There's a Lot More to NFL Draft Prospect Mason Rudolph Than a Strong Right Arm

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterApril 19, 2018

Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph throws during a drill at the NFL football scouting combine, Saturday, March 3, 2018, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Credit: PHOTO BY NATE BILLINGS, Courtesy The Oklahoman (Oklahoma City)

The photo rests in the living room, perched on a ledge at eye level. It is encased in a frame decorated with small Oklahoma State logos and white flowers. It sits atop a white handkerchief that bears the words, He will wipe away every tear… Rev. 21:4 in blue cursive lettering.

The picture inside, taken October 3, 2015, features Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph cradling four-year-old Gavin King. Rudolph, still in his black jersey and white pants following a 36-34 win over Kansas State, holds Gavin close while looking up toward the stands. Gavin, wearing a red Spider-Man sweatshirt, raises his right arm to acknowledge the crowd.

Less than three months after the photo was taken, Gavin died of brain cancer.

The image, captured by The Oklahoman and other local outlets, graces the Kings' living room, where it will remain to remind them of their son and the quarterback who befriended him.

This past season, no player in college football threw for more yards than Rudolph. Only three tossed more touchdowns. He holds both career marks at Oklahoma State.

Despite his overwhelming success, his NFL draft status remains somewhat of a mystery. Although quarterbacks are expected to feature prominently at the top of the first round come April 26, Rudolph isn't expected to be the first, second, third or even fourth QB selected. He might not even go in the first round.

Lost in the madness of his draft evaluation, however, is Rudolph's legacy—a legacy that will stay with a state and a city and one grateful family who will support him no matter what happens next.

"I said this three years ago, and I'll say it again," Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy says. "I have three sons, and if they could grow up to be as squared away off the field as Mason is, it would make me comfortable as a dad. That's the kind of kid he is." 

Brody Schmidt/Associated Press

The star quarterback looks the part as he eases into a poolside chair. It is a Friday morning in early July at the Crowne Plaza in Lake Oswego, Oregon, nearly 2,000 miles from Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Rudolph is indeed the make and model of what NFL teams covet when it comes to quarterbacks. At 6'5", he exudes a presence even while sitting. And at 230 strapping pounds, he naturally fills out his long-sleeved shirt.

His hair is short and perfectly manicured. His smile, which he flashes habitually, looks like it was made to sell deodorant or cars or energy drinks on television.

Rudolph is here to offer guidance at The Opening, Nike's mega-recruiting camp featuring the nation's elite quarterbacks. As a counselor for the next few days, he'll work with the coming wave of players, many of whom will likely blossom into the game's stars. Players who one day hope to be in the position he's in now.

Stardom came slowly for Rudolph over the past four years, starting in 2014 when he played as a freshman. The following season, despite playing in a two-quarterback system with J.W. Walsh, he threw for 21 touchdowns. As a junior, Rudolph threw for 28 touchdowns with only four interceptions. Heading into his final season, that performance was enough to send his hype into another stratosphere.

As a senior, Rudolph threw for 4,904 yards and 37 touchdowns. He became one of college football's most dangerous weapons in one of its most potent offensive systems.

NFL general managers and scouts have spent the last few months and years trying to figure him out. The offense he thrived in has always been favorable to quarterbacks, regardless of ability. But the tools and attributes to play in the NFL are there. Still, not everyone is convinced Rudolph's game will translate to the pros.

One NFL scout spoke for many when he said Rudolph "looks the part" and "can make all the throws." But he was doing the same when he said, "Sometimes he trusts his guys too much and stares down his talented receivers. Thought he was a little stiff as a passer."

So the jury remains out on Rudolph's NFL prospects. But here in Oregon, months before his senior season, Rudolph isn't celebrating his production or the potential windfall of NFL cash that may lie ahead. Today, he's thinking about how he can help some of the country's best high school quarterbacks be a little bit better, as players and as people.

"The opportunity to have an impact on people, young or old, is there," he says. "It's just a question of whether you're going to tap into it or not. … We have a such a platform, and we might as well take advantage of it."

His grandfather was a preacher, and his faith journey began inside the walls of New Covenant Community Church in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

"I was brought up with a biblical background," Rudolph says. "With an idea that I could and should do what I could in my community. If I were to get a platform through football or something else, I didn't want this just to be a gain for myself. I wanted to give back and impact people."

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

At Oklahoma State, that impact began when he was a true freshman. He and Walsh read books to children at an elementary school. Back then, he was merely a prospect in a program with a long line of productive quarterbacks. He was unsure why Walsh, the more accomplished QB at the time, asked him to come along, but he was thrilled he did.

Rudolph read Dr. Seuss books to an engaged classroom.

Not long after, Rudolph met John Talley, a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which works with more than 30 schools in north-central Oklahoma.

Talley provided Rudolph with an even greater outlet to work with young people. "There were so many opportunities they put in front of me that I just couldn't turn down," Rudolph says.

He spoke to elementary schools. He led team-building exercises with high school football squads. He signed autographs. He joined Tim Tebow at his 2015 "Night to Shine" event—a prom for teenagers with special needs—and danced deep into the night.

"He's worked with thousands of kids across Oklahoma and spoke to thousands of people at different events," Talley says. "I would guess in four years he's been directly in front of 50,000 people. Every couple of years, you get someone who does a lot. Mason started off involved when he got here and stayed involved."

In 2015, in the days following a devastating car crash at Oklahoma State's homecoming parade that left four dead and dozens more injured, Rudolph and teammate David Glidden showed up at the hospital unannounced to visit the victims.

They walked the hallways and visited rooms for hours. They talked with families about life and football, hoping to provide some solace following one of Stillwater's most horrific moments.

This past November, less than 24 hours after a home loss to Kansas State, Rudolph, alongside his mother and sister, handed out boxes of Thanksgiving food to needy families at a regional food bank.

He was the first person there.

Photo courtesy of Angela King

Gavin King loved to sing. He memorized the songs from the movie Frozen, which he would bellow out at any given moment. He loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Paw Patrol and the Minions from Despicable Me.

In February 2015, Gavin was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, a fast-growing form of brain cancer. The months that followed were filled with intense treatment and chemotherapy.

By October 3 of that year, Gavin was declared free of the disease. As part of finishing up his radiation treatment, he was a special spectator for Oklahoma State's dramatic win over Kansas State—a moment made possible by Coaches vs. Cancer and ProCure. As part of the day, each child was paired with a member of the football team. Gavin ended up with Rudolph.

Gavin was handed to Rudolph as the celebration commenced. Rudolph held Gavin as cameras flashed. The moment wasn't supposed to go beyond that day, but the following afternoon a member of Oklahoma State reached out to Angela, Gavin's mother, and asked if she would be comfortable if Rudolph connected with the family.

"I wanted them to know I wasn't just a guy in a picture to them," Rudolph says. "I wanted to have some kind of relationship."

Gavin and Rudolph began exchanging calls and text messages. The quarterback would reach out to his new four-year-old friend during his doctor visits and treatments, hoping to cheer him up with encouraging words.

"He told me that the day he met Gavin, his priorities changed," Angela says. "He knew if that Gavin could deal with what he was dealing with, he could overcome any adversity. That's a gift."

During the rest of the season, Gavin watched whenever Oklahoma State was on television. He'd yell, "Go Pokes!" The Kings also attended another game in November as Rudolph's guests.

Two days after Christmas, however, Angela sensed something was different with Gavin. When she brought him in for an MRI, the doctors determined his tumors had returned and spread down his spine. Within 24 hours, he was paralyzed. Within a few days, having returned home from hospice, he died at the age of four.

The heartbreak was felt throughout Oklahoma City, where the Kings reside, and up through Stillwater where Rudolph and others tried to process the news.

"He's definitely made an impact on me," Rudolph says. "Just the fight and strength and the courage while he was fighting cancer, and even now that he's in heaven."

Gavin and Angela King
Gavin and Angela KingPhoto courtesy of Angela King

After Gavin's death, Rudolph stayed in touch with Angela, as they both tried to come to grips with it. "It's healing for me to be able to talk about Gavin and to get his story out there," Angela says. "I feel like my child and his story along with Mason's is just going to keep going. His impact is still here."

Rudolph also started a new tradition during games. Whenever he would score or deliver a big play, he would look upward and point to the sky—a way to honor and acknowledge Gavin.

"When I see him do that, I get a jolt of joy," Angela adds. "I know that my son is not forgotten."

The figurines sit next to Gavin's Bible on a bookcase inside his bedroom. This past spring, Angela gave Rudolph two of Gavin's most cherished belongings: a blue-masked Ninja Turtle and a yellow Minion with the initials "GK" written in sharpie on the front.

No matter where his professional career begins, Rudolph will carry these possessions with him to a new city and NFL franchise that he will touch in ways that figure to stretch beyond sport. And back home, although he will no longer be the starting quarterback of one of the nation's best football programs, his presence won't disappear.

If anything, it will grow whether he makes a Pro Bowl or blossoms into a starting QB. The children he spoke to won't suddenly forget. The people he touched following one of the school's most troubling days will always remember his actions. And the Kings will remain a part of Rudolph's life.

"It is a bond that will never go away," Angela says. "I count him as part of my family. I feel like he's a son."

He will be there always, a phone call or text message away. And forever his image will live on the ledge in their living room, surrounded by Oklahoma State logos and white flowers, holding their lost but forever-loved son.