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Bobby Petrino didn't know what to think about Jason Shelley when he first started practicing with the Bears before the fall.
Petrino knew Shelley's skillset was there. The coach watched how Shelley performed as a freshman at Utah. He knew Shelley had the athleticism and arm talent that could make him great.
Even after Petrino thought the Bears had Shelley heading into fall 2020 and the quarterback turned them down when Utah State came calling, the coaching staff was in contact with him within an hour of him re-entering the portal.
But at practice, Shelley was quiet. How was he going to lead the team?
"I think that the real credit to Jason is that he came in here and he just went out and practiced," Petrino said. "He just wanted to show his work and not talk about it. He wanted to be really humble and just play football. He didn't feel like he was going to be given anything. He was going to go earn everything."
Months later, Shelley has led one of the great seasons in Missouri State football history while turning in one of the great individual athletics seasons in the history of the school.
Shelley will be behind center when the Bears host UT-Martin in the first round of the FCS Playoffs on Saturday at 3 p.m.
"He's just different," star wide receiver Tyrone Scott said. "I saw how different he was and I had to come in with the same type of energy."
Throughout the season, the Bears have seen a different level of competitiveness from the position than what they've had in the past.
It was evident from the first game that Shelley had a chance to elevate a Bears offense that leaned on its defense during a spring season that resulted in the program's first playoff appearance since 1990.
Against Oklahoma State, an FBS team currently ranked No. 7 in the country, Shelley kept the Bears within striking distance against one of college football's top defenses.
Shelley moved around within the pocket at a level that even some at the next level don't have. Multiple times, he kept plays alive to where he found an open receiver down the field.
Despite the close loss, signs pointed to Shelley being a special player.
"He's a tremendous competitor," Petrino said after the game. "I thought he did a good job at coming back, competing and working hard and getting us in a position to win the game."
That competitiveness followed the next week when the Bears found themselves down by four against Central Arkansas with just over two minutes remaining. With 29 seconds to go, he hit Xavier Lane for the 26-yard go-ahead touchdown and the Cardiac Bears were born.
Two weeks later, the Bears found themselves down nine early in the fourth quarter. Shelley admitted to taking on more of a vocal role in the huddle as he orchestrated a pair of drives to claim the win which was capped off with his 12-yard touchdown run with 4:42 remaining.
"I try to do what I can as a leader," Shelley said afterward. "If it needs me to be quiet or to speak up, it doesn't matter."
Missouri State won two of its next four games before facing the final four games of the regular season. The Bears needed to win at least three of them in order to make the playoffs.
In the first game against North Dakota, it didn't look like the Bears were going to pull it off. They were down 11 with just over five minutes remaining.
A quick touchdown drive ended with Shelley running the ball in from 12 yards out. UND then fumbled and gave the Bears the ball back with under two minutes remaining.
Shelley drove the Bears drove down to the UND 2 with just under 30 seconds left. On third-and-goal, Shelley dropped back to pass and felt pressure coming at him from behind. He scrambled to his right and dumped a two-yard pass to Isaac Smith with 15 seconds remaining for the game-winning score.
"Everybody believes in him," Petrino said. "I think when everybody believes in him, we feel like he's going to make the plays to win."
The Bears beat Southern Illinois the next week with a second-half offensive explosion but more magic was needed the following week against Northern Iowa — which tied the game at 27 with just over two minutes remaining.
After completing a critical third-down pass, Shelley dropped back, read the safety and completed a pass to Naveon Mitchell over the middle of the field — who outran the Panther defense for more "Cardiac Bears" magic and a playoff-clinching win.
During the game, Shelley set Missouri State's single-season passing record. It came after Utah tried to convert him to the safety position and Utah State dismissed him from the team after it let go of its coach.
Shelley never stopped believing that he could be the quarterback he's turned into.
"It means a lot," Shelley said. "It's something I've been dealing with since high school. I've always been told that I wasn't going to be a quarterback or a college quarterback. I kind of go out there every week, every day at practice to not prove people wrong but to prove myself right.
"I think I can do whatever I put my mind to. I think I'm capable of being a Division I quarterback, NFL quarterback and I just have to go out there and show my talents. I just go out there every day and try to prove myself right and let the rest fall in place."
Even against Dixie State, with the playoffs secured, Shelley showed the competitiveness his coach praised and praised throughout the season.
When the Bears were running away with the game in the second quarter, Shelley handed the ball off to Kevon Latulas who looked like he was going to get stopped in the backfield. Instead, he broke a tackle and reversed field.
When he reversed field, Shelley went in for a block when defenders looked like they had a chance to bring Latulas down from behind. Shelley took out two defenders with a big hit and Latulas broke away for a 68-yard touchdown.
"An unusual play where you thought it was going to be a tackle for loss." pic.twitter.com/8WBfDnbCmf
— Derrick Docket (@ddocket) November 21, 2021
Later in the game, even with the Bears up 24, he didn't quit. The quarterback pulled the ball on a read-option, broke a tackle, spun to keep his balance, lowered his shoulder and kept his legs moving through four defenders while reaching out for the goal-line on a 12-yard touchdown.
Jason Shelley will not quit. pic.twitter.com/7l2P3qMOFu
— Derrick Docket (@ddocket) November 21, 2021
"On that one, I'm like 'get down, get down, what the hell are you doing?" Petrino said. "But that's not him. That's his competitive spirit and toughness and that makes everybody on the team better."
Shelley enters the FCS Playoffs as one of 25 finalists for the national player of the year honor. He ranks 10th in the country in individual offense and 11th in passing yards. He owns Missouri State's single-season records in passing and total offense.
Shelley will be remembered in Missouri State history books forever but he'll be remembered most of all for what he's done for the football program — being a winner.
What he's already done this season, what he's capable of doing in the postseason and what he's capable of doing next season should have him remembered as one of Missouri State's all-time greats when it's all said and done.
UT-Martin @ Missouri State
What: FCS Playoffs First Round
When: Saturday, 3 p.m.
Where: Plaster Stadium
Listen: KWTO FM 101.3
Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist with the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at email@example.com or Twitter at @WyattWheeler_NL. He's also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4-6 p.m.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Missouri State football's Jason Shelley leads MSU into FCS Playoffs