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Boomer Bio; James Winchester
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Former walk-on followed in father's footsteps to play football for Sooners
James Winchester never had to search very hard to be reminded of what his mission was every single game of his collegiate career. Three words written on his wrist tape spelled it out in simple terms — “Make A Play.”
The very fact that Winchester put himself in a position to write those words and potentially make a play is testament to his determination and toughness. Kids from small-town Oklahoma — Washington, population 520, in this case — typically don’t realize their dream of playing major-college football.
Winchester, however, dreamed it and lived it every single day at the University of Oklahoma over the past four football seasons.
“Playing at OU was my ultimate goal as far back as I can remember,” Winchester said a few days after the Sooners finished off the 2011 season with a 31-14 win over Iowa. “My dad played there, and I basically grew up living and breathing OU football. Our whole family did. It’s in our blood.”
Winchester’s father, Mike, lettered three years under coach Barry Switzer and was the punter on the Sooners’ 1985 national championship squad. James and his three sisters grew up listening to stories about the Sooners.
Before he had a chance to leave his mark at OU, James’ older sister, Carolyn, was a walk-on for the OU women’s basketball team.
By the time her career was over, she had earned a scholarship. A younger sister, Rebecca, is currently a member of OU’s rowing team.
“I suppose we didn’t give them a lot of options,” said Mike Winchester with a laugh. “They have all been raised Sooners, and they are certainly a great source of pride. It’s been a lot of fun watching them make their own way.”
OU’s starting deep snapper the last three seasons, James could have gone the small-college route, earned a scholarship and perhaps starred as a wide receiver, the position where he earned Little All-City honors as a senior at Washington High School in 2007. Instead, he chose to walk on at OU and follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I knew it might not be a realistic goal when I got to OU. Walking on at a Division-I program is incredibly tough and demanding,” said James. “But in my heart, I felt if I worked my butt off, I had a chance to make it.”
Hard work was only part of Winchester’s road to accomplishing his goal — it took a bit of imagination as well.
“I was a receiver in high school and a punter, but it was going to be extremely tough to make it at those positions at a place like OU,” said Winchester. “I started working a little on my deep snapping when I got to OU, and my dad told me to keep it in my back pocket just in case I ever needed it.”
As fate would have it, starting deep snapper Derek Shaw suffered an Achilles injury that forced him to miss the early portion of the 2008 season.
Fortunately for the Sooners, Winchester was ready to fill the role until Shaw returned.
Even though his first attempt at a deep snap — against Chattanooga in the 2008 season opener — sailed over the punter’s head and through the end zone for a safety, Winchester was on cloud nine. By the start of the 2009 season, he had earned the starting job, which he held for three years.
Along the way, he became much more than just a good deep snapper.
“James has worked hard to become a very valuable part of our team,” said OU coach Bob Stoops. “He’s athletic with a great attitude and has developed into a player who makes his presence felt when he’s in the game.”
Winchester’s size — 6-foot-3, 210 pounds — coupled with his 4.5 speed allowed him to do exactly what he wrote on his wrist before every game. During the 2010 season, he recovered three fumbled punts, including one that clinched OU’s win over Texas.
“As soon as I snapped it, there was an opportunity for me to become an athlete and be a good coverage guy,” said Winchester, who will graduate in May with a degree in human relations. “I just flipped the switch and went looking to make a play.”
While Winchester developed into a solid scout team receiver, he saw only very limited action in that capacity this past season.
“I would have loved to play more as a receiver, catch some passes and even score a touchdown. All of that would have been great,” he said. “But just to have the chance to play like I did and live that dream is incredibly special. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
(Editor's Note: This story appears in the January 2012 Bowl Review Issue of Sooner Spectator. To read more or subscribe, call toll free 1-877-841-8877.)