyed."
As a teenager living in an unfamiliar place, Wes got homesick. Many weekends, he would meet his parents halfway - at their second home, a two-bedroom condo at the Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri.
"I think that helped him a lot," his mom said. "It didn't seem that far."
Soon, spring football arrived, and as the new kid in town, Wes getting the nod over junior Clint Chelf and redshirt freshman J.W. Walsh seemed like a long shot. He's a decade younger than Brandon Weeden, the soon-to-be NFL starter he was trying to replace.
"To be in that offense and win the job after 15 practices, you'd have to be so exceptional and smart," his high school coach said.
But on April 26, the announcement was made in an OSU release: "Lunt Named Starting Quarterback." Wes called to tell his parents, and minutes after, it was national news, on the ESPN ticker and a worldwide trend on Twitter.
Looking to the future
Days later, Wes was back in Rochester for prom with Megan Eifert, his girlfriend of three years and a cheerleader who will attend the University of Missouri. In addition to being homecoming king and queen, the couple recently were named Mr. and Miss Rochester High through senior voting.
In the weeks since coming home from college, Wes has grown especially close with his brother while the pair has been working out together in preparation for their respective seasons.
This fall is when life will really get hectic for the Lunts, especially with their family rule that at least one parent will attend each son's games. Plus they are bracing for the publicity that will inevitably come with Wes' college career.
"It's unreal to think he's my little brother," Anne Lunt said. "He's a normal kid here and then he goes down there, it's like he's a big star.
"It makes me really proud, but I can't imagine being Wes. It's overwhelming for us, let alone him."
Even in Illinois, Wes has become a bit of a hometown hero. Scheels, a sporting-goods store in Springfield, recently added a selection of Cowboy apparel. But the notoriety brings hype and high expectations.
"I just don't want him to feel too much pressure," Jane Lunt said. "But he's handled pressure. Not that this is the same level, but when he came into high school, his brother had just set the state passing record.
"He was under the gun from the get-go, being compared to his brother. And because he hadn't played very much, I think there were some doubters."
Said Leonard: "As long as people are patient his first year, they're going to have something special. I truly believe that (he'll play in the NFL). He's that kind of player."
From here, Wes will go on a road trip with some of his buddies and hang around Rochester before returning to campus for summer workouts.
"He's had a lot of success," said Mike Jakaitis, Wes' pastor and father of one of his good friends. "It would be really easy for that to go to his head, and it hasn't.
"When he was over the other day, he was the same Wes. I see him as somebody who's grown into a great young man, but he's still stayed the same. He's still Wes."
And to his classmates Sunday, he was a normal kid - cracking jokes with friends during the ceremony and making sure he was the first one to throw his cap into the air.
"No one can fully predict what will happen in the years, weeks or even hours from the closing of this ceremony," said Monari, the valedictorian. "But what is certain is that we have been well-prepared to go out into the world, ready to take on any challenge that is placed upon us."
Original Print Headline: Graduating to stardom
Kelly Hines 918-581-8452
Wes Lunt looks on at his graduation from Rochester (Ill.) High School on Sunday. Lunt, a true freshman, has been named OSU's starting quarterback. DARYL WILSON / for the Tulsa World
First-grader Wes Lunt poses for a photo during his only season playing youth football. Lunt family/Courtesy
Wes Lunt, pictured at graduation Sunday in Springfield, Ill., is expected to become the first true-freshman quarterback to open the season as starter at OSU this fall. DARYL WILSON / for the Tulsa World
Wes Lunt (left) and parents Jane and Andy Lunt pose with Rochester's two state-championship trophies. Lunt family / Courtesy
Wes Lunt (right) will be the first Illinois native to play for Oklahoma State head football coach Mike Gundy. Lunt family / Courtesy
Days after being named OSU's starting QB, Wes Lunt took girlfriend Megan Eifert to their prom. Lunt family / Courtesy