a stranger comes to town

words: connor wroe southard

Late in the Wyoming Cowboys’ opening game at Iowa, quarterback Josh Allen found himself in his native ecosystem: A collapsing pocket. The Cowboys were already down 21-3. The third quarter was ticking away and they were creeping up on the red zone for what would turn out to be the last time all game. Allen evaded a swooping defensive end and tiptoed toward the line of scrimmage. Off-balance and in danger, he flicked his right arm with the nonchalance with which you might hit your nephew in the flats on Thanksgiving. Except this throw flew more than 40 yards. It hit receiver C.J. Johnson in full stride, on the numbers, in the end zone. And Johnson dropped the ball.

 

Like everyone else not named Josh Allen, Johnson wasn’t prepared for the pass. The ball shouldn’t have been there—Allen was about to be sacked and had no safe place to plant his feet. It was easily one of the best throws you’ll see a college quarterback make, and it came out of nowhere in the midst of a frustrating performance. When I asked Allen’s favorite target, sophomore wide-out Austin Conway, if his quarterback continued to surprise him even though they’ve played together for a while, he said, “Oh yeah. He’s Superman in a football uniform.”

 

Conway isn’t the only person who thinks Josh Allen wears a cape. Allen was touted as a potential Heisman winner and number one NFL draft pick before this season.. Scouts love Allen’s rifle arm, his size, and his elusiveness both under pressure and on designed runs. Despite losing two of his best receivers and his star running back to the NFL—an unusual talent exodus for a small program—he was expected to have a huge year. It’s not hard to see why. Allen made heroic, absurd, game-upending throws in big matchups last year against multiple ranked opponents—usually while running for his life. They were the kind of plays plenty of passers on NFL rosters would struggle to make. At his best, firing deadeye on the move while leaving would-be tacklers strewn across the backfield, Allen looks like no one so much as a certain Wisconsin-based quarterback whose name scouts are afraid to invoke. Everyone agrees that Allen’s upside is off the charts. The potential downsides are as demoralizing as they are impossible to dispute.

 

In their first three games of the season, Wyoming faced a typically stout Iowa, FCS small fry Gardner-Webb, and a seemingly resurgent Oregon. Allen’s stats through those games: 54-96 completions for 566 yards passing, with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Both touchdowns came against Gardner-Webb, the only opponent of the three Wyoming defeated. Those numbers were significantly worse than scouts and experts hoped for before this year. Early on, Allen was not having the season many projected. Josh Allen was great, but he wasn’t good.

 

II

 

A mysterious stranger comes to a dusty little town. He just wants to do his thing quietly, but the town is in trouble. He finds himself fending off wave after wave of nefarious outsiders who would wrong the locals. Everyone, friend and foe, comes to respect his deadly skills. When he rides off, the town is a better place for having known him, and they will always honor his legend. This is the plot of Yojimbo, which was later adapted into A Fistful of Dollars. It has since become perhaps the dominant paradigm of the gunslinger Western.

 

Josh Allen came to Laramie in the second season of head coach Craig Bohl’s rebuilding effort. Bohl was the only coach to visit the Allen family farm in Firebaugh, California, a Central Valley farming town with a population of 8,500. No other top-division program recruited Allen out of either Firebaugh High School or Reedley Junior College. Legend has it that when the Reedley coaches showed Allen’s highlight reel to Brent Vigen, Wyoming’s offensive coordinator, Vigen’s first response was to question whether the film was real.

 

It wasn’t the first time Craig Bohl’s coaching staff had discovered a hidden talent. As head coach at FCS power North Dakota State, Bohl developed the similarly under-pursued Carson Wentz into a number-two NFL draft pick. When Allen considered leaving early for the draft after his breakout 2016 season, it was Wentz who counseled him to stay, telling Allen to make sure he was ready for the NFL. In college, the current Philadelphia Eagles quarterback said, you won’t have grown men with families counting on you. Wentz had a point, but Allen has faced a kind of pressure that is both subtler and more grim.

 

Wyoming is in a bad way. The natural gas, oil, and coal revenues that had buoyed the state economy while the rest of the country faced a recession and a stuttering recovery started to decline in 2015. By 2016, it was clear the state was roughly where almost everywhere else had been circa 2009. Public budgets—including that of the University of Wyoming, the only four-year institution in the state—have been slashed, and thousands of Wyomingites with decently paid jobs in the energy industry have lost them. The state’s governing elite are having a hard time deciding on a fiscal strategy that goes beyond praying that markets do something with coal other than scamper away from it like a flushed passer.

 

One of the very, very few good things to collectively happen to the state of Wyoming in 2016 was Josh Allen’s unexpected emergence as a college football superstar. I imagine the way I first encountered Allen’s brilliance was similar to that of many Wyoming expatriates—I got a late-night text from my mom. The Cowboys were on the verge of upsetting 12th-ranked Boise State at home. I tuned in just in time to see Allen throw one of his most iconic passes, a bullet to a diving Tanner Gentry, delivered as Allen sprinted toward the right sideline with a posse of Boise defenders in pursuit. At the time, I thought I was watching a passable small-conference quarterback have the game of his life. Then Allen did similarly rowdy things against a ranked San Diego State team—twice. And again in a bowl game against BYU.

 

Wyoming didn’t win all of these games, but in every case, Allen made throws that no college quarterback should be able to make. By the end of the season, Allen had compiled a highlight reel that was mostly variations on that Boise pass—implausibly strong throws, made after multiple downfield reads, with only a slight twitch of his hips interrupting his galloping flight from half of the opposing defense. Plenty of guys in college football put up bigger numbers and made fewer mistakes, but no passer looked as I’m-your-huckleberry lethal as Allen did at his best. That he could be inconsistent and at times unwise only magnified his outlaw élan. In a once-notorious Wild West town that was the only place to hold Butch Cassidy in jail, Allen had become the quintessential gunslinger.

 

I’d never really cared about Wyoming Cowboys football. I started to care about Josh Allen. I knew he couldn’t do much for my state and hometown beyond winning football games and making some plays we’d remember. But hell, what else could anyone do for Wyoming? If Allen went down, at least he’d go down firing.

 

III

 

The press box at War Memorial Stadium looks out from the western side of the field over the VIP suites to the east, toward the craggy Laramie Range. The mottled red rocks at first rise up as surly bumps on the prairie. Beyond the eastern horizon, these boulders and crags begin to coalesce into the extrusions of Vedauwoo, site of some of the best rock climbing in the world. As we took our seats for Gardner-Webb, the in-house radio broadcast pointedly drew the press pool’s attention to the mountains.

 

Down below, Josh Allen began to icily dispatch the Gardner-Webb defense. By halftime, he had 246 yards passing and two touchdowns. He would finish with 328 yards, those two scores, and no interceptions. He could probably have put up 500 yards and four touchdowns, perhaps enough to get him back into Heisman discussions, but that’s not how Bohl—or Allen, for that matter—operates. Coming into the season, I knew Allen would drop out of Heisman contention early simply because he’d never be able to put up the numbers he could if he played for Florida State or USC. The Cowboys are still a program on the make, and that means not getting too cute. At Wyoming, you do exactly what you have to do to win. The special plays happen because you need them. Transcendence is just another weapon.

 

Wyoming won 27-0. In the postgame press conference, Allen was more excited about the defense getting a shutout than anything he had done.

 

It’s often said of great athletes that they appear to play their sports at a different speed from everyone else. This was true of Allen against Gardner-Webb, which is what you’d expect from a first-round prospect up against an FCS team. Except downplaying Allen’s nonchalant brilliance against even a second-tier program ignores that, until well after he left high school, no one thought he would even be worthy of playing quarterback at Gardner-Webb. This is the enticement and the frustration of Josh Allen: Nothing he does at Wyoming can quite satisfy the story arc he began by boldly overwriting those first expectations.

 

As usual, Allen was at his best under pressure. With a defensive lineman shadowing him step for step as he rolled right, always within an inch of pouncing, Allen threw a crisp red zone pass that nearly resulted in a touchdown. Later, during a broken play, he scrambled and underhanded the ball out to the flats for a first down. It was a backyard move, but it perfectly illustrated why Allen has the potential for much bigger things. Allen’s intuition seems heightened when a passing play falls apart, as if he can’t fully be himself if things go according to plan.

 

Toward the end of the game, storm clouds rolled in across the prairie. The wind picked up. It became hard to ignore how vulnerable the players looked—big, vital men standing on a field on the open plains as a lightning storm approached. Everything was fine, of course. No one got struck by lightning. Mostly, the weather just made the scenery more imminent, the mountains brooding just past the stadium. More than one film or photoshoot has staged Allen in those mountains, leaping around on rocks and throwing passes to no one. Today, the Wyoming landscape was once again playing along. Gardner-Webb wasn’t quite a worthy antagonist, so it helped to be confronted with at least the specter of bigger stakes.

 

IV

 

If any part of Josh Allen’s identity is completely NFL-ready, it’s how he talks to the media. This year, for perhaps the first time ever, Cowboys football won’t grant one-on-one press access to a player. Allen and Coach Bohl only do press conferences. On the Monday following the loss to Iowa, both quarterback and coach arrived with a collection of courteous clichés. Asked about his interceptions and the many shortcomings of the passing game in the opener, Allen said, “You want to play within yourself, but when you’re down a few touchdowns, you want to make plays.” How was he going to rally his receivers? “We need to make more plays.” Only when asked about a slight injury to his non-throwing shoulder that would keep him out of practice for a few days did Allen give us any access to his emotional interiority: “I hate not practicing,” he said with a twinge of bitterness. “I hate not playing football.”

 

Allen sits up straight when he talks. He makes polite eye contact with whoever asked the question. He looks and sounds like the archetypal farm-boy quarterback. It would be a stretch to infer anything more distinctive about his character based on talking to him as a reporter. All he gives you is a sense that he loves to play football and aspires to do it the right way. Any fleshing out of what that means has to come from watching him actually play.

 

For his part, Bohl is not shy about praising his star quarterback. “Josh is uniquely gifted,” he said after the Gardner-Webb game. He noted that the team wouldn’t—or couldn’t—play “the same vanilla offense” with a weapon like Allen on the field: “Josh can take the ball places on the field that most defenses cannot cover.”

 

It was unclear if “most defenses” included the team’s next opponent: The Oregon Ducks. Receiver Conway said the same thing about preparing for that game that Allen and Bohl had said: The goal was “just make plays.” Allen said he “absolutely” wanted to prove himself against a major conference opponent, after a series of notably weak outings against bigger-name programs. He added that he didn’t care about his numbers, just winning.

 

When I asked Allen how he was coping with the ongoing media hype around him as he headed into maybe the last regular season game of his career against a storied non-conference opponent, he said, “I’ve been here long enough. It doesn’t really feel different. I’m a football player.” No one would dispute that now, even if there was a time when they might have.

 

This is the epistemic problem with athletes, especially ones who are basically still in late adolescence: We think we know them, because we watch them do their favorite thing, see them repeatedly express the elements of their minds and bodies that make us care about them in the first place. And because of that belief, we feel comfortable spinning elaborate narratives around them. Someone knows Josh Allen, the person, but not anyone who’s going to write about him or even have a hot take at the bar. Unfortunately for a player as focused as Allen, our own limitations don’t mean we stop putting him at the center of our stories.

V

 

The night before the Oregon game, the Wyoming marching band and cheerleaders toured the bars in Laramie’s small downtown, playing the fight song (“Cowboy Joe”) and the creatively titled “Beer Song.” Pushing through unusually dense pregame crowds, I heard someone say to a pair of middle-aged Oregon fans, “Thanks for coming, Ducks.” They responded, “Thanks for having us.” Despite a rainstorm the night before, the weather was perfect—cloudless, light breeze, just enough crispness in the air to remind you today belonged to the boys of autumn. During warmups, both teams evinced the kind of fraternal competitive pride that college sports always aspires to, but mostly seems to have lost sometime around 1923. I convinced myself I was about to see a good football game.

 

Things fell apart, and not in the way Josh Allen likes. Wyoming got the ball first. Allen completed his first pass, to Austin Conway for five yards. And after that, it was ugly.

 

You would easily forgive Allen if his only issue against Oregon were, say, the times a pass rusher proved a half-step quicker than he was used to and tripped him up before he could make his escape from the pocket. It would also be OK if his stats were hampered by superior defensive back play and exceptionally good game-planning by Oregon coordinators. These are the hazards of being under center for a severe underdog.

 

But being prepared to see Allen play an imperfect game against Oregon made the disaster unfolding below me all the more befuddling. Something was terribly wrong—possibly everything. Allen’s timing was so far off from that of his receivers that it was as if they had been spliced in from different games. As is common for guys with big arms, Allen is more likely to overthrow receivers than underthrow them, and many of his passes floated yards beyond their apparent targets. He wasn’t really evading Oregon defenders, and it’s not clear it would have mattered if he were. I counted several bad drops throughout the game, but those didn’t account for a passing performance of 9-24 on passing for 64 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception. When Allen found a lane and rushed into the end zone on an early drive, it felt less like a triumph than a mercy.

 

Oregon’s offense, meanwhile, buzz-sawed through Wyoming’s defense. The Ducks were up 42-10 at the half, for a final score of 49-13. It was dark and cold by halftime. The crowd bled steadily out of the stadium, baring old concrete stands that had been drenched in prairie gold sweatshirts. I could sense the chilly judgment of the 16 NFL scouts on hand, sitting not far from the press box—which itself, in the words of another media member, “felt like a prison.”

 

It was, in every sense, a rough game for Allen, which may partly explain his statistical woes. In the second quarter, Allen injured his hand when his follow-through clipped the pads of an approaching defender. He was sacked many times and speared in what should have been an obvious targeting ejection. Later in the fourth quarter, he was pulled and replaced by his backup. Bohl would say in the postgame press conference that the substitution was planned, but added that Allen also sprained his ankle on his final play. The quarterback did not come out to take questions.

 

VI

 

Josh Allen went out the next week against Hawaii and put up another underwhelming stat line: 9-19 for 92 yards and one touchdown. Conventional stats failed to account for a half-dozen or so receiver drops so bad that even the ESPN2 crew couldn’t contain their dismay. They also didn’t capture the loveliness of the touchdown pass Allen threw in overtime, a perfectly feathered ball that arced over a defensive back and into the hands of a diving James Price in the end zone. Allen was as excited after that pass as he’s been all year. The commentators wondered if the play might be a turning point in Allen’s season. Wyoming got the win.

 

Last weekend, the Cowboys had a fourth straight home game against the Texas State Bobcats, one of the very weakest teams in the top tier of college football. Wyoming won 45-10. It was perhaps Allen’s best game of the season: He went 14-24 on passing and racked up 219 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions.  All three touchdown throws were executed with serenity and precision. C.J. Johnson, plagued by bad drops in the first four games, snagged two of the scoring passes. Scouts would find plenty to like in film of Allen’s performance, even if the opposing defense was effectively an afterthought. Putting up good passing numbers will only get harder from here on out. To continue salvaging his season and that of the Cowboys, Allen will be asked to do a whole lot, which for him is nothing new.

 

VII

 

Of all the plays that distill the restless beauty of Josh Allen’s Wyoming career, perhaps none are quite as fitting as moments of brilliance that actually cost his team yardage. Consider one third down early in the second quarter of the Iowa game. Allen rolled out to his left under pressure. Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell broke away from his blocker and immediately wrapped Allen up. The play was over. Except it wasn’t. Allen torqued his core and pirouetted, leaving Jewell grasping first jersey, and then air. Allen scampered to his right. He found himself in a patch of the backfield with a window to throw, checked down, but couldn’t find anyone open. Pursuing Iowa defenders eventually dragged him down. The announcers went wild, even though the play went on the score sheet as a tackle for loss. My friend texted me to say Allen had looked like Stanford-era Andrew Luck. It was all a thrilling failure.

 

As of now, there’s no stable expert consensus on Allen’s draft status. He’s had a rough and frustrating season, but there are plenty of good reasons for this and no one can deny his exceptional raw abilities. He will certainly be drafted, probably fairly high, though he’s now very unlikely to be the first overall pick. There is nonetheless a fair amount of gloating about how “overrated” Allen is. This reversal is a classic ouroboros of sports discourse—there was never much chance Allen would put up the numbers to justify “surefire number one pick” status, so it was all but inevitable that the take machinery would turn on itself and devour its own hubris. One of the only safe claims is that there are a lot more games to play, and every team game-planning for Wyoming knows Allen can hurt them in a way almost no one else can. And hey, if Allen slips down the draft board, at least he probably won’t have to immediately play the hero for one of the league’s worst teams. 

 

Gunslingers don’t get to tell their own stories. If they lose, that’s it—a shallow grave with few mourners. If they win, they ride off into the sunset, leaving the rest of us to embellish their myths. Josh Allen will get to ride away. When he does so, it will be after a narratively troubled year. Already a figure of local myth before the season, Allen couldn’t possibly defeat all of the enemies Wyomingites wanted him to, only some of whom could be found on a football field. We were always going to ask for more. Perhaps these impossible expectations are one reason gunslingers mostly leave town right after the climactic fight. If you stay in the place where you became a legend, you’ll soon find yourself staring down that most ethereal of foes: The stories others have told about you. You can’t really expect to win that battle. The best you can hope for is to be like Josh Allen, who finds ways to make his inadequacy into something beautiful.