“That’s Brock Purdy”: His ‘underdog’ mentality, love for Iowa State and how he learned to play without fear

Brock Purdy feature Gridiron 2021 Final.jpg

Matt Belinson

Brock Purdy has always wanted to give people something to smile about.

It’s just how he’s been raised. He’s lived in the service of others, growing up in a Christian household where the idea of self-sacrifice and making people around you better was at the core of everything his parents taught him. Shawn Purdy, his father, always told his boys, Brock and Chubba, to focus on one task at a time to make sure you give your all to what you’re trying to accomplish. For Brock, his goal at Perry High School was simple: Bring joy back to his community on the football field. And he never flinched from delivering on his mission. Shawn watched as his son worked to sacrifice for his teammates, coaches and community. And when the tide finally turned and Perry began to win, Brock’s excitement wasn’t directed at how many yards he threw for or if scouts showed up that night. He wanted to make sure the fans had something they could be proud of again.

“In high school we had barely anyone show up to the games and then they started winning, he would come home and be like, ‘Hey Dad, were there lots of people in the stands tonight? It looked packed,’” Shawn said. “He wanted the people at Perry to smile and have something to celebrate. And that’s how he’s approached Iowa State.”

That mission has followed Brock on his journey to Ames, pushing him to get better day-by-day in hopes of leading the Cyclones to a Big 12 Championship. And maybe even further than that.

This is the story of how Brock Purdy fell in love with the Cyclones, how he changed the trajectory of a starving program to enter his senior season as the best quarterback in Iowa State history — all while hoping to put a smile on the faces of Cyclone fans along the way.

‘Dad, this is the guy.’

Brock Purdy stood on his deck on the phone in Gilbert, Arizona, in the winter (by Arizona standards) of 2018 for what Shawn Purdy remembered feeling like forever. Iowa State, more specifically, Matt Campbell, was on the line.

Just a few minutes before the call, Brock got a text from one of his high school coaches telling him Iowa State would be reaching out shortly.

For Brock, this phone call came at a time when his recruiting process was going through a complete whiplash of interest from the Power Five level. His best Division I offers going into his senior year at Perry High School included Big Sky Conference members like the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks and UC Davis Aggies, along with Mountain West schools UNLV and New Mexico. After he led the Pumas to unprecedented success in the 2017 season with a 12-2 record all the way to the 6A State Championship, Perry would lose in the title game 49-42.

But bigger schools began to notice. 16 days after the state championship, Boise State offered. Three days after that, Kansas entered the mix. Over the next month and a half, Brock would be flooded with offers from UCF, Iowa State, Illinois, Texas A&M and Alabama.

So when Campbell came calling, Brock was trying to figure out what his next step would be.

It would take less than a full phone call to give him the direction he needed.

When Campbell and Brock began talking, Shawn could tell there was a comfortability in Brock’s voice. The two were going back and forth about the style of football they liked and the process of how things could work out in Ames. Campbell was selling the vision. Brock was lining up to buy in. Shawn watched as his son talked through life and football with Campbell on their deck for that unspecified eternity and noticed he was coming back into the house from the deck still on the phone.

“Brock came in [from the patio] and as it started to wind down, he muted the phone and said, ‘Dad, this is the guy,’” Shawn said. “And I told him, ‘He sounds like it,’ but also, ‘OK, but we still have to be thorough.’ After that phone conversation, he moved another school’s visit back and bumped up Iowa State and then they came here sooner than we planned.”

“Nobody could penetrate the relationship they had. Nobody had a chance.”

Brock could feel Campbell’s passion through the speaker and could see the breakthroughs he was making in Ames. Brock remembered Campbell talking about Kyle Kempt’s heroics down in Norman, Oklahoma, vs the Sooners in the 2017 season and how the tide was slowly but surely turning towards the Cyclones. No pitches about bling. No boasting about history or names on a wall. All he had was a vision and a culture Brock could become a part of. It was exactly what he wanted in his new home.

“I wanted to do something where society looks at it and says, ‘There’s no way,’ and that’s what I could hear in his vision,” Brock said. “I muted it and I said, ‘Dad, we gotta find where Iowa is.’”

Shawn had never been to Iowa before the family came for their official visit to Ames in January 2018. But he could tell right away Ames and the Cyclones were intertwined. There was no doubt about it.

On some of Brock’s visits, Shawn and Brock would agree that some campuses didn’t seem to know football existed, tossing it off to the side and making it feel like an add-on coming to that school. That wasn’t the case for Iowa State.

“I’ve always told the kids, ‘Find a place where that team is the heartbeat of the town,’” Shawn said.

When Brock came to Ames, he could feel in his heart he had made the right choice. He loved the nostalgic look of campus. It felt like a college-town should feel. Campbell showed him and his family around the field, toured facilities and partnered him with Colin Newell as his player host for the visit.

Iowa State pairs a recruit with a current player on their official visit to get a sense if that recruit would fit in the culture and vision of the program. Newell and Purdy connected right away, with the then-redshirt sophomore helping Brock find a church in Ames to attend. The duo talked openly about growing the Cyclones’ program together.

“In my life, I haven’t been the strongest or maybe the most talented on the field, so I’ve always treated myself like I’m the underdog,” Brock said. “I could tell Iowa State was the underdog in the Big 12, not really respected yet.”

“I wanted to come here and earn that respect.”

The next day, Brock and his family stayed in Ames to attend a men’s basketball game against No.8 Texas Tech inside Hilton Coliseum with 14,000-strong in attendance. The Cyclones would go on to take down the Red Raiders 70-52.

But what Brock and his dad remembered about that game was how Cyclone fans were showing them how loyal they were more than they realized. At the time, Iowa State was 11-7 on the season, but Shawn remembered nothing was keeping ‘Hilton Magic’ quiet that night.

“Brock turned to me and said, ‘These people show up no matter what,’ and I had goosebumps,” Shawn said.

The experience in Hilton gave Brock more time to look back on how loyal Iowa State fans have been in previous seasons for basketball and football. The records didn’t matter, outcomes or losing streaks, Cyclone fans had their teams’ back. And as cheesy as it might sound, Brock wanted to give them something to believe in on the football field. All Brock wanted was to find the place where he could be the best version of himself. He knew no other school on his radar would offer the same impact.

“Was it going to be Alabama where I get caught up in big-time recruits coming in behind me or winning a national title every year? I didn’t think it was the place for me,” Brock said.

Shawn said he and the rest of Brock’s family didn’t put any pressure on him in his decision. But after the visit to Ames, Shawn said Brock had his mind made up. That said, he made him go on other official visits he had scheduled to at least see what was out there. But it was clear what Brock wanted.

“We could tell on our other visits that Brock was thinking about Iowa State,” Shawn said. “He wanted them to be over so he could get back to chatting with the Iowa State coaches.”

Looking back on his recruitment process, Brock remembers that he never budged from Campbell and the idea of being a part of something bigger than himself. The visits to Alabama and Texas A&M were nice, sure, but didn’t offer what he was interested in. Visits were scheduled with other schools and more offers would come, but it was already over.

“When we were going through the recruiting process, I told [Campbell], ‘Man, when you called me I could just tell right in that moment this is where I wanted to be no matter what, where I needed to be and you’re the guy I want to play for,’” Brock said.

He was sold from the first phone call, but Brock cemented his commitment to the Cyclones on his official visit to some of the coordinators as well. Everything after Iowa State was a formality at this point.

“I remember I was talking with Coach [Tom] Manning and Coach [Taylor] Mouser and I told them, ‘I’m coming here for sure. I just have to go on these other visits just to see,’’ Brock said. “But I knew from the moment I stepped foot on campus that this would be my home.”

Flash-forward to February 2018 and Brock’s decision was unknown to everyone in Arizona as his signing day approached. Well, almost everyone.

Outside of Brock’s parents, Jennifer Burks was the only person who knew what school Brock would pick at his signing day in February 2018. Burks, the Perry High School athletic director since 2011, got to be in on the state secret because her office needed to have a sign prepared for Brock’s table at the signing ceremony. She could sense the anticipation was growing by the day in and outside the school.

She couldn’t remember if an athlete before Purdy had generated as much buzz leading up to their college decision, but said the process was as fun as she can remember.

“We knew and everybody had to keep it totally quiet,” Burks said. “And we were sworn to secrecy, believe me.”

Burks said keeping hush-hush was hard when predictions were flying left and right in meetings and hallways, but she was curious to hear what people thought leading up to the ceremony.

Some thought Alabama was the leader based on its high profile, or that an Iowa State or Texas A&M could swoop in and be his pick. Burks remembers what people thought about the potential of a Purdy and Iowa State connection.

“Iowa State was the choice where people went, ‘Man if he goes there, that will be the place where he’ll really be able to shine,’” Burks said.

Trajectory changed

3rd down and 8. Iowa State sits on its own 36 yard line. 10:36 left in the 2021 Playstation Fiesta Bowl. History is on the line for the Cyclones as they hold a 31-17 lead.

Brock Purdy takes the snap and faces pressure right up the middle and in his face within two seconds of getting the ball. Oregon defensive lineman Brandon Dorlus forces his way up the middle on a stunt concept, but offensive lineman Colin Newell chips him at the last moment to give his quarterback a chance to escape the collapsing line around him.

Purdy tries to look left and see if he can take it up field, but three Ducks stare him down. He quickly pivots and darts to his right side, with wide open space, all while trying to bait defenders.

He tries to pause for a brief moment to try and set himself to look downfield. But Oregon defensive end Kayvon Thibodeaux is giving chase. The potential top-five pick in the 2022 NFL Draft for the Ducks next season isn’t stopping. Neither can Purdy now.

The Cyclones need a first down to essentially ice the game away. Thibodeaux, the Pac 12 Championship MVP and the No.1 high school recruit in the 2019 class, begins the chase toward the pylon with the Cyclones’ signal-caller. As the distance between them closes, Purdy leaves his feet, diving for the first down marker, flying into the Oregon sideline. First down Iowa State.

The drive would end in a Connor Assalley 39-yard field goal to give Iowa State a three-possession advantage at 34-17 with 6:11 left. That kick would prove to be the eventual final score to cap off a historic season in Ames.

And Purdy was right in the center of it.

But when he was asked about that play post-game, Campbell didn’t offer shock or amazement. He said that was signature Brock Purdy.

“Without Brock Purdy there’s no Fiesta Bowl, there’s no Iowa State,” Campbell said postgame after the Cyclones’ 34-17 victory over Oregon. “We are who we are because of the leadership and the character and the humility of Brock Purdy.”

“When I watch that play, that will be the play that I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. And him straining in a critical moment to get the first down when all odds are against him, that’s Brock Purdy.”

Long before he would leave his feet and lunge to get that pivotal first down, before he would share or own 25 school records (with more in his sights entering his senior season), Brock Purdy was waiting for his chance.

Iowa State’s starter Kyle Kempt faced an injury in the first game of the 2018 season against Iowa, giving the starting quarterback duties to backup Zeb Noland. Noland would start in the next three contests vs Oklahoma, Akron and TCU where he would put up decent numbers but only to the tune of one win during the stretch.

Brock Purdy wouldn’t have to wait much longer.

Oct. 6, 2018. Stillwater, Oklahoma. The Cyclones are facing the No.25 Oklahoma State Cowboys, staring at an 0-2 record in the Big 12 and have to face a team they’d lost to in their last four matchups. Noland would play in one series for the Cyclones totaling three plays. Brock knew change was coming at some point that day. He made sure not to waste the opportunity.

“That week, Coach [Campbell] told me I was going to get in, and I didn’t really overthink it, I just went with it,” Purdy said reflecting on his first game as a starter back in October of last season. “When my opportunity came, I just went out and played football and kept it simple.”

The true freshman had taken two collegiate snaps before entering the game in Stillwater on that October afternoon, both of which were runs. But he let his arm do most of the work in his first collegiate start. Purdy would go 18-23 with 318 yards and four touchdowns on the way to a 48-42 Iowa State win, marking the beginning of a new era of quarterback play for the Cyclones. Iowa State would go on to win seven of the last eight games in the 2018 season, setting the stage for Brock and the Cyclones to carry the momentum of 2018 into the future.

And come Sept. 4 against Northern Iowa in Jack Trice Stadium, he’ll enter his senior season with his name etched in the program’s history books.

His arrival onto the scene in 2018 earned himself Big 12 True Freshman Year, one of many awards he’d end up adding to his resume. Brock earned First Team All-Big 12 honors in 2020, along with being named the Fiesta Bowl Offensive MVP. Brock enters his senior year first in touchdown passes (62) in program history, first in touchdowns responsible (80), first in quarterback wins (23), second in passing yards (8,982), second in completions (701) and second in total offense (9,921).

Brock’s First Team All-Big 12 distinction made him the first Cyclone quarterback to earn first team all-conference honors since John Quinn in 1981. Since Purdy has taken over as starter, Iowa State has averaged 430.6 yards of total offense (14,641) and 32.1 points (1,094). Success and national attention came quickly for Brock when he got his chance in 2018 and it grew even louder as he grew into his role in 2019 as he was flying through records.

But with success comes noise. And most of the noise includes expectations and a perceived burden to perform.

As the 2020 season approached, it became tougher and tougher for him to ignore it forever.

‘You almost saw a weight lifted off his shoulders.’

Brock Purdy has tried all his life to ignore the noise – good and bad.

His dad’s message to focus on what you can control has been in his mind since he stepped foot on campus and became one of the faces of Iowa State athletics.

“I’ve taught the boys to focus on one task at a time.” “You’re no good to anyone or to yourself when you think too far down the road,” Shawn said.

But playing quarterback comes with baggage. Win, and success is put on your shoulders. Lose, and questions begin to swirl about whether you can be the one to lead the team to victory — combine that with a program starving for a winner like Iowa State and a sense of hype enters the conversation.

Brock’s rise to the starting quarterback came with never-before-seen production in Ames, leading to his name being included on NFL draft boards, social media bombardments and in the constant admiration of the fans he loves so much. But as he entered the 2020 season, it all became too much.

“Going into my junior year with all that hype, the human part of me listened to it. I knew it wasn’t the best, but when you’re on these draft boards, and you’re being talked about as being the best quarterback in school history, I got caught up in what I didn’t want to focus on,” Brock said.

Shawn said Brock puts so much of everything on himself on the field, never wanting to be the reason for disappointing fans. When you put that much pressure on yourself to win for them, you lose sight of the joy of the game.

As Brock listened to the noise entering his junior season, his production wasn’t up to his normal standards. Through his first six games, Brock had the lowest completion percentage of his career (61.9) and had five touchdowns to three interceptions. He needed to realize he didn’t need to do it all on his own — that greatness is a collective effort.

“The thing I saw last year with Brock is, man, you want to be so great so bad that you paralyze yourself because you don’t want to screw it up and I think what I saw Brock really do a great job in November is say, ‘Hey, listen, I don’t have to do everything,” Campbell said. “All I gotta do is do my job, my responsibilities and do a great job of it and if I can do that we’re going to be a really good football team.”

Brock would get his wakeup call when Iowa State played Baylor on Nov. 7. His second pass of the game was intercepted, a preview of what would be a not-so-great first half for the junior. Brock would throw two more interceptions before halftime, walking into the locker room down 21-10 with a stat-line of 7-13 passing for 63 yards and three interceptions.

As he sat in the locker room, he made a change to play like he’s just having fun.

“I’ve seen him start to enjoy the moment and God bless him for being so business-like, but I would say about midway through last year from there forward, he’s having more fun and enjoying the moment,” Shawn said.

It was the second time in his career Brock had thrown three interceptions. It was rock-bottom for the accomplished leader of the Cyclones. But Campbell could see Brock was ready to respond as soon as the second half began. And what he did after left Campbell in awe.

“You almost saw a weight lifted off his shoulders,” Campbell said. “Sometimes you gotta hit rock-bottom situationally and the rock-bottom situation was there’s three turnovers in the first half of the Baylor game. How do you respond to that? And I think that showed everything about who Brock Purdy is. And then really what he did from there on is borderline incredible.”

The incredible bounce-back started on Iowa State’s opening drive of the half against the Bears, where Purdy went 2-2 passing with a 22-yard touchdown pass to Charlie Kolar. He’d found himself again.

Brock would go 10-13 in the second half for 114 yards and three touchdowns, helping lead the Cyclones back to a 38-31 victory. From that point on, Brock began to enjoy the game again. No pressure to perform like the world was on his shoulders. No NFL Draft talk. Just passion.

“I went back to a high school game of mine on film and I just saw the passion and I was like, ‘That’s Brock Purdy right there,’” Brock said. “I needed to be that guy again.”

The final five games of his junior year saw that change in attitude and approach translate into better production to the tune of nine touchdowns and three interceptions. Brock was playing free again, without fear of playing like the Heisman trophy was on the line every snap. He closed out 2020 with a victory in the Fiesta Bowl and earned Fiesta Bowl Offensive MVP honors in his home state of Arizona, closing the chapter on the best season in program history.

But 2021 is here now. As the Cyclones enter the season with sky-high expectations, a top-10 preseason ranking and Brock closes out his journey at Iowa State, is there anything left for the senior to prove? He’s got the records. He’s defied the doubters. He’s helped make Iowa State into a winner.

But one question remains that he still is waiting to completely answer: What will his legacy be? In his eyes, before the story of the 2021 season is written, he already knows what he wants to be remembered for.

“I would just want it to be that I went to a school where people said it wasn’t going to work,” Purdy said. “I showed everybody that you can win by doing what’s right. This school, Coach Campbell and everybody else does it the right way.”

“At Iowa State, we take what we have and we make it great.”