Nice Touch : CSUN Quarterback O'Laughlin a People-Pleasing Prospect

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Let it be written here, for the first time anywhere: J.J. O'Laughlin was a chunky kid.

Not a big bag of blubber, mind you, but a wide load nonetheless.

"He was a pudgy little guy," said his brother, Brian. "Chubby as in, built like a catcher eating a Snickers bar."

Enjoy the snickers and chuckles while you can, because when it comes to James Joseph O'Laughlin, there aren't many opportunities to laugh at his expense.

O'Laughlin, a preseason All-American quarterback at Cal State Northridge, is the closest thing to Frank Merriwell as there can be in the 1990s. People speak of him in almost- reverential terms, which strikes an unaffected O'Laughlin as borderline hilarious.

Inflated as a kid, nothing of the sort as an adult. Particularly when it comes to ego.

"The kind of guy you'd want your daughter to marry," football Coach Bob Burt said. Gee whiz.

"What you see is what you get," teammate Travis Hall said. "He's the real deal."

Golly gosh.

"I also help old ladies cross the street," O'Laughlin said..

Old scouts cross the country to eye his wares. They furiously scribble notes at practice and carefully scrutinize his game film.

He ranks among the best college players in Southern California, sentiments bellowed from the mountaintops by Burt.

He might be the best quarterback in Northridge history. Care to hear O'Laughlin discuss the validity of the issue?

As his brother might say: Fat chance.

*

It was the first time O'Laughlin ever quit anything. It tore at his very moral fabric.

Growing up, J.J. wanted to win so badly, his older brothers on occasion half-seriously accused him of cheating. Now he was coming home to Glendora with his tail between his legs and his belongings in a U-Haul trailer.

A disenchanted O'Laughlin packed up his truck last August, grabbed a road map and headed west, leaving the University of Illinois and the Big Ten Conference in the old rear-view.

He arrived in Southern California on a Friday and drove to San Diego the following day to catch Northridge in action against San Diego State. He watched from the stands as quarterback Coley Kyman suffered a broken ankle.

Said Burt afterward: "Get ready. We're down to two (quarterbacks)."

. At that point, O'Laughlin hadn't even met his new teammates, who gathered around during his first practice to see what all the hubbub was about. Sure, he was a transfer from D-1, but was he the one?

"The first day of practice, he threw a deep ball, with the tightest spiral I've ever seen, right on the money," said Hall, a junior tight end. "I thought, 'Maybe we've got something here.' "

Something else, it seemed. O'Laughlin practiced for one week, then saw action in Northridge's next game against Weber State. He threw two touchdown passes and was named the starter, which means that either Northridge was running an offense that Fred Flintstone could master or J.J.'s a quick study.

"Definitely the former," O'Laughlin said.

Maybe not. O'Laughlin, who carries a grade-point average of 3.5, saw a new playbook about every 15 minutes at Illinois. In three years with the Illini, he had three different position coaches.

He first committed to Illinois and Coach John Mackovic in 1990, after three years as the starter at Glendora High. Mom and dad bought a satellite TV dish to follow his athletic progress.

Buying ComSat itself wouldn't have helped, the way things turned out. He hardly played.

Mackovic bolted for Texas a year later and was replaced by Lou Tepper. With his parents' encouragement, O'Laughlin stuck it out as a reserve.

"I figured that sooner or later, they'd finally see that he was the best man for the job," said his mother, Terry.

He was--if the job was holding a clipboard and trying to look interested. After participating in summer camp in '93, O'Laughlin requested and received a blunt assessment.

"They told me I was not in the picture," O'Laughlin said. "They had their guys they recruited. I really had no choice if I wanted to play. And I had to play."

To gain immediate eligibility, O'Laughlin needed to join a program that competed in Division I-AA or lower. Northridge, which plays in I-AA and fit the profile, was close to home.

Burt, who also coached at Cal State Fullerton, UCLA and Hawaii, said O'Laughlin (6 feet 3, 200 pounds) is the most complete quarterback he's coached.

"He's what coaches dream of having at that position," Burt said. "He has the ability and the intangibles. If a coach could have a guy like him every year, he'd have a major problem solved--forever."

O'Laughlin's arrival was the solution for team and player, though there are trade-offs for the latter. After all, ambushing opponents like Cal State Chico and Sonoma State doesn't exactly spice up a guy's football portfolio.

O'Laughlin has passed for 1,697 yards and ranks 19th in total offense in I-AA, yet the Matadors are 3-4. Funding issues have been a major distraction and football could face the chopping block.

"I realize and understand my environment and everything that comes with it," he said, diplomatically. "I'm making do and so is everybody else."

Making hay, too. Despite O'Laughlin's new mailing address, dozens of football scouts found him anyway.

"The fact that he was recruited by (Illinois) tells you that he's pretty good," said one NFL scout as he watched O'Laughlin practice. "But if I'm out here to see him, it means he's a prospect."

O'Laughlin ultimately could receive an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine, scheduled over the winter in Indianapolis.

"He has a pretty good shot," said the scout.

O'Laughlin takes the attention with aplomb. He's been shrugging off this sort of thing for years, probably because his family wouldn't stand for so much as a swig of swagger.

"It was understood that we wouldn't put up with that stuff," Brian O'Laughlin said. "We'd shut him down, big time."

Somebody say big time? When O'Laughlin heard he'd been named an All-American by one periodical, he laughed. Before he was sidelined with a shoulder injury, O'Laughlin passed for 1,181 yards and nine touchdowns over 6 1/2 games. Not bad. Not great.

"Seems kind of odd, don't you think?" he said.

Crazed might be more accurate, he said. Last year, O'Laughlin's right shoulder suffered a dislocation and torn rotator cuff when he was mauled by a Chico tackler.

His career in jeopardy, he had major surgery Dec. 14 and didn't begin throwing until summer camp. For one of the few times in his life, there was an element of self-doubt.

"I wondered if I was going to be able to throw a ball," he said.

So did everybody else. He finally was given full medical clearance on July 1. Talk about matters picking up in a hurry: O'Laughlin proposed to his girlfriend, Kathleen Shannon, the following day.

Shannon, a setter on the Northridge women's volleyball team who also transferred from Illinois, knows O'Laughlin better than anyone, and she said there are few chinks in his armor. In fact, what gets on her nerves most may not be a bad characteristic at all.

"He never loses his temper," she said. "He's calm about everything. I'll get all over him about something and he says, 'Now, Kathleen, I don't think that's any reason to raise your voice.' "

*

Nearly everyone who's run across O'Laughlin has voiced a gushing testimonial, some relating to his athleticism, some to his self-effacing style. Hypoglycemics, read on.

As a high school senior, O'Laughlin squared off in the state basketball playoffs against Artesia High and Ed O'Bannon, now at UCLA. Artesia won, but O'Laughlin scored 16 points and held O'Bannon to 18.

O'Laughlin played center as a senior in 1989-90, the position occupied the season before by Tracy Murray. Minus Murray, who set a slew of state scoring records and now plays for the Portland Trail Blazers, Glendora still won the Southern Section 4-AA title.

During football season, O'Laughlin's car broke down before Glendora's customary pregame meal. Rules were clear: Miss a team dinner, miss a start.

Coach Dean Karnoski could easily have relented. O'Laughlin was the feature attraction and was in the process of passing for at least 1,500 yards for the third consecutive season. Though he had a legitimate reason for missing the dinner, O'Laughlin didn't whine.

"Actually, he stood on the sideline and cheered the other (quarterback) on," Karnoski said. "Then he went in and led us to the promised land."

To the Southern Section Division II co-championship, one of a zillion credentials. He might have been the most-loved and most-resented perfect kid at Glendora. He was junior class president, a homecoming king, not to mention captain of the football, baseball and basketball teams as a senior. He was, of course, on the honor roll.

"He's one of the neatest kids I've ever met," said Glendora basketball Coach Mike LeDuc. "I respect him. You won't hear anybody say anything bad about him."

Everybody's All-American is altruistic, even. He stumped vigorously in support of the athletics fee referendum that failed last month. He gave speeches to student clubs in support of the plan, which wouldn't have gone into effect until next year--by when he'll be long gone.

"This program doesn't deserve to go down the drain," he said.

This type of thing is why O'Laughlin's mother says he is as loyal as the family mutt. Loyalty and togetherness are big in this clan. O'Laughlin's mom, a talkative sort who clearly dotes on her youngest son, has been known to turn up at Northridge practices.

"She loves to watch practice," J.J. said. "She loves it. Scouts are out there and she loves to see them."

Guess again.

"(Practices) are miserable," she said. "I go out there to see J.J. I take him his mail. I need my J.J. fix."

All this and magnetic too?

Last month, though the Matadors' homecoming had been ruined in a 30-6 loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, O'Laughlin patiently signed autographs outside the team locker room.

"You're my favorite player," one starry-eyed boy said.

O'Laughlin gave the kid a souvenir: A plain white towel used by the quarterback during the game.

The towel was not festooned with a skull and crossbones, murderous message or other such inflammatory fare. Perfect garb for the unpretentious type.

"I've never wanted people to think of me as cocky," he said. "Maybe my parents drilled it into my head. I hated people who were rude to others, who thought they were better.

"I try to be nice to the equipment people, everybody I run across. No amount of success gives me reason to act like that."

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