When Dalton Sturm left the pocket and scrambled downfield, a mother’s heart leaped. As Sturm eluded defenders and sprinted 51 yards to score, a mother’s feet left the ground.
From section 114, row 7 of the Alamodome, Gaylynn Diebel jumped and cheered, her light brown eyes turning wet. There was her son, the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) quarterback, living out his dream, a crowd of 22,380 roaring its approval.
Long odds and circumstance said this could not be happening. But there was young Sturm, shattering the former, defying the latter, sweeping his right hand across the jubilant reach of congratulatory fans in the end zone.
“It was amazing,” Gaylynn said. “I was so proud. I was fighting back tears.”
She may not have been the only one. Sturm is a lump-in-the-throat star, a small-town kid with a too-small frame who rose above skepticism and doubt to achieve what no one expected.
How many quarterbacks with a mere whiff of interest from Division II walk onto a Division I program, earn a scholarship, beat out a star transfer and lead their team to victory in the season-opener?
Sturm did. He completed 20 of 25 passes for 274 yards and two touchdowns against Alabama State. He ran 51 yards for another touchdown in the 26-13 victory. Sturm wasn’t perfect. He threw one interception. But he also took another step in a journey no one saw coming.
Goliad, Texas (pop. 1976) sits on a remote slice of land – 1.5 square miles – along the San Antonio River. The community is known for its ranches and a conflict in 1836 in which many still debate whether 342 soldiers were “massacred” or “executed.” Visitors come to see presidios. They take in history. They don’t come to watch high school football.
The Class of 2014 at Goliad High included 92 seniors. One was Sturm, a star hurdler, flashy point guard and slender quarterback. Mark Sturm named his son after Patrick Swayze’s character in the 1989 film, Road House. Swayze’s character, bar bouncer James Dalton, is repeatedly told, “I thought you’d be bigger.”
Those who watched Sturm thought the same. “I graduated at a buck 65,” he said.
Sturm was not only slight, he was as obscure as Goliad’s historic “hanging tree,” a live oak under which court sessions were held and death sentences administered between 1846 and 1870. He showed athleticism (he could dunk) and speed – Sturm once owned the fastest 110-meter hurdles time among Class 2A athletes in Texas – but almost nobody noticed.
One school that did, Division II Henderson State University, offered a partial scholarship. A second DII offer came, but Sturm had other ideas. He considered his arm, potential and work ethic – all strong – and decided he belonged at Division I UTSA.
“I just trusted in the talent I thought I had,” he said.
Without a scholarship, Sturm arrived the same fall as Blake Bogenschutz, an All-State quarterback and the Roadrunners’ top recruit. Coaches welcomed the afterthought to the fourth-string. He played in one game as a freshman, completing all three of his passes for 59 yards and one touchdown, and took a job waiting tables to help pay for tuition and books.
“I was kind of disappointed,” Sturm said. “But it didn’t take long to realize that as a freshman, you’re not going to get many reps, especially as an undersized and under-recruited player.”
In the off season, Sturm worked hard in the weight room, added muscle to his 6-foot-1 frame, increased his speed and won a fierce battle to backup Bogenschutz in 2015. Still without a scholarship, Sturm impressed in limited duty, and then came an opportunity. Bogenschutz suffered a concussion, which proved to be career-ending, and the walk-on became the starter, which proved career-altering.
Sturm quit his job at Chuy’s – where he once served UTSA Athletic Director Lynn Hickey – and proceeded to throw, on his first attempt with the first-team, an interception that was returned for a touchdown.
The rookie did not sulk or pout. He threw four touchdown passes, which tied a school record, and nearly led UTSA to victory over Louisiana Tech University. Just like that, Sturm became Goliad’s favorite son and most banged-up citizen.
No Football Bowl Subdivision team protected its quarterback more poorly than UTSA in 2015. The Roadrunners led the nation in sacks allowed. In seven starts, Sturm was dropped 30 times.
“It was pretty rough,” he said of 2015. “We had a lot of young guys on the line. But it was just as much my fault as the line’s fault. A lot of (the sacks) was me not making reads.”
The Roadrunners won three games. UTSA hired a new coach. And a hotshot quarterback transfer arrived to challenge Sturm, who finally earned a scholarship. Jared Johnson once entertained offers from Baylor University and Oregon State University. He wound up at Sam Houston State University, passed for 5,352 yards and 39 touchdowns, won Southland Conference Offensive Player of the Year honors and graduated.
“When coach told me they were bringing somebody in, I kind of expected it,” Sturm said. “We didn’t have much depth at quarterback.”
Johnson and Sturm waged a battle that lasted until the morning of the season-opener. Over breakfast last Saturday, coach Frank Wilson informed Sturm he won the job.
“It was a tough decision,” Wilson said. “Dalton had a slight lead and we felt the game plan we set forth was most efficient with him leading us and it proved to be right.”
Aided by an improved offensive line – Alabama State sacked Sturm only twice – the Goliad kid dazzled. He showed poise and leadership and made play after play. Gaylynn has watched them on TV again and again. “They give me chills,” she said.
When Mark thinks of Dalton’s journey, he gets chills, too. In three years, his son went from walk-on to backup to starter to star.
“He’s had to fight,” Mark said, “for everything he’s got.”
Gaylynn’s phone has not stopped ringing. Relatives are calling about tickets. Friends are asking about schedules. Some want to talk about the last game. Others want to offer congratulations.
So many calls poured in that Gaylynn had to stop answering. As much as she wanted to take each one, she realized, “I can’t respond to everybody.”
A quiet, historical community is suddenly abuzz. Gaylynn hasn’t seen or heard anything like it since she and Sturm arrived in 2003. Now, here he is 13 years later, so fast and all grown up in San Antonio, dropping back to pass, deciding to run and tugging at her heart and every soul in Goliad.
Why, it’s enough to make her cry.
Top image: Dalton Sturm launches a pass downfield against Louisiana Tech on Saturday September 3rd 2016. Photo by Jeff Huehn, UTSA Athletics.