The first impressions you have when initiating a conversation with Nate Hybl is his calm voice, inquisitive spirit and insightful dialogue. He is the epitome of the student-athlete who possesses the intelligence, charm, heart and the ‘no excuse’ attitude one would expect in a big-time college football program’s quarterback, current or former. But, as you begin to peel back the layers that mask us all, you find a tenderized spirit privately seeking understanding and perspective.
Former Sooner Quarterback Nate Hybl
His career at Oklahoma is a decade past but his story still rallies differing opinions and emotions. Nate Hybl is not bitter, he’s moved on with his professional life in Georgia, building a business and looking for his next challenge. Bob Stoops still questions why some Sooner fans were unrelenting in their criticisms and anxious embrace of the ‘greener grass’ theory for another quarterback. His dad, Tom Hybl, coached him in high school and was his biggest encourager, but still regrets being helpless to shelter him from the spotlight. His brother Ryan is the OU Men’s Golf Coach and recalls the challenges that the entire family faced during Nate’s years at Oklahoma. And, if you talked to any former OU quarterback there would be a common disgust for either the ‘big-mouthed know-it-alls’ who possess a media credential or the naysayers who purchased a season ticket yet never played on a comparable stage, but found license to be persistent in criticisms of his performances throughout his career.
Nate’s story illustrates his maturity and courage to take the ‘road less traveled’, to pursue his dreams and make his mark as a collegiate athlete, but more importantly, in life. This story ends well for Nate Hybl but his journey reads more like a parable than eloquent prose. Nate was always driven to excel and perform regardless of the venue being the football field, golf course or the classroom. He was also mature beyond his years, as he was one of the pioneers of high school phenoms to graduate early for the purpose of initiating his collegiate career and competing in spring football practice.
In the spring of 1998, after passing for over 3,600 yards and 38 touchdowns during his high school career, Nate entered the University of Georgia. He would compete for the starting quarterback position for two springs and one fall, but would eventually decide following Quincy Carter was not consistent with his goals or expectations. In the summer of 1999, Nate transferred to the University of Oklahoma where he would sit out a season before earning the back-up spot to Josh Heupel during the 2000 national championship year. Nate would see sufficient playing time to earn Academic All-Big XII 1st Team. And, looking towards the 2001 season, his career was as promising as any player on the Sooners roster.
Nate’s choice to come to Oklahoma was due, in part, to his previous meeting of then Defensive Coordinator Bob Stoops during his recruitment to the University of Florida and later Sooner Offensive Coordinator Mike Leach. Coming to Oklahoma was an ‘eye-opening’ experience as he and his mom made the initial drive to Norman only to be greeted by a 40 mph wind and a very flat and undistinguished landscape compared to his native Georgia. Nate recalled, “I didn’t know a soul and wondered if I had made a mistake.” Fortunately, Nate would quickly develop a close friendship with roommate and tight-end Trent Smith. Nate and Trent would bond as friends and teammates with both becoming two of the most regarded players on the OU roster. And, indicative of Nate’s personality and over-achiever spirit, he managed a 4.0 GPA in his initial semester on campus.
Another ‘influencer’ early in Nate’s OU experience was Strength Coach and Director of Sports Enhancement, Jerry Schmidt. Nate affectionately recalls the difference-maker, “Immediately we went from a ‘loosey-goosey’ situation to a ‘do it our way’ discipline mindset…Coach Stoops entrusted the program and its future to Jerry, every day we were pushed to our limits in a very military-styled approach.” This period in Nate’s OU experience made him better and propelled him to eventually earn a very contested competition with Jason White for the starting QB spot at the on-set of the 2001 season. “In discussions with our offensive coaches, and specifically (quarterback coach) Chuck Long and (assistant head coach and offensive coordinator) Mark Mangino, and after a thorough evaluation through our entire camp and three major scrimmages, we just feel that Nate has earned the right to be the starter,” Stoops said after pre-season drills. “I think he had one interception through our entire camp and that includes passing drills and scrimmages. That’s more than 600 attempts.” Few, if any, OU quarterbacks in the Stoops era have performed better, or in more competitive conditions. Nate would tell you he never prepared with more focus than he did for that season.
In 2001, Nate would start in 10 games of the regular season, the first 6 and the last 4, as he did not play against Baylor and came off the bench against Nebraska when Jason White was injured. Early in the season Nate and the offense would be inconsistent but playing well enough to keep championship hopes high as they entered game week for Texas. Unfortunately, the Cotton Bowl date with Texas would go south for Hybl, as he suffered a fractured collarbone and brought Jason White off the bench. White would lead the Sooners to their 18th straight winning game, the longest in the nation at the time. While Nate was in recovery, Jason was turning heads and stimulating conversation…..”the talk started” recalled Nate about that period in his career. “This became a very tumultuous ride, I was hurt but trying to get back into the lineup, my shoulder was stressed with each throw due to the torque-effect of my motion,” said Hybl. Then White takes an injury putting Nate back on the field to play and eventually finish up the season. A late October loss to #1 ranked Nebraska in Lincoln would set the Sooners back but not eliminate them from the national championship discussion. Unfortunately, the OSU Cowboys sealed the Sooners fate with a memorable 16-13 victory in Norman. The ‘talk’ continued with more edge and frequency.
The OSU loss was a defining moment in Nate Hybl’s career journey. The national championship discussion was now silenced and the team deflated. This is the time when the headlines began to take on a different slant and the media conversation would be more focused on the quarterback position and his every snap. Said Hybl, “Everywhere I went someone would say something about our performance challenges…..at class, parties, dinner, it was an emotional roller-coaster.” Even a Cotton Bowl victory over Arkansas and besting a Roger Staubach record didn’t ease his pain or help to warm the winter months prior to spring practice. The talk had gotten into his head, creating personal challenges beyond being emotionally defeated and physically bruised. Additionally, this is a time when OU went through offensive coordinators with atypical frequency, three coordinators would shuffle through the O-Coordinator job, Mike Leach would move on to Texas Tech, Mark Mangino would venture to Kansas and Chuck Long would be elevated. With each transition it would impact the QB position, the offensive philosophy and the cohesiveness of the team.
As a sidebar, consider how you, as a big-program college quarterback, would feel if everything you did was documented and critiqued by the media and other over zealous sports pundits. Then consider the challenge of being compared to your teammate quarterback as if there is some angry rivalry existing, or that you were the single cause of a team’s struggles or poor play. Imagine being criticized as a loser or undeserving of the very position your coaches had appointed you. Walk in his shoes, to class or a party and feel the hushed tones behind your back. How would you feel if you saw your mom cry because the pressure had gotten too intense and painful to manage? Imagine your son was the quarterback at OU and you had to listen to boos and opinions of nameless thousands. And finally, would you commit thousand of hours to practice, meetings, private training and mental prepping just to play 60 minutes of football 12 or 13 times a year? Nate, like those who preceded him and those who will follow him all understand the ‘fish bowl’ affect for the college football player, do you?
In the 2002 spring, Nate would lose his job to Jason White, as the coaches decided to take the offense in a different direction only to be thrust back into the QB picture when White goes down with another injury during the Alabama game in Norman. The #2 ranked Sooners would win 37-27 and Nate would throw an exclamation point TD to Mark Clayton, “It was an incredible feeling personally after all our team had overcome, and it represented a turning point, as I had grown up, and developed thicker skin,” Nate recalled. “We were playing well, and ranked #1 until the Texas A&M game…..that game is one of my fondest memories.” Nate would have one of his best outings on national television with his coach/dad in the stands. Unfortunately, OU’s defense gave up big plays at critical points in the game but the maligned Nate Hybl had re-discovered his role and re-gained his confidence. OU would lose to unranked A&M in College Station but quickly climb back into contention prior to the OSU game in Stillwater. The ‘Bedlam’ game would eliminate OU from the national championship race and re-stoke the embers of criticism from OU fans voicing their opinions of the perceived problems challenging the Sooners. But Hybl was steadfast and resilient, as he was intent to define himself rather than be defined by others. He would lead OU in defeating Colorado in the Big 12 Championship game and proudly accept the challenge for the Sooners to travel to Pasadena and the 2003 Rose Bowl to play Washington State.
The Rose Bowl was a unique experience for the University of Oklahoma football program. OU had never been there before. But to Nate Hybl it was an opportunity to finish what he had started when he and his mom made that drive from Georgia to Norman. This game represented his ‘moment in time’ to silence the critics, to rally his team, to make his mark and put his signature on his Sooner career. He had fought through the tears of disappointment, endured the loneliness of criticism, overcome the pain of a broken body and rallied from the boos of the selfish few. On that glorious afternoon in Pasadena, he played and led with his heart. His teammates wanted this victory and this night to be his……they celebrated his selection as the Rose Bowl Player of the Game and his silencing of his critics. He finished well.
Trent Smith knew Nate Hybl better than anyone on the team during those seasons together. Today, he suggests there were many times that defined Nate’s ability and heart, but three specific incidents have remained mental pictures of him as a player and leader. Trent’s first defining memory of Nate was an in-game situation at Nebraska game when he took a hit that staggered him to the point he had to steady himself by clutching the shoulders of the referee until he could collect his bearings and retreat to the huddle. It was the perfect example of the physical courage and mental toughness Nate Hybl inspired in the Oklahoma offensive huddle. He refused to come out of the game. The second memory was during pre-season drills when Trent Smith went through a difficult period of lost focus and being incapable of making the simplest of catches. After a practice of doing extra work with Nate catching 100 passes without a drop, Trent sat on the back of his pick-up truck and literally cried because of his personal struggle. Even though Nate had already endured much as the quarterback, it was his sensitive words of encouragement and understanding that helped Trent Smith to re-gain his confidence and become one of OU’s best tight ends ever. Trent would recall it was not so much what Nate said, as it was how he showed compassion and sensitivity at his greatest time of need. The final mental picture of Nate was their time together in Pasadena for the 2003 Rose Bowl. Roommates, teammates and best friends, Nate and Trent had the time of their lives that historic week in southern California. Some of the stories of that week will forever remain private, but it was their time together preparing for their final game as Sooners that would galvanize their friendship and endless commitment to each other. “We were able to do what few ever achieve, play in the Rose Bowl and have a true story-book ending, it was the time of our lives……..and when he was named the Rose Bowl MVP, I had a total ‘man-crush’ for him because I knew how much it meant to him and all he had endured,” recalled Trent Smith recently. Smith added, “For Nate to overcome so much showed everyone on our team that he was a complete class act.”
Today, Nate Hybl is measured in his desire to return to the campus and participate in former player or letter-winner functions. Many former Sooner footballers are hesitant about returning to Norman, and being too visible with the program and/or available to the fan base. The reason for this disparity is, most likely, due to the chasm between what the program is, and how it’s perceived by the so-called Sooner faithful. OU is unique in that it gets ‘year round’ attention due to its small market status and limited distractions to the conversations. The Oklahoma City Thunder has created a slight distraction from the never-ending dialogue, but with social media and the anonymity factor of talk radio, blogs and instant news, the pressure cooker remains set on high. If you question this reality, you should review the history of ‘player access’ by coaching staffs current and past. Today’s coaches recognize the need to protect their players from the new world of media scrutiny and fan hype or suffer the potential break down of the team concept and the college football experience. Restricted access may not be the solution, but it is the least a program can do for those who have committed themselves wholeheartedly to playing on the grandest stage of college football, as did Nate Hybl.
Nate Hybl resides in Georgia where he is developing a new healthy fast-casual restaurant concept. He remains one of Bob Stoops most favorite quarterbacks for who he is, and what he was as a Sooner.