O’Korn’s faith, family oriented team keeps him humble
He doesn’t get riled up before storming onto the field — he’s not the rah-rah type. He stays calm and prefers to sit alone at his locker to prepare for the emotional roller coaster by going over quarterback reads in his head. He calls himself a perfectionist in everything, from being the most prepared player on the field to keeping his notebooks and bedroom perfectly organized.
John O’Korn’s actions are synonymous with his character, and as a leader of the football team, he has to be that way. He rides a humble personality — yet is quick to inform anyone that no one on the team can beat him in “NCAA Football 14” — because relationships with coaches and teammates help keep his role as the UH starting quarterback in perspective.
“Sometimes you’ve got to take a deep breath, relax and just realize how awesome it is. I’ve always dreamed about it, and it’s just been unreal. Now I’m living it,” said O’Korn, who was unable to talk to the media his freshman year because the program doesn’t allow availability to true freshmen. “A coach trusting you to lead a football team as a true freshman and the action of putting me out there means more to me than anything. So many people would kill to be in the position I’m in.”
He’s just 19 years old but has the voice of a man twice his age. He was named last season’s American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year after leading all true freshmen with 28 touchdown passes and led his team to the BBVA Compass Bowl despite a 41-24 loss, and he will lead the Cougars again on the field Friday for the annual Red and White spring game.
“He’s real mature for his age. He goes out there and makes plays that he’s not supposed to make,” junior receiver Deontay Greenberry said. “John was looking to play immediately and has handled his position pretty well.”
For O’Korn, the journey to his current position presented challenges that extended beyond reading defenses or making decisions in the pocket. Between being placed as third-string during his junior season and earning Most Valuable Player in a state title game as a senior in high school, he questioned whether football was a career he wanted to follow. To this day, he is thankful for that. He said the struggles made him who he is today.
Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life — James 1:12
O’Korn was raised in Huntingdon, Pa., about 120 miles outside Pittsburgh with a population no more than 7,000. He has loved football since he was a toddler and remembers going nuts as a 2-year-old in his crib after the Steelers scored a touchdown. Soon, he would learn to love to play football, too.
His parents asked him whether he wanted to move to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to be closer to the rest of his family. After he split playing time and made five starts as a sophomore, O’Korn enrolled at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, a prominent Class 7A institution in academics and athletics. He made trips to check out the prospective team during the state playoffs then quickly enrolled after the winter break. He moved into a condo with his mother while his father still worked in Pennsylvania.
“Sometimes you’ve got to take a deep breath, relax and just realize how awesome it is. I’ve always dreamed about it, and it’s just been unreal. Now I’m living it,” O’Korn said on being a starter for the Cougars
“I knew right away that it was going to be the best decision for me and my future,” O’Korn said. “It just made sense: better opportunities both academically and athletically. The biggest thing was being around my family. I never really got to do that growing up.”
It was tough for O’Korn when his junior season began at St. Thomas Aquinas because he hardly saw playing time.
“I went from big-shot in Pennsylvania to a little fish in a big pond in Florida. I was third-string at one point,” O’Korn said. “It was a big eye-opener. It was a right decision moving to Florida, but I questioned if football was something that I wanted to pursue.”
O’Korn remained patient yet persistent. He started a couple of games and threw for 655 yards and 10 touchdowns in a dual-threat quarterback system. His performance was enough for him to receive four college offers — including UH.
Entering his senior year, O’Korn had never started a full season. It wasn’t a caveat for UH head coach Tony Levine, who talked to about 15 individuals who were affiliated with O’Korn, including counselors and coaches who informed him about his leadership and work ethic. Levine said he knew a coach from every camp O’Korn had gone to and called to ask about him.
O’Korn was the first quarterback out on the practice field and in team meetings. After the practice or meeting ended, he was the last one to leave, always asking questions and trying to get better, Levine said. “He was exactly the type of young man we wanted in our program.”
If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. — Mark 3:24–25
O’Korn chose UH because he preferred living in a big city and because of the family environment established among the coaches and teammates.
“Most coaches are caught up in only football and winning,” O’Korn said. “But our coaches are genuine people and really care about their players off the field more than they do on the field. It became more of a life decision rather than a football decision.”
Levine attests to that. He has a distinct goal for each of his student athletes.
“Rarely will you ever hear anyone here say it’s a ‘football team.’ We refer to what we have here as a ‘football program.’ That’s our goal,” Levine said. “Certainly we’re trying to win football games, but at the end of the day, it’s very rewarding for us as coaches and staff members to see a young man come in at 17 or 18 years old and leave, in our minds, a more well-rounded person ready for life after football.”
O’Korn cherishes the relationship he has created with Levine.
“My parents are 20 hours away. He’s like a father to me. His kids and wife are like my family. It means a lot to have somebody like that when you’re going through challenging times,” O’Korn said. “He recognized the potential he saw in me and took a chance. That’s something where I don’t want to let him down. I want to make him look good.”
O’Korn calls former UH quarterback David Piland, 22, his big brother. Piland earned the starting job before being forced to retire after suffering a concussion in the second game of the season. It allowed O’Korn, the backup, to step up and finish the season.
“The way he handled the whole situation really just speaks volumes about him and his character,” O’Korn said. “I came in, and we were competing every single day for the same spot. He didn’t even care. We were best friends on and off the field. He took me under his wing and was like my big brother.”
O’Korn and Piland share their faith in God and attend the young adult service at Lakewood Church three times a week. Piland said O’Korn has a character that can light up any room.
“He has that aura about him. He’s a lovable guy who has got a big heart and will just suck anybody in with his personality,” Piland said. “He knows there is still a lot of work that still needs to be done. I know he’s excited for that.”
With O’Korn under center, the Cougars jumped out to a 7-1 record but lost four of the final five games and finished fourth in the conference. Four of the five losses came with opportunities to tie or win on the final drive.
Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits lacks sense. — Proverbs 12:11
During Spring Break, O’Korn made it a point to get better and separate himself from competition not only on his team but others around the country. He flew to Fort Lauderdale and trained on the beach with other Division I quarterbacks because the Cougars have a golden opportunity to take a step forward next season.
Last year’s conference champion, Central Florida, and third-place team, Cincinnati, are losing its starting quarterbacks. Perennial contender Louisville is changing conferences, while UH returns 94 percent of its total offense and nearly 82 percent of its defensive starts.
“We recognize the potential we have coming back. We can’t be complacent with an 8-5 record,” O’Korn said. “We have to work 10 times, no, 100 times harder than we did last year. We got that target on our back, and everyone is coming for us in this conference.”
O’Korn realizes the expectations from the program. The greats at quarterback — Case Keenum, Kevin Kolb, David Klingler, Andre Ware — were an incentive to come. But he doesn’t view it as pressure.
“I don’t even put myself in that category. I want to be remembered as a good leader and a good teammate,” O’Korn said. “Even to be mentioned with those guys is an honor. I want to lead this team to great things. I’m just blessed to be on the path that I’m on.”
Faith and football made him realize the opportunity that he has with the platform of collegiate athletics. Most of the Cougars’ games are nationally televised, and he sees it as something other than an opportunity to win a game before a large audience. He writes a Bible verse on his wristband before each game. He wants others to see that message.
“We’re playing on ESPN almost every week, and if one person sees (the verse) and looks it up, I feel I’ve made a difference. That’s real important to me. If I can use that influence to lead somebody to Jesus, share my faith with somebody, that’s an opportunity I want to take.”
Ephesians 2:10 and Luke 2:52 are some of the verses he has sported. He keeps the used wristbands curled in a ball inside his locker and said he has wanted to do something with them, knowing they would serve a great purpose at some point.
About a month ago, he gave his wristband with the verse Joshua 1:9 to a 9-year-old boy with cancer. The verse reads:
Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go — Joshua 1:9
O’Korn said he had a gut feeling that it was meant specifically for him.[email protected]