On Dec. 19, 2013, Keith Thomas began his job as Blinn College's new football coach. He knew the first thing he needed to do: Recruit Dede Westbrook.
Back then, Westbrook was a confused 20-year old. He'd taken a year off from football after his freshman season at Blinn, and he was trying to figure out both fatherhood and his next move. Maybe that meant a move to Division III. Maybe it meant taking a job.
For the second time since a hit in high school ruptured his small intestines, Westbrook's football future looked bleak, despite his stellar freshman year. Thomas wanted to make sure Westbrook was coming back to Blinn after getting behind on credits.
Almost three years later, in his second season at Oklahoma, Westbrook is the frontrunner for the Biletnikoff Award as college football's best receiver. On Saturday, No. 9 Oklahoma heads to Morgantown to face No. 14 West Virginia, hoping to stay undefeated in Big 12 play and keep the possibility of a playoff bid open.
Westbrook learned on the job from All-American Sterling Shepard a year ago, and both he and Oklahoma's coaching staff expected him to slide into a role as Baker Mayfield's No. 1 target as a senior.
On the second day of fall camp, Westbrook suffered a hamstring injury that made it easy to wonder whether he'd really grown into a legitimate threat defenses needed to account for. Through three games, he hadn't scored and hadn't amassed more than 70 yards receiving in a game. Oklahoma was 1-2 heading into its bye week.
When Westbrook retook the field on Oct. 1, he was healthy for the first time all year. No receiver in college football has been better since then. He's caught 14 touchdown passes in his last seven games and averaged 157.1 yards per game. The Sooners have won all seven games, too.
None of it might have happened without Westbrook's decision to give Blinn another shot.
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Thomas' pitch included concessions.
Tuesdays and Thursdays, Westbrook had to pick his kids up and couldn't get on the practice field until 3:20. Practice started at 2:50.
"It didn't bother me," Thomas said. "He'd just be missing stretching and maybe some small stuff."
A few too many nights, Westbrook would make the hour-long drive back to his hometown of Cameron, Texas, a town of about 5,000. There, he visited with his kids and visited his grandmother's house. He grew up there. His off-balance, tip-toed touchdown catch against Baylor? That ability to stay upright and contort his body came from his days "dodgin' rocks" when he and his friends would engage in rock fights.
"When you're from the country, you do all kinds of crazy things," Westbrook told reporters this week, "and it showed on Saturday."
When the rock fights were over, he could set booby traps for raccoons at his grandmother's house, where "there's not a house within eight miles of us."
Thomas' efforts to lure Westbrook back to Blinn paid off. He caught 76 passes for a nation-high 1,487 yards in just eight games to earn juco All-American honors. In 17 years of coaching juco football, Thomas said, he'd never been around someone better.
"It was just a grown man against boys," Thomas said. "He was so quick and fast."
Westbrook has never been a huge fan of work in the weight room, but in junior college, it didn't matter.
"If you wanted a set of 10, he'd do six, but I think they've got him going at OU," Thomas said with a laugh.
Westbrook played his way to countless FBS offers, but the online classes that helped him re-establish eligibility on the field and graduate likely wouldn't count for SEC schools. After a visit to Oklahoma, Westbrook said he was sure it felt like home.
At Oklahoma, Westbrook had a legitimate receivers coach who understood the position for the first time in his career. In high school, his position coach was an ex-defensive lineman. At Blinn, his position coach doubled as offensive coordinator and was a college quarterback.
He always had the speed and hands. Working with Shepard and Oklahoma receivers coach Dennis Simmons, who came from Mike Leach's staff at Washington State and helped Michael Crabtree win the Biletnikoff Award twice at Texas Tech, helped fill out the thin spots on Westbrook's resume.
"Speed helps a lot," Westbrook said, "but you have to run a precise route."
Defenses took notice early on in Westbrook's recent rise, but it hasn't mattered. Double coverage and safeties dedicated to preventing him from making big plays down the field haven't mattered.
He's topped 200 yards twice and has at least nine catches in three games, racking up 68 catches for 1,254 yards and 14 TDs for the season.
"He's tough, he changes directions, he can over the top you, catch it over the shoulder, great in the return game. I don't see any weaknesses," West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Every quality that you look for, he's got."
Earlier this week, Westbrook saw his name show up at No. 4 on ESPN's Heisman Watch. He texted Thomas, amazed.
Three years ago, Westbrook listened to his family's prodding and got back on the football field, sacrificing two years further away from his family and kids than he'd like. He did it hoping it would be worth it in the long run.
He was right.