This story appears in the August 10, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
He planned to dance. When LaQuan McGowan crossed the goal line, he would shimmy in that way only truly large men can shimmy. Vast stores of potential energy would turn into waves of kinetic energy simply because a 425-pounder got down. The sight alone—of a super-jumbo-sized man scoring a touchdown and then shaking the entirety of what his mama gave him—would make everyone watching the Cotton Bowl smile. But would it make McGowan smile?
The Baylor junior readily admits he does not smile often, which perplexes those who know him. “Smiling’s not that big of an issue to me,” McGowan says. “As long as I know that I’m happy, I’m O.K.” And he is O.K., though he wouldn’t mind losing a little weight. How much? Ten pounds? Thirty pounds? “I might just tell you 200,” he says. McGowan is tired of squeezing his 6' 7", 392-pound body in and out of cars, tired of scouring the Web for stylish pants in a 54-inch waist. (McGowan’s waist is a trim 48, but thanks to the squats he does in Baylor’s weight room, his thighs and butt require something a little roomier.) “In high school kids would be going into Hollister and Abercrombie & Fitch,” McGowan says. “I’d say, ‘Can I come in? You have anything in 4X?’ ” McGowan would like to sit on a toilet without worrying he’ll crush it, and this is after dropping 48 pounds from his all-time high of 440 in the spring of 2014. But McGowan knows the size that maddens him also makes him special. It makes his lone career touchdown the subject of endless fascination, the source of more than 100,000 YouTube hits and the seed of a so-crazy-it-just-might-work idea for the mad scientist who runs Baylor’s football team.
McGowan’s TD was supposed to come in the regular-season finale against Kansas State. Art Briles and his assistants had noticed their largest offensive lineman catching balls from the quarterbacks before practices. “They’re ripping it as hard as they can from 10 to 12 yards, and he’s catching everything,” Briles says. “And we’re thinking, This guy’s got a pretty good skill set.” So the coaches drew up a play: unbalanced line, McGowan on the left side in jersey number 80 with no receivers outside him, so an unsuspecting defense would think he’s the left tackle. Snap the ball, pop it to the big man and let him rumble.
The opportunity never came against the Wildcats, but it did come in the third quarter of the Cotton Bowl, on second-and-11 from the Michigan State 18-yard line. McGowan, wearing that receiver’s jersey—which, when pulled all the way down, made it hard for him to breathe—floated into the area just vacated by the linebackers. Bryce Petty zipped a pass into a pair of hands that could palm basketballs since the fifth grade. McGowan turned and sprinted away from a quintet of stunned Spartans. “I didn’t realize it until I watched the film,” Petty says, “but that dude had a burst.” When he crossed the goal line, McGowan did not dance. “I was going to, but I turned around and Antwan Goodley is there,” McGowan says. “He’s like, Jump!” Figuring a receiver with 21 collegiate touchdown catches would know the best way to celebrate, McGowan complied. Goodley tried to hoist his teammate. “He got me off the ground about two inches,” McGowan says.
McGowan’s touchdown would get buried by Michigan State’s 21-point fourth-quarter comeback for a 42–41 win. But for weeks Briles couldn’t stop thinking about the play. McGowan had soft hands and surprising speed over a 10-yard span. Had they caught up to him, how many Spartans would it have taken to drag down a 400-pounder running at top rate? Why limit McGowan to this one trick play?
Briles has never worried much about offensive convention. He started lining receivers up outside the numbers as a high school coach, and when his peers asked why he’d give up running the option to send a player on an out route, Briles would counter: With the receiver split so wide, the defense has to decide whether to leave the corner alone with him or help with a safety, who then is useless against the run. So as 2015 spring practice dawned, Briles decided to try another convention-defying experiment. While McGowan is probably too big for Baylor’s O-line, he could be the perfect size as a change-of-pace tight end who flexes off the line. “It’s like we’re living in 2035,” Briles says. “I think in 20 years there will be a lot of 400-pound football players. Some of them will be skill [players], but right now I know of only one.” Petty, who was drafted by the Jets, has been a believer from the moment Briles proposed the original pass to McGowan. “Coach Briles would put in plays, and sometimes in my head I’d think, Dude, this will never work,” Petty says. “As soon as he talked about this, I thought, This is gonna work.”
Briles doesn’t consider McGowan’s position switch a gimmick, and he became more confident after watching the big man catch passes during spring ball—and had to limit live contact with McGowan because he feared for his defenders. Still, when Baylor opens at SMU, on Sept. 4, McGowan expects stares from Mustangs defenders the first time he takes the field. He won’t mind. After all, he remembers how high school opponents gawked when he trotted out as a 370-pound kicker.
At Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch, students pitched in where they could. The ranch opened in 1939 when Farley, a pro wrestler, started the school in the courthouse of an old ghost town on 120 acres 36 miles northwest of Amarillo, Texas. It was a place where boys from broken homes could find, as Farley put it, “a shirttail to hang onto.” The ranch has turned into a tiny town with a post office, 28 homes, an activities center, a rodeo ring and 500 residents, all revolving around an elementary, middle and high school. Every year the ranch receives about 4,000 calls on behalf of children who need help. But the ranch, funded by private donations, a foundation set up in the 1960s and an annual rodeo that attracts about 10,000 people, can take only roughly 150 students annually.
McGowan’s mother, N’Teesha Smith, called a Boys Ranch counselor before her son entered sixth grade, in 2004. McGowan wasn’t a behavior problem, but Smith worried about raising her only child in crime-ridden South Dallas, and the ranch agreed, admitting LaQuan for middle school.
The 400-mile drive from Dallas to the ranch may as well have been a voyage to the moon. McGowan left a teeming city and arrived in a place 50 miles from the New Mexico border, with actual tumbleweeds rolling past. McGowan’s new surroundings shocked him, but his threshold for crying is even higher than his threshold for smiling. So while his mother bawled, he sat silently. Besides, McGowan understood the underlying reasons for his move across the state. “It was time for something new,” he says. “And that was it.”
Even then, McGowan was huge, bigger than most of the adults he encountered. This kept anyone from picking on him, but it also created a strange dynamic with teachers and house parents. “There’s a lot of pressure that comes with being big,” McGowan says. “People expect more out of you. They treat you like you’re older. But I was still a kid. In a way, I had to mature a lot faster.” So he did.
The accommodations at Boys Ranch are, fittingly, ranch-style houses. A pair of house parents and about a dozen students live in each home. They have kitchens with dual ovens and dishwashers, which were ideal for a kid who loved to bake his own corn bread (with brown sugar mixed in) and the cinnamon rolls that come in a tube. Daniel and Andrea Moser were McGowan’s house parents for two years, and the couple—he’s 5' 3" and she’s 5' 1"—grew to love the giant in their care. Daniel called his towering charge Little Man; McGowan called him Big Guy. During a house trip to Six Flags in Arlington when McGowan was in eighth grade, Daniel remembers park-goers asking McGowan for his autograph. They were sure he would be someone someday, if he wasn’t already. On that same trip Andrea bought McGowan a pair of size 18 Asics running shoes. It was the first time he’d had properly fitting shoes since outgrowing standard sizes. Later, after McGowan reached his current size of 21, Boys Ranch athletic director Paul Jones persuaded the Suns to send along a pair of Shaquille O’Neal’s size 23s so McGowan could be more comfortable on the basketball court. He wasn’t. “They were soooo big,” he says.
The Mosers had to chat with McGowan about flopping down on the furniture, but they never had to worry about the other boys in their house fighting. “Whenever a scuffle would break out, [LaQuan] would walk in and everything would stop,” Daniel says. Then everyone would wait. “We didn’t know what side he was going to be on,” Andrea says. The Mosers would learn that McGowan usually took their side, and before long he became something of a really big brother to their two young children.
McGowan’s housemates may have feared him, but he never wanted to hurt anyone, an excellent quality most of the time but a terrible one on the football field. Andrea watched McGowan play on both lines of scrimmage (and kick) for the Roughriders and asked why he didn’t simply splatter defenders or blockers at will. “I was afraid to hurt them, ma’am,” she recalls him saying. So Moser decided to offer pregame help. “I’m going to make you mad before you go,” she told McGowan, so she pestered him on the way out the door.
McGowan learned to summon more aggression while continuing to flash his unique athleticism. “I dropped back into coverage when I wasn’t really supposed to,” he says of his one career interception. “I was playing noseguard. [The quarterback] said, ‘Hut,’ and I stood, backed up and caught the ball.” Jones, the AD, still keeps a video of McGowan recovering a fumble and racing the length of the field for a touchdown. In the clip McGowan looks like an NFL player dropped into a Pop Warner game, but even at twice the size of some opponents he pulls away from his pursuers. The burst Petty saw on that Cotton Bowl video was always there. “I don’t know what they thought they were going to do if they caught him,” Jones says. Down in Waco, Briles says the same thing.
Even before Baylor and Missouri offered scholarships, McGowan enjoyed a moment of football fame. On Thanksgiving weekend in 2009, house parent Hal Blackburn took a group to Amarillo to watch The Blind Side, which had recently opened. “From the moment we got out of the vehicle until we got back in, people were doing double and triple takes,” Blackburn says. “They were wondering if Michael Oher had come for the opening.” Only the high school junior before their eyes outweighed then NFL rookie tackle Oher by about 50 pounds.
McGowan thrived at Boys Ranch. He starred in football and basketball and won the 2010 Class 1A state shot put championship. He held paying jobs in the custodial department and as a dishwasher in the cafeteria. He usually stayed on the good side of the ranch’s color-coded behavior guide—enjoying the freedoms of a gold ranking rather than the restrictions of a red one. He wasn’t perfect, but an act he considers one of his worst transgressions elicited laughs from a group of his old house parents when they heard of it years later.
As a senior, McGowan lived in a building called Craig House. He and his housemates figured out how to trick the motion sensors mounted over their bedroom doors by taping some toilet paper over them. McGowan, the only one who could reach the sensors without a ladder, was tasked with blinding them. One night, as the house parents slept, the kids staged an epic pillow fight, and one kid dumped water on McGowan. He swore revenge, loading his pillowcase with anything he could find. He tossed in nail clippers. He tossed in a baseball. He tossed in the Bible he still carries today. And when McGowan found that boy, he swung. “I busted his head open,” McGowan says, although he did no long-term damage.
McGowan usually used that Bible for more peaceful purposes, often sneak-peeking at it in classes. “I guess you’re not supposed to be reading the Bible in class,” McGowan says, “but I don’t think there’s a rule against it.” Like many Boys Ranch students, McGowan was baptized while at school, although not, like most others, in the old horse trough in the chapel. In March 2008, 15-year-old LaQuan couldn’t fit in the trough. Instead, he was dunked in a nearby fishing pond. After the ceremony McGowan told Andrea he’d never enter that water again. “There are things in there that could eat you,” McGowan told Moser. “I don’t think anything would eat you, LaQuan,” Moser replied.
During his senior year he signed to play for Baylor because he liked Briles and because being in Waco would keep him close to his paternal grandmother, Dorothy Sanders, who still lived in Dallas. (Sanders passed away in 2013.) So in ’11, after six years, McGowan left behind the dust and tumbleweeds of the Boys Ranch. “I kind of resented my mom at first,” he says. “Why did she leave me there? But all in all, Boys Ranch changed my life.” McGowan still imagines what might have been otherwise: “Would I be doing something I’m not supposed to? Would I be selling drugs like most people end up doing? Would I be playing football?”
McGowan is playing football, but in a way hardly anyone besides Briles could have imagined. An offensive lineman with McGowan’s bulk would struggle to run Baylor’s preferred 90 to 100 offensive plays a game. But a player that size can run one fifth of those plays as a flexed tight end. He can catch pop passes or quick screens against linebackers and defensive backs who can neither reach around him to deflect the pass nor outjump him. (Even at his weight McGowan can dunk a basketball.) Perhaps, Briles muses, a safety could hop aboard a linebacker. “That might be the only alternative,” Briles says. “Get on somebody’s back and then be eye level.” In the run game McGowan can provide a massive obstacle. “When he hits somebody, they’re going to move,” Briles says.
Briles proudly contends that McGowan is the largest player to score a touchdown in a major college football game, and he’s probably correct. Remember when William (Refrigerator) Perry was scoring touchdowns for the Bears in the 1980s? His listed weight was 335 pounds. That was considered huge.
Briles might also be correct about the weight of the game in 2035. The rosters of the college teams that finished in the AP Top 10 after the 1995 season included 34 players weighing 300 pounds or more. The rosters of the Top 10 after last season included 136 players listed at 300 or more. Still, this remains an experiment. McGowan probably won’t challenge junior receiver Corey Coleman or sophomore KD Cannon for the team lead in catches or receiving yards, but he will change the dynamics of how teams defend the Bears. “I’m just a diversion,” McGowan says. “They’re going to be watching me, and all of a sudden KD is gone.” But that’s a joke: McGowan expects to play a major role in the offense, carrying the ball for thousands of young men too big to buy clothes off the rack. “If this works,” he says, “everybody’s going to get their biggest player and put him at tight end.”
If that happens? “That would be pretty cool,” McGowan says. “I think I would smile then.”