OSU football: Why Shane Illingworth is going from a cowboy to a Cowboy
NORCO, Calif. — The man flipping hamburgers at the booster club fundraiser sported a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, a handle-bar mustache and a scruffy salt-and-pepper goatee. He looked like he stepped off the set of an old-time western movie.
Such things are possible when you’re in Southern California.
But in Norco, the cowboys are real.
Sitting in the Temescal Mountains east of Los Angeles, the city of 27,063 proudly proclaims to have more horses than people. It even adopted the nickname Horsetown USA. Sidewalks are few. Horse trails abound.
“It’s about as rural as you’re gonna find in Southern California,” Norco High School football coach Chuck Chastain said.
Into this real-life western steps Shane Illingworth. He’s one of the few in town who doesn’t own a horse — he’d be too tall for most equines anyway — so he isn’t exactly a cowboy.
But he is a Cowboy.
Illingworth is the big-time quarterback recruit who has verbally committed to Oklahoma State. Being from SoCal and looking like a surfer — sandy blond hair and tattoos blanketing his left arm — some might wonder how the California kid ended up in Oklahoma. Sure, the offense fits his field-stretching abilities, but he comes from a place that isn’t all that different than Stillwater.
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Turns out, that isn’t his only connection either.
“I have family out there an hour away in almost every direction,” Illingworth said as he stood on the field after a recent game at Norco High. “My whole mom’s side of the family was from Oklahoma. They came out here, but most of my mom’s side of the family is out there.”
His grandmother’s family is from Perry while his grandfather’s is from Lindsay. He’s got an uncle who lives in Mustang, but other family is spread over the state.
“I’ve been there since I was a little boy,” Illingworth said of family visits to Oklahoma. “I’ve been there more than 20 times probably.
“Oklahoma’s a second home.”
Along the way, Illingworth started watching OSU. He rattles off names of past players and remembers details from earlier seasons as if he had grown up a Cowboy fan living in Nowata instead of Norco.
When Illingworth goes looking for comparisons for his game, he even lands on a Cowboy, Mason Rudolph.
“Obviously, he’s his own player and we have our own different traits,” Illingworth said, “but as far as deep-ball accuracy and deep-ball mentality, I think we both want the home run.”
A hit is what Illingworth has been at Norco.
After his freshman year at Centennial High in nearby Corona, his coach left so Illingworth transferred to Villa Park, about half an hour west. He split time as a sophomore, then decided to transfer again. He landed at Norco, and the coaches knew right away they had a big-time player.
“The day he walked in the door,” Chastain said of seeing Illingworth’s Power 5 potential.
Norco, after all, has had its share of major-college talent. Its alums include Toby Gerhart, the former Stanford running back who finished second in the 2009 Heisman Trophy balloting, and the Dye brothers at Oregon. Troy is a linebacker who leads the Ducks in tackles while Travis is a running back who leads the team in all-purpose yards.
Illingworth has become the face of the program. Last year as a junior, he threw for 2,739 yards, 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions. This season, he’s been even better. Through only six games, he has already thrown for 2,058 yards, 27 touchdowns and only two interceptions.
And those numbers come in an offense that stretches the field with deep passes, that looks way more like a college offense than a high school one.
A month ago, Illingworth tied his own school record with seven touchdown passes in a game, and as impressive as that was, five of those scores were 30 yards or more.
Two were 70-plus yards.
Illingworth has made Norco football a huge draw. The program has always been popular in the Inland Empire, as the area east of Los Angeles is known, but now Friday nights are an even bigger event.
Students pack bleachers behind one end zone while parents in lawn chairs line the grass behind the other. With the main grandstands often near capacity, some fans park along a road on an outcropping that overlooks the stadium.
A few others ride horses onto the hillside above the stadium and watch from there.
“I think this is the closest you get to country ball in California,” said Illingworth, who is planning to graduate high school in December and enroll at OSU in January. “Norco brings it. It definitely carries to the players. We all feel the energy.
“We’re all cowboys.”
And if all goes as Illingworth plans, he’ll be a Cowboy, too, in a few months.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.