In 15 minutes of near-perfect football, Wyoming quarterback Randy Welniak experienced enough joy to wipe away 1 1/2 years of pain.
Not so many months before, his surgically repaired right arm had been so tender and weak that he wondered if he would ever again play football, let alone quarterback.
“When I came back last fall, I didn’t have much motion in my arm,” Welniak said from Laramie, Wyo. “I was throwing 15 yards and, at the time, I wondered if it was all worthwhile.”
One miraculous fourth quarter at the Air Force Academy two weeks ago proved to him that it was. He rallied Wyoming from 21 points behind to a 48-45 victory, putting the Cowboys in a strong position to successfully defend the Western Athletic Conference title they won last season for the first time since 1976.
A victory Saturday night against San Diego State at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, combined with a victory later that night by Texas El Paso at Hawaii (4-0, 2-0), would leave the No. 16 Cowboys (5-0, 2-0) alone in first place.
But whatever happens the rest of the season, Welniak figures it can never match that comeback against Air Force.
“That was a strange game; it was like it didn’t happen,” Welniak said. “The fourth quarter was like a dream. I hope I’m never put in that situation again. It was just one of those once-in-a-lifetime things.”
Welniak passed and rushed for career-high 467 yards. He completed 28 of 43 passes for 359 yards and a touchdown, with an interception. He ran for 108 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
“I’m not sure (Wyoming) knew he was going to be that good a player,” SDSU Coach Denny Stolz said. “He flat-out won the Air Force game for them. That’s the kind of quarterback you need to win.”
No one but Welniak can truly understand the months of rehabilitation and doubt that preceded the victory. His has been a long and sometimes painful experience. All of it was done just to squeeze one last senior season out of an arm that forever will be held together with a 3-inch screw.
“This is kind of his hour and his career wrapped up in one year because of all that has happened to him the last two or three years in the program,” Wyoming Coach Paul Roach said. “I have a lot of admiration for him.”
When the season began, Welniak was one of the biggest questions the Cowboys had. In their preseason poll, conference coaches selected Wyoming to finish fifth, based in part on the uncertainty at quarterback.
Welniak redshirted last season and just tried to regain his throwing motion, spending about a half an hour each practice lightly tossing a football.
“Every day it got a little better,” Welniak said. “I had a lot of confidence in myself. But when I got into spring football, I was rusty from being out for so long.”
And if his continuing rehabilitation was not enough to complicate his return, Welniak found himself having to prove himself to his third Wyoming coaching staff.
“None of the coaches except Coach Roach had seen me play (in a game),” Welniak said. “The rest of the staff was a little leery. They gave me a shot in spring practice, and I didn’t play that well. I could see in their eyes that they had a lot of doubts.”
Maybe with good reason. Not only was Welniak trying to recover from major surgery, he was looking to take over an offense completely different from the one that brought him to Wyoming.
He was recruited out of Ord, Neb., in 1984 to run the wishbone for Al Kincaid, the former coach. Welniak opted for the Cowboys after Nebraska, where his older brother Doug was a linebacker, failed to offer him a scholarship.
He played briefly as a sophomore. But when Kincaid was fired after a 3-8 season, and Dennis Erickson took over in 1986, Welniak had to adjust to a pass-oriented, run-and-shoot offense.
He came off the bench to complete 23 of 28 passes for 276 yards and 2 touchdowns in a 21-12 victory at Wisconsin in 1986, but when Roach took over after Erickson left for Washington State, he seemed destined to spend his senior season as a backup to Craig Burnett and Scott Runyan. That was until he tore shoulder ligaments in an indoor pickup football game and underwent rotator cuff surgery in April 1987.
“It was a strange feeling to look at your arm pinned to your side,” Welniak said. “You dream of being a quarterback your whole life, and then they say you will never throw again. They told me to change positions if I wanted to keep playing.
“But the reality of that never sunk in. I guess it was good I didn’t let it.”
San Diego State inside linebacker Lee Brannon (sprained knee) was downgraded to doubtful Thursday and likely will not play against Wyoming, trainer Don Kaverman said. Kaverman said he has been somewhat encouraged by the progress of inside linebacker Tracey Mao (sprained ankle) but continues to list him as questionable. Neither player has practiced this week. Outside linebacker Kevin Maultsby (bruised neck nerve) did not practice but was upgraded to probable.