Fans of the Washington Redskins got to see what rookie quarterback Kirk Cousins was all about when he was forced to fill in for an injured Robert Griffin III in the final two minutes of a tense December game against the Baltimore Ravens.
The 24-year-old was thrust into action with his team trailing by eight points and the game on the line after Griffin III suffered a knee injury on a hit by Ravens defensive lineman Haloti Ngata, and Cousins promptly led the Redskins to a thrilling come-from-behind overtime victory.
Cousins' clutch performance enabled the Redskins to keep their playoff hopes alive and ultimately helped pave the way to Washington's first NFC East title since 1999 – which is funny, because the Barrington, Illinois native wasn't even playing tackle football yet the last time the burgundy and gold won the division.
That's because Cousins didn't begin playing tackle football until the following year when, as a sixth grader, he finally convinced his parents to let him give it a shot.
"Out in the suburbs where we lived in Chicago, Walter Payton and Mike Singletary lived in that area and both had decided they wouldn't let their kids play tackle football until they were older," Cousins said. "They had both played football for so long, gotten beaten up so much and knew the pounding that you take as a football player and felt like you could still learn the rules of the game playing flag football or playing in the backyard. So when guys who played in the NFL and are Hall of Famers are encouraging my dad to not push it too early, my dad listened."
While his playing days might have started a little bit later in life than other kids, it didn't take Cousins long to catch up.
"I was never the best athlete," he said. "I was always a good athlete, but I was never the fastest, the biggest or the strongest. But like my dad always told me, I just have a knack for throwing a football. There's just something about the nature of throwing a football that came very natural to me. I never really had to work on it and no one has ever told me to change or fix my throwing motion.
"People just say the way I do it is a good way to do it."
When he was 13, Cousins' family moved to Michigan and immediately began searching for a high school with a top-notch football program. Well, things don't always go as planned and Cousins ended up at Holland Christian School, which wasn't exactly a dynasty in waiting.
"We were looking for a school system with a good football program because that's what I knew I wanted to do," Cousins said. "The school I ended up at though had just started football. As a result, it was still in the early stages and we weren't very good, the coaching staff wasn't very experienced and we had to kind of learn on the fly. I had a great experience, but I didn't really have that powerhouse football experience that a lot of the guys in the NFL probably had."
Making matters worse, Cousins suffered an injury in his very first game of varsity football during his junior year.
"You dream of playing varsity football," he said. "With no guaranteed scholarships and in my first game on varsity, I get hit and break my ankle. I had to sit out the rest of the season and it really set me back and hurt me with recruiting."
By the nature of the position, quarterbacks are going to get hit. They're going to be knocked down. The good ones get back up and find a way to overcome adversity. Even at an early age, Cousins proved this was one of his biggest strengths.
"I was not a big recruit," Cousins said. "When people hear Michigan State and see me in the NFL, they must think I had my pick of schools and nothing could be further from the truth. But after my junior season when I didn't play, I was bound and determined to play college football at a high level.
"The summer before my senior year of high school," he continued, "I went on this road trip to Michigan State, Purdue, Iowa, Northern Illinois and Northwestern and just tried to throw and work out in front of as many college coaches as possible. And just about every one of them said either, 'We've already got someone who we've committed to' or 'You're not big enough, strong enough or fast enough.'
"They said I threw the ball well, but they just didn't see the athleticism and I didn't have a Division I body."
So Cousins played out his senior year and finished out his high school career without a single scholarship offer. Eventually he ended up at Michigan State, but that situation was less than ideal because of a coaching change which prompted several players to transfer elsewhere.
"They offered like five or six quarterbacks scholarships, and all of them chose to go elsewhere," he said. "I was like, Plan 7. They told me, 'We've promised these other kids if they commit, we won't make offers to anybody else. So we won't offer you anything yet until these other people decide.' Whenever everybody else chose to go elsewhere, then they finally agreed to take me because they just needed to get a guy. At that point, it wasn't even like they thought I was good enough. They just needed a quarterback."
Because he didn't have the luxury of having a ton of options, Cousins vowed to make the most of this opportunity. And if he needed some extra motivation, it was waiting for him before he even arrived on campus.
"The day after I signed, I was all excited to be going to Michigan State on a scholarship and then a publication came out on the internet that ranked my entire recruiting class," Cousins said. "I saw we had 20 kids in our class at Michigan State and I was rated 20th out of 20. Right away, I kind of threw this chip on my shoulder and said I have a lot of people I have to prove wrong."
Although his college career got off to a rocky start, it was only a matter of time before Cousins once again rose to the challenge. While other quarterbacks on the Spartans depth chart, like Nick Foles and Keith Nichol, were considered more gifted players, Cousins simply wouldn't allow himself to fail.
Cousins impressed the Spartans coaching staff with his cerebral approach in the classroom and on the practice field and proved to be a natural-born leader, as evident by the fact that he was a three-time captain during his time at Michigan State.
In the end, Foles transferred to Arizona, Nichol ended up moving to receiver and Cousins orchestrated one of the most successful stretches in Michigan State history – with the Spartans posting back-to-back 11-win seasons for the first time.
Cousins admits that it was a long journey and there were definitely bumps in the road, but he firmly believes dealing with adversity made him stronger in the end.
"I'm not fast enough to run around them. I'm not big enough to run through them, so I've got to know where they're going to be before they get there," he said. "So my game is between the ears. To be able to be better between the ears than my competition, I knew I had to be in here studying night and day. I can't be the guy who is out going to the bars and having a good time while living up the college life.
"I knew I had to put a little more work in than the average guy because I wasn't given the tools that other guys rely on."
Because nothing has ever been given to him and everything has to be earned the hard way, that trend continued for Cousins in the 2012 NFL Draft – when he was the unlikely fourth round pick (102nd overall) of the Redskins.
Under normal circumstances, it would have been a dream come true to hear his name called on draft day. However, the fact that Washington had just traded away a bevy of draft picks to land Griffin III, the Heisman Trophy winner, made the situation potentially awkward for everyone involved.
"I was thinking Coach [Mike] Shanahan had made a mistake," Cousins admitted. "I was surprised. Not discouraged, but disappointed. It wasn't what I had planned in my mind. But, if anything, I shouldn't have been surprised because looking at the way God had led me all these years – the broken ankle, lowly recruited, lots of competition. Time and time again, I could have counted myself out or said this doesn't make sense. I guess I almost should have been expecting something like this.
"As I thought more about it, I thought it was so strange and so unlikely to have this situation happening," he continued. "Because if I would have sat down the day before it happened and look at 32 teams, I would have put the Redskins 32nd. I would have said even the Colts were more likely to take me because my style of play is more similar to Andrew Luck's than Robert's. It's so unlikely that I felt God had to be involved and he had to have me go here for a reason."
With that in mind, Cousins headed to Washington with an open mind and no expectations. He knew this was Griffin III's team, but that didn't mean he had to be an afterthought or a wasted draft pick.
"I think you can look how this preseason went and the season has gone and I feel like God has a purpose for me here," Cousins said. "That purpose may be for me to be Robert's backup for 12 years and then my career is over. If that's what the plan is, then great. Now, if he says you're only here for this season and then you're gone, that's fine too.
"My guess is it's probably going to be something in between those two, but I feel like I'm living a dream."
Thus far, his dream has included two relief appearances and his first-career start – a game in which Cousins threw for 329 yards with two touchdowns and a QB rating of 104.4 while leading the Redskins to a resounding 38-21 victory over the Cleveland Browns. Even if he doesn't step onto the playing field again anytime soon, Cousins remains convinced he's landed in the ideal situation.
"I'm not going to complain about my opportunity because, I do feel like I have a great opportunity here," he said. "As I've learned, being around the Shanahans is a tremendous place to learn and grow and develop into an NFL quarterback.
"I don't know if there's a better place I could be, so I feel very comfortable where I am."