Ole Miss had just upended LSU in Oxford in 2013 and it was a Pac-12 kind of late and we were watching the Pac-12 late game: Washington State at Oregon, a game kicking off at 10:00 p.m. Eastern time that would not end until something like 1:42 in the morning.
Washington State was losing. This was and is normal. Ryan Leaf and a snow witch in the Cascades made a blood covenant in 1996 to make a few things happen. His payoff was getting drafted and enjoying good football and the payback was everything else that happened to him and Washington State since. In 2003, the Cougars won ten games and lost three. From that point forward to the horrifying present, Washington State would not have a winning season.
They would not win on this night either. We were bleary from booze and fatigue and five hours of Ole Miss fans feeding bourbon into their veins from hidden tie flasks. Any other night on any other day would have meant sensibly turning the television off and going to bed. But Connor Halliday was throwing, and throwing, and continuing to throw, even with an insurmountable Oregon lead. He threw, and threw, and kept on throwing for reasons unclear to God, man, and Oregon defensive coordinator Nick Aliotti.
"That’s total (B.S.) that he threw the ball at the end of the game like he did,’’ Aliotti said. "And you can print that and you can send it to him, and he can comment, too. I think it’s low class and it’s (B.S.) to throw the ball when the game is completely over against our kids that are basically our scout team.’’
By the time the game finally ended, Halliday held the record for most pass attempts in a game (89), a game he and his team lost. He also set the record for most passes completed (58) in the same game, which yeah: he and his team lost. Halliday also holds the record for most passing yards in a game, a total of 734 yards against Cal in a game the Cougs lost when their kicker missed a glorified extra point of a field goal attempt to lose 60-59. Connor Halliday also set the record for total yards by a single player in that game, covering 751 yards when you threw his 17 rushing yards on top of his passing stats in the game. (That he and his team lost.)
Hearing that, you may not be surprised to hear that Connor Halliday never played on a winning team in college. After sifting through his collection of three-star level scholarship offers, he committed to Washington State. He had to know how bad it would be: Paul Wulff was in the final throes of his 9-40 tenure at the school, the worst record of any coach in the history of the program, and there was little in the way of hope on the way.
Still, in his first appearance in Pac-12 play, the Cougs upset Arizona State with Halliday throwing for 494 yards and 4 TDs. The following week, he was named the starter. This being Connor Halliday, his first start would come against Utah in a driving snowstorm. Halliday threw four interceptions in a 30-27 loss, and played through a lacerated liver he suffered sometime in the second quarter. Do not gloss over that: the largest internal organ in his body was torn by the blunt force of playing football, and he continued to attempt to throw a football in a fucking snowstorm. Halliday spent that night in the Pullman ICU.
Wulff would get mercifully fired. Mike Leach coming in should have spelled something like relief, but Washington State's offensive line was made up of well-meaning mannequins constructed from packing materials and all the heart in the world, with no ability to protect the passer's tender ribs, head, knees, or any other very breakable body parts. The Cougars had little in the way of defense, either. The quarterback would be behind, throwing often. He would have very, very little time to make decisions. And when he made them, he would likely eat a helmet to the chest on every other play from scrimmage.
The beatings continued despite a coaching change and the arrival of Mike Leach. If anything, Leach's arrival solidified Halliday's identity as a doomed robo-passer throwing hundreds of passes deep into the night on ESPN2. Halliday would throw more, and more, and more, no matter the score, and no matter the lead or deficit. The Cougars nearly beat Auburn, nearly beat Cal, and even upset a derelict USC team, and yet: Connor Halliday kept throwing, and Washington State kept coming within inches of breaking even. Halliday took ghastly hits in the pocket. They got even worse when he dared to lumber outside of it for precious yardage.
Under Leach, his numbers ballooned. In 2013, Halliday threw for 4,597 yards with almost no support from one of the nation's worst rushing attacks. Halliday was well ahead of that torrid pace in 2014 before he finally suffered an injury he couldn't hide from trainers, limp through, or conceal from a horrified television audience. His leg snapped on a play in the first quarter against USC. His final year of his college career ended as his first began: with Halliday leaving the field on a stretcher, writhing in obvious pain.
Halliday quit Washington's training camp this week. Reportedly, his only words were "I'm done." And if he says he's done, then Connor Halliday is done, and does not want to invest further physical capital in the name of being a third-string quarterback in the NFL. (Especially the thankless job of doing that for one of the NFL's worst franchises.) His mother wrote this about him prior to the draft:
I could tell you about his junior year in high school when he threw up from abdominal pain after a particularly hard-hitting game, warranting another trip to another emergency room where another surprised doctor told me he must be in terrific pain, his spleen in danger of rupture, enlarged by the mononucleosis he was sick with, not that any of us knew it. That day, Connor lay on the E.R. table, furious with the doctor and then me as I tried to make sense of it for him, that he was unable to play in next week’s game. You can’t stop me. I’d rather die in the game than not play.
It will look like another flaky college QB begging off the rigors of the NFL before training camp even starts, and that's so not the story we want, or the narrative Halliday deserves here. Connor Halliday, on both a statistical and metaphysical level, endured one of the hardest and most viscerally unfair careers in recent college football history. He suffered grotesque injury in brutal conditions, played through inordinate amounts of pain, and took the field against teams like Oregon in zero-hope situations so many times it makes the career of Nick Foles at Arizona look like a happy story in comparison. No one threw more or more furiously in impossible games, and few came closer to winning without ever touching the high side of .500.
Halliday had one shot to be on a winning team, sure. His 2013 team made a bowl game at 6-6, and led the entire Gildan New Mexico Bowl against Colorado State all the way to the final two minutes. Halliday had been brilliant, throwing six TDs to six different Cougar receivers. They needed to run the clock out and not turn the ball over twice in two minutes to Colorado State for quick scores. The Cougs turned the ball over twice in two minutes, and lost. Walking away from a bad NFL team seems like the closest thing to a happy ending football will ever let Connor Halliday have.