The first time Landry Jones stepped inside Cowboys Stadium, he never dreamed he'd actually play.
But Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Sam Bradford's shoulder was shoved into the turf just before halftime, suddenly shoving Jones into the game.
On that day in 2009, Jones began his Oklahoma career as a skinny freshman with a funny-looking mustache. Friday on the very same field, Jones will cap that career as the winningest -- and, within Sooner Nation, perhaps the most under-appreciated -- quarterback ever to don crimson and cream.
"It's been a ride," Jones said. "It's been fun. I've been extremely blessed to have come this far, and it's great to have a chance to end it where it started."
Against Texas A&M in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, Jones will make his 50th and final college start as the longest tenured quarterback in school history.
Jones has shattered virtually every passing school record, led the Sooners to more wins than any other quarterback and has a chance to join West Virginia's Pat White as the only quarterbacks in FBS history to win four bowl starts.
But since that first appearance when he replaced Bradford and failed to rally the Sooners to victory in a 14-13 loss to BYU, Jones has never been fully embraced by the Oklahoma fanbase. A penchant for the intermittent unforced turnover has driven some fans crazy. A seemingly robotic persona through tough times has irked others.
"I think for much of his career people have taken him for granted," said offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, who quarterbacked the Sooners to Bob Stoops' only national championship in 2000. "He's been the rock of our program for the past four years and played at an extremely high level throughout."
Jones ranks third in FBS history in career passing yards with 16,368, and fifth in touchdown passes with 122. He has also won a school-best 39 games. But Jones has never won over his fan base the way Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has his despite going 3-0 as a starter against Texas, downing upstart Oklahoma State twice in shootouts and knocking off Nebraska in the final meeting between the Big Reds as conference rivals for the 2010 Big 12 championship.
"Coming in after Sam, there was so much pressure. People remembered how good Sam was, and never gave Landry his due," said defensive end R.J. Washington, who arrived with Jones in the same recruiting class. "Sam was one of the greatest college quarterbacks ever to play the game. The fans loved Sam. After you love somebody that much and he leaves, that's all anyone can think about.
"When Landry leaves, people will appreciate him more. Some people just aren't appreciated in their own time."
Jones, though, has gained more appreciation in the twilight of his college career.
Last January, Jones turned down the chance to go pro early, with the personal goals of winning the Heisman and winning the national championship. Those aspirations vanished in September, when two Jones turnovers led to two Kansas State touchdowns as the Wildcats upset the Sooners in Norman. And the clamor to replace the four-year starter with former blue-chip recruit Blake Bell reached its peak.
But under immense pressure, Jones bounced back to torch Texas Tech and Texas, then played admirably in a loss to top-ranked Notre Dame that knocked the Sooners out of the title picture for good.
"Everybody wants to have that chance to play in the national championship game, everyone wants to be an All-American, everybody wants to win the Heisman, but there are only a select few who actually get to do it," Jones said. "Those things were definitely left out on the table for me. I wish I would have been able to accomplish them, but sometimes it just doesn't work out like that."
"Down the stretch for us, he was fabulous," Stoops said.
In a 50-49, come-from-behind victory at West Virginia, Jones threw for 554 yards and six touchdowns, including the game-winner on fourth down with 23 seconds left in which he changed the play at the line of scrimmage.
The following week against Oklahoma State, Jones threw for another 500 yards and led the Sooners on yet another do-or-die, fourth-quarter touchdown drive to send the game to overtime, where the Sooners prevailed, 51-48.
"He might be one of the most underappreciated quarterbacks ever to play college football," said his center, Gabe Ikard. "The guy puts up numbers that significant and wins that many games, and really doesn't get much credit, get more criticism than anything.
"It's one of those things where you don't realize what you have until it goes away. The quality of his skillset. Being able to throw the ball the way he does. Maybe after he goes and has a really good pro career, then they'll be like, 'Oh yeah, he was really good.'"
As one of top passers available in the upcoming draft, Jones has a chance to join Bradford as the only Oklahoma quarterbacks to get selected in the first round.
But first, Jones has one more game to play. A chance for a little more appreciation. On the same field where it all began.
"I hope I go out the way I want to go out," Jones said. "With a win, playing well."