Ethan Houk wasn’t supposed to be under the spotlight.
It was supposed to be the coronation of DaQuan Johnson. One of the most electric athletes in the state, Johnson was poised to take over for Gage Friess, last year’s 3A leader in passing yards and touchdowns, at quarterback for the Parsons Vikings.
But a knee injury that required surgery in the summer sidelined Johnson for the fall. That forced Houk, a junior backup to Johnson and last year’s JV quarterback, into the starting role.
Jeff Schibi, the offensive coordinator for Parsons and a former starting quarterback himself for the Vikings, tried to prepare Houk for the glory and scrutiny that comes with the role.
“I told him that everybody would know his name,” Schibi said. “When you’re successful, you’ll get a lot of praise. When you’re unsuccessful, you shoulder the blame. I’ve been on both sides of that spectrum. But the thrill of being in front of your community in that role, there’s nothing like it. I told him to wait until Friday night comes.”
Friday night came in Week 1 against Iola and Houk delivered one of the most legendary performances in one of the most unforgettable games in program history.
Parsons, which trailed by 16 points midway through the fourth quarter, came back to tie Iola 22-22 to force overtime. The Vikings needed five overtimes before a 10-yard screen pass from Houk to star wideout Dariq Williams finally gave Parsons a 54-48 victory celebrated by a delirious sideline and an even more shellshocked crowd.
“We showed more heart and resilience than any team I’ve been a part of,” Schibi said. “We’ve got to use this win as a springboard.”
Houk finished the game 17-of-34 passing with five touchdowns — all to Williams — to go along with 50 rushing yards on eight carries and two more scores.
Those numbers punctuate a debut for the ages but also hide a debut that had the makings of being a wash.
Houk also had three interceptions as Parsons eventually fell behind 22-6 to the Mustangs.
Johnson, who stood on the sidelines and went over film in real time on a tablet with Houk during the game, could see the ghosts haunting Houk.
“He was a little nervous,” Johnson said. “He was battling himself. And I was trying to get him to pick himself up. That’s what he did in the fourth quarter. Now he knows it’s his time.”
Houk is a coach’s son — his father, Anthony, is the head coach of the boy’s basketball team. Through his first two years on the gridiron, Houk has been content living in the shadows.
“I was OK with being the backup,” Houk said. “I was happy that our JV team did so well. But I’m coachable so I can fit into any role they need me.”
When Houk was shoved under center as the team’s starting signal-caller, Schibi put the junior through a crash course.
“After DaQuan got hurt,” Schibi said, “we had to make sure Ethan knew it became his team. I had five or six talks with him alone during the summer about how he needed to take control through hard work, leadership and communication.”
In Houk’s first offensive series against Iola, his first two passes fell incomplete. He bounced a hitch pass to Dariq Williams before his second pass on an out route was batted away.
“I knew there were going to be some early game jitters,” Schibi said. “Especially with a packed stadium. I wasn’t shocked about what was going on. But I don’t think I put him in the best situations to succeed early in the game.”
As the Mustangs’ lead grew to 16 points, many of the Parsons fans had thrown in the towel and left Marvel Park before the final horn. That’s when a monster dwelling in Houk’s psyche awoke.
“I didn’t expect perfection,” Schibi said. “I knew there would be some growing pains. But he handled adversity well. When we needed him the most, he stepped up in big-time situations time after time after time.”
Houk tied the game with two touchdown passes on vertical routes to Williams. When the second strike came with just under three minutes left in regulation, the Vikings still needed the two-point conversion.
Houk already knew the play-call.
“I told him, ‘when we score this next touchdown,’ I told him what the two-point play was going to be,” Schibi said.
But, as most legends go, the play went awry. Houk rolled to the right on a pass play when he was supposed to stay in the pocket.
“I wasn’t supposed to rollout,” Houk said. “On film, you see (running back) Yusef (Kindrick) sit in the pocket and block. So when I saw Yusef didn’t go with me, I thought, ‘oh crap.’”
Houk couldn’t find an open receiver, so he barreled ahead himself and bulldozed his way past the goal line to tie the game.
The heroics were far from over. Houk ran for two touchdowns in overtime, including one in the third overtime, all a wild scramble where he traversed both sides of the field before finally picking up five yards to pay dirt.
After every score, Houk showed a type of fiery emotion that he’s rarely shown in the past. Normally a care-free, go-with-the-flow type of kid, the newfound gunslinger’s emotions overflowed.
“It was just the atmosphere,” Houk said. “Parsons hasn’t been a successful program in the past. Being a part of turning it around, I lost it. It was unbelievable.”
One of the biggest concerns about Houk was never his physical abilities, but rather his mentality. The five-overtime win, Parsons head coach Kurt Friess hopes, can even further boost Houk’s confidence.
“He gets down on himself, but that’s because he pushes himself so hard,” Friess said. “We focus on his body language and mental approach. He’s starting to command a winning presence.”
After the game, Houk spent the night at a friend’s house. While most kids would spend at least a little time celebrating a win, Houk couldn’t exert any more energy and went straight to bed.
When he woke up, he realized the price he paid on the field.
“After I woke up, I stood up and I was in immediate pain everywhere,” Houk said.
The task ahead of Houk now? Coming back down to earth and preparing for another eight weeks (at least) of football.
“If he thinks he’s already a legend, we’ve got problems,” Friess said. “Friday night is over. All we’ve got to do now is find a way to beat Anderson County in Week 2. Had he not played well, I’d want the same approach.”
Part of the learning process for Houk is film review of the first three quarters, where Houk struggled to find his rhythm.
“I’m showing him everything he needs to work on,” Schibi said. “We only completed 50% of our passes. I want it to be at least 60%, that’s the number I like to hit. So we’re showing him throws he could’ve hit earlier in the game.”
As for Houk, he’s already relegated a game that will live in Parsons lore for generations to memory.
“I’m already over it,” Houk said. “The day after the game, I’m talking to my dad and we realized it was only Week 1. Hopefully every game isn’t five overtimes and I don’t start out with three interceptions. As a team, we have to put it behind us.”