He's Still Singing OSU's Praises

Joe King remembers his first trip to Stillwater, Okla., like it was just a few days ago. But in reality it was nearly 25 years ago when the star quarterback from South Oak Cliff High School in Dallas made the trip north of the Red River on a recruiting visit to Oklahoma State University.

The reasons that high school football players give for selecting the college they attend have been as varied over the years as the wardrobe changes (if that's what you call them) that Lady Gaga makes during a concert. One player will say he is going to the school where he has the best chance of playing early. Another will make his decision based on the team he believes will prepare him best for a professional career.

Sometimes, it comes down to where his girlfriend is attending school. Or, and don't laugh because it's happened, because he likes the color of the uniforms.

But rarely has an athlete, especially one with the credentials of King when he capped his star-studded career at South Oak Cliff High School, claimed his decision was based on a snowfall, especially in Stillwater.

"(Former OSU teammates) Devin Jones, Kenny Ford and I think there were a few more that made our trips together, and we got snowed in up there on my visit. I didn't get back to school until Wednesday," said the 6-2, 200-pound quarterback. "We had a great time. We got to stay in the hotel, went swimming every day ... We had a great time."

That extended weekend visit was the beginning of King's love affair with Oklahoma State and Stillwater. The 18-year-old high school senior eventually signed with the Cowboys and was part of the program for four years before going on to play professionally for four seasons.

King is so fond of his alma mater, and the Payne County town in which it resides, that the former NFL cornerback now turned professional country and western singer recently wrote a song about Stillwater. The former Cowboy was invited back and performed ‘Down in Stillwater, Oklahoma' during the Legends of the Gridiron weekend in which ex-players were invited back for the Orange-White spring game in April.

"You know what? That will be a moment that I will never, ever forget," said King. "I played (football) in different stadiums, caught interceptions, and this ranks up there as one of those exciting moments. Almost like making an interception and running it for a touchdown.

"We had a great time. It ranked up there for me. It will be one of my most memorable moments, no doubt. I know there are many more to come but for now it ranks up there," he said of the two-hour performance outside Eskimo Joe's with his band, the Diamond JK Band.

"I had a blast. It was my first time to perform live there, so I had a great time," said King. "It was great, especially singing that song about Stillwater, Oklahoma."

King's lyrics say everything he wants to about the town.

"I gotta go and I can't be late,
I gotta show and I can't wait
to get myself to Oklahoma.

"The beers are cold and the girls are fun.
Tonight I'm gonna get me one
in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

"I'm a little bit older now
going back to my college town
to look around and see what's going down.

"Tumbleweeds and Eskimo Joe's,
hanging out til it was time to close,
down in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

"I never thought way back then
I'd have six-string box in my hand,
and now that's a part of who I am.

"Years have passed and a lot has changed
but people are still the same,
down in Stillwater, Oklahoma,
down in Stillwater, Oklahoma."

King easily could have been writing the song about Austin, Texas, Tucson, Ariz., or Madison, Wis., instead of Stillwater when he wrote it several years ago. The standout quarterback was one of the most sought after high school players in Texas, and was recruited by Texas, UCLA, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Arizona, TCU, SMU, Texas A&M, Baylor and Florida, to name just a few of the schools who wanted him.

He took visits to Texas, Baylor, Wisconsin, Texas A&M, Florida and OSU, before eventually signing with the Cowboys.

"It got to a point where I said, I like these guys here. I like the school, it's a college town, it's country just like where I grew up, so I was Oklahoma State bound," said King, whose family owned a ranch in Hallsville, Texas in East Texas.

But King was in for a surprise when he arrived in Stillwater in August 1987 as a freshman. The year before, a true freshman who had originally committed to the University of Oklahoma before changing his mind to sign with the Cowboys was inserted into the lineup in the third game of the season. Over the course of the next eight games, this 18-year-old quarterback led Oklahoma State to a 5-3 record, including a three-game winning streak with wins over Kansas State, Iowa State and Missouri to close the season.

Mike Gundy would help guide the Cowboys to back-to-back 10-win seasons in 1987 and 1988, and eventually became the Big Eight Conference's all-time leading passer before his playing career came to an end. Gundy still held the OSU record for most passing yards in a career until Zac Robinson broke it two years ago.

King was too good of an athlete to keep off the field and never played a down at quarterback during his college career.

"I wanted to play quarterback. It was probably one of the most disappointing times for me, until I got it out of my blood," he said recently. "I'll never forget, (then OSU head coach) Pat Jones called me into his office and said, ‘King, you can be my second-string quarterback, but I need you on the defensive side. You've got the ability that I think you can be starting in three games.' By God, he was right, I was starting in three games.

"It worked out the way it was supposed to, but even now when I look back I still wanted to be a quarterback. I still wanted to be a quarterback," said King.

He made an immediate impact at cornerback for the Cowboys. In just his third game on defense, against Tulsa on Oct. 1, 1988 – a game that most OSU fans remember because Barry Sanders had 304 rushing yards (the first of four 300-yard games that season) and five touchdowns – King had two interceptions and six tackles.

Unfortunately, King would have just one other interception over the course of the next two and a half years. He battled through several injuries during his playing career, including breaking a bone in his foot the week before the opener against Tulsa and All-America receiver Dan Bitson in 1989.

"I was in the best shape I had ever been. I was cutting on a dime, and I was as quick as a cat. I was becoming a real cornerback," King said of the broken bone that sidelined him for the first three games of his junior season. "Me and Melvin Gilliam were back there (cornerbacks), and I felt something really special going on in that backfield. But when that happened it really was like, oh no, here we go again."

King was not selected in the 1990 NFL Draft – although he thought he was going to be taken by the Minnesota Vikings – but had several opportunities when the Atlanta Falcons, Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles sought to sign him as a free agent.

"I got called in the fifth round by Minnesota. They called at my apartment saying, ‘King, how would you like to be a Minnesota Viking?' They said stand by and we'll see what's going to happen here. I never got a phone call," he said. The Vikings instead picked center Chris Thome from the University of Minnesota and then cut him before he ever played in a game for the team.

King eventually signed with Cincinnati, and when starting cornerback Barney Bussey was injured during the preseason, it opened the door for the Oklahoma State rookie. He was the only free agent to make the Bengals 53-man roster that season, beating out five players who the team had drafted. His deal with the Bengals earned him a $7,000 signing bonus and a $75,000 contract.

He spent the next five years playing for the Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Oakland Raiders.

"The highlight of my NFL career was making that Cincinnati team and finding out that I was on the 53-man roster," he said.

However, the most memorable game of his professional career came on Dec. 27, 1992 – the last game of the 1992 season – in Tampa Bay's 7-3 victory over the Arizona Cardinals. The Buccaneers intercepted five passes thrown by the Cardinals, and King came away with two of those interceptions. "On the airplane coming back (from Arizona), the GM came up to me and said, ‘Good job, son. We'll be redoing your contract for next year.'"

King did play the 1993 season with the Buccaneers, sat out 1994 with an injury, and played one final season with Oakland before retiring. But signing with Oakland as a free agent proved to be a premonition that he would one day return to Stillwater.

"When I was with the Oakland Raiders there was a place on Manhattan Beach called the Lighthouse, and they had a karaoke bar there, and the only kind of music they played was country," he said. "I will never forget, Randy Travis's ‘Forever and Ever, Amen' was the first song that I sang. At that point, I fell in love with country. Now I didn't want my friends to know that I had country CDs in the car, but I fell in love with country at that time. My collection of music slowly started to change over to country."

He entered the workforce for several years – as a store manager of a shoe store in Alabama, became a route sales supervisor for Frito-Lay, and was a supervisor of a start-up project at Texas Instruments – before he eventually decided to pursue his dream of singing professionally. King performed on a cruise ship in 2000 but it wasn't until 2005 that he purchased his first guitar, and didn't begin concentrating on his new career until a year later.

King says he gets just as nervous when he walks on the stage to perform for several hundred people as he did when he went up against the likes of Pro Football Hall of Famers like Jerry Rice, Dan Marino and Michael Irvin.

"I really do think the crowds during the NFL did help," he said. "I'll tell you what, it's tougher for me to perform in front of a few people than it is to perform in front of a whole bunch of people. It's the same butterflies that you get when you step onto the football field, but once I sing that first word I'm good. I'm in my element. Game on.

"The only difference is the physical play of the football game, and knowing I've got to guard Jerry Rice and keep him from making a touchdown or seeing Christian Okoye coming through this hole and keep him from running over me.

"It's the same in that I've got to get this crowd into feeling what I'm singing. I've got to captivate these guys. From a defensive point of view, I've got to make sure I discourage Jerry Rice from coming across the middle. I've got a job to do, and I've got to let these guys know that I'm here physically in football, but on the stage it's I've got their attention and get them to like what I'm doing.

"It's very much like game day. Every time I'm performing it feels like game day. It feels like I'm getting ready to go out there to play a game," King said.

King is satisfied with what he accomplished on the football field. But he has bigger aspirations for his career as a country singer. "People seem to be connecting to what I'm singing about and appreciate me taking the challenge for doing country," he said. "I hope to accomplish quite a bit."

Maybe even returning to his alma mater again, and instead of singing "Down in Stillwater, Oklahoma" outside of Eskimo Joe's, King and the Diamond JK Band will perform it inside of a sold-out Boone Pickens Stadium. He has one request, that it's not on a snowy weekend like he remembers the first time he visited Stillwater.

(Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the most recent issue of Go Pokes Magazine. Yes, I Want to Subscribe to Go Pokes Magazine)

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