Volek makes good during his moment

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

You didn't need to play and coach football for more than four decades, as John Volek has, to know what it meant when quarterback Philip Rivers hobbled off the field Sunday.

The San Diego Chargers' upset bid of the Indianapolis Colts would fall on the shoulders of their backup, Billy Volek, who while virtually unknown to the rest of America, immediately sent an entire family in Carmichael, Calif., crowding around a television set to watch an opportunity decades in the making.

Billy, overlooked and underappreciated his entire football career, finally was going to get his chance on one of the grandest stages imaginable, late in a playoff game against the defending Super Bowl champions.

"As a parent you sit there and say, 'Yeah, yeah, show 'em what you're made of,' " John Volek said Monday.

We have football families in this country and often the focus is on the famous ones, such as the Mannings where success seems to come and come and come.

There's nothing wrong with that, but far more common are groups such as the Voleks, led by a lifer of a mostly junior college coach and starring a scrap-for-every-opportunity son. They're the people looking for just one shot at glory, willing to work and wait even against the longest of odds.

In 1968, after a small-college playing career, John Volek became a coach. He's worked the backwoods of football, from an assistant at UC Riverside, to head coach at Santa Cruz (Calif.) High School and then on to Walla Walla (Wash.) Community College, Fresno (Calif.) City College and finally to I-AA Sacramento State. He won lots of games but never got his one moment in the big time.

His son played at Clovis West (Fresno) High, Fresno State and then six seasons as a backup with Tennessee and two more at San Diego and, truth be told, no one knew if he would get his chance either.

Then Rivers went down in this wild playoff game, Indy went up 24-21, and with the Colts' home dome about to blow its roof off, San Diego's only hope in the fourth quarter was to turn to Volek to help save them.

The family had been waiting for decades for this call to come; practice after practice, game after game, for this moment in the national football spotlight.

And man, did Billy ever deliver.

Starting at the Chargers' 22-yard line, he threw 15 yards to the right, 6 to the left, then 27 more to the left. The drive included a penalty on the Colts and some tough runs by Michael Turner and, of course, no mistakes by Volek.

Suddenly, the Chargers were at the 1, and coach Norv Turner called for the quarterback sneak – Volek up the middle for what would stand up as the game-winning touchdown.

"When Norv let him do his thing, I knew he'd do it," John Volek said. "I've seen it when he was in fifth grade, running the wishbone, going 39-1 in high school, winning the WAC title at Fresno (while throwing 30 touchdowns and just three interceptions).

"The kid's a winner."

Today John Volek, 60, is the athletic director at Sierra College, a junior college in Rocklin, Calif., still far from the glamour spots of his business.

He doesn't mind; he still is intricately involved in the game. Forever, he has been mostly a football teacher, content with showing kids how to play the game the right way, doing more with the less talented, enjoying the spirit of camaraderie and competition unique to the sport.

While at the high end of the game, "teaching values" often is empty talk, it still is real at John Volek's level.

In football, like any business, it often is timing and luck that separates career paths; pointing one coach to the Pac-10 or the NFL and another to the junior college ranks. And like any business, it often is timing and luck that give some players a shot.

On the field, Billy Volek has done nearly everything imaginable as a backup. In an odd statistical quirk, he threw for more yards (2,789) in his first 10 starts than any quarterback since 1970. If those 10 starts had been in a row, not spread out over the years, he'd have a shoe deal.

Once for the Titans, filling in for another injury, he had consecutive 400-yard passing games. But every time he was about to assume the starting spot, plans changed, coordinators moved on, Vince Young got drafted.

Even now, after the great comeback drive in the great playoff upset, Volek will return to the sideline if Rivers (listed as questionable) is healthy enough to play against the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC championship game.

His dad says Billy probably benefited from all those years around the game, understanding that winning – not fame or stats – is what matters.

"He grew up playing on blocking bags, been on the sidelines of games at four years old, riding on the bus on the laps of 300-pound lineman, hearing the fight song sung in locker rooms after victories," said the proud father. "All three of my kids are successful because they understand what it takes to win."

So there was no doubt around that California television set Sunday; they knew what the nation soon would learn. There was no question that Billy would be prepared, that he had studied the game plan as if he were a starter, gotten mentally and physically ready, just in case.

There were no worries that he would deliver in the biggest moment of his career; for that matter, the biggest moment of his entire family's football career.

"He called me after and said, 'Hey dad, I got the game ball.' "

In hindsight, the Colts never really stood a chance.

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