NORMAN — Today, the Norman North quarterback is the picture of the All-American ideal. He’s entering his senior year as a leader on a football team that made a run to the state championship game just a few months ago. He’s well-liked by his teammates and coaches. He’s got both the tangible and intangible skills to succeed not just at North but at the next level, and he’ll receive that opportunity next year at defending BCS champion Alabama.
But things haven’t always looked so rosy for David Cornwell, who will lead the Timberwolves onto the field when they kick off their season on Sept. 4 against crosstown rivals Norman High.
Just a few weeks ago, Cornwell didn’t know if he would even play this season. A few months ago he didn’t know where he would finish his high school education.
And a few years ago, he didn’t know if his family would even be around to watch him.
Cornwell’s mother Debbie first became sick two years ago this month. A sudden and severe illness, she lost more than 20 pounds in a month while doctors scrambled to diagnose her condition.
For David, the illness took its toll. Already dealing with a family move from Nebraska to Florida, the burgeoning football star was put into a situation far more serious than any he had ever faced on the field.
“Everything flipped,” he said. “You’re just thinking about your family and trying to do anything you can to help her out.”
David made clear a few weeks later exactly how serious he was about doing “anything.” He put his promising gridiron dreams on hold to stay at home and take care of his mom, a decision he made without a second thought.
“Family comes first,” he said. “It was tough on me and my dad. How can I think about playing football when my mom is in trouble, when the woman who has taken care of me all my life is sick?”
While the Cornwells decided to keep the details of Debbie’s illness private, it took several months for her to improve enough for David to consider returning to the football field. But return he did, suiting up for Jones last season after the family moved to Oklahoma.
Now a semester behind in school, Cornwell didn’t give it much thought when the family rented a house in Jones last season. Though he didn’t yet know it, his troubles weren’t over.
But that wasn’t a concern when he took to the field with the Longhorns. At 6-5 and 230 pounds, Cornwell had the prototype build of an elite college quarterback, and that drew attention his way. He began to work with Joe Dickinson, a former offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, and it was then that Cornwell said he changed from a gifted quarterback into a great one.
His results on the field confirmed his case. He passed for 2,742 yards and threw 27 touchdowns while leading the Longhorns to the Class 3A semifinals. With success came the interest from colleges. He began receiving inquiries from big-time programs including Oklahoma State, Notre Dame and Alabama.
But Cornwell wouldn’t finish his high school career in Jones. Looking for a permanent home in Oklahoma, the Cornwells eventually decided on Norman and last semester David enrolled at North, where he began working out with his new teammates.
“I had no idea if the kid was any good or not,” said North principal Bryan Young, who helped Cornwell navigate OSSAA paperwork through the transfer. “This young man just showed up at Norman North and I didn’t want anybody to think we recruited him.”
Young and the rest of the T-Wolves quickly found out that Cornwell was the real deal, and the perfect fit for a pass-happy team that graduated most of its starters a year ago after a run to the state title game. Coaches said that Cornwell fit in from the start and worked hard every day to improve, a good omen for what had previously been looked at by some as a rebuilding year. And new teammates Tyler Sipe and Payton Prince stepped up to help Cornwell and make the transition as easy as possible.
“They accepted me as one of their own early and made me a part of the community,” Cornwell said. “Tyler and Payton took me in and made me feel like a part of the team right from the start.”
Things were looking up for the Cornwells, but life had another curveball ready to throw at the family, one that threatened to end David’s high school career and threaten his college plans as well.
OSSAA rules and bylaws have claimed a number of casualties over the years, as coaches and players have too often broken procedures — with disastrous consequences for their schools — without even knowing what rules were being broken.
It looked like Cornwell would be the next in line after the OSSAA initially ruled him ineligible for this season because it came more than four years after he first began his high school career.
The decision rocked Cornwell, who didn’t know his eligibility would be questioned. With the help of a lawyer, the family appealed the decision to the OSSAA and provided the ruling organization with school and medical records in an effort to prove that Cornwell’s missed semester came as a result of “circumstances that are outside the control of the student and his or her parents,” as OSSAA guidelines require for an additional year of eligibility to be granted.
The wait for a decision was agonizing for both Cornwell and many of his college suitors, who indicated that they wanted to see Cornwell play an additional season. The OSSAA’s executive board delayed a decision several times before ultimately voting in June — after the Cornwells provided a small mountain of paperwork — to send the decision back to committee, where it was decided that Cornwell would be allowed to play after all.
Cornwell was ecstatic at the decision — he said he couldn’t help but scream after he found out — and after the closure of a case that drew considerable national attention he wasn’t the only one.
“He was granted a hardship because all these things happen,” Young said. “He’s coming back to high school and he just wants to play. He’s not asking for a fifth season; he’s asking for a fourth.”
Now he’ll have it at North, with his parents cheering him on from the stands. And he plans on making the most of it.
“I don’t want to be one-and-done,” he said. “I want to leave a footprint and be back for my 10-year reunion. I want to do all that I can while I’m here to become part of the community. That’s something special that not everyone gets coming in like I have. It reflects on Norman and on Oklahoma, the way everyone is so welcoming. I’m ready for the season to start.”
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