Illini Legacy John Paddock Ready For Game-Winning Moment

John Paddock wanted to play his final year of college football at the place his family carved out a legacy and the sixth-year backup quarterback just created his own memory in a 27-26 win at Minnesota.

Matt Stevens, IlliniGuys Staff Writer

November 4, 2023

John Paddock courtesy of Illinois Athletics

MINNEAPOLIS — The discussion now becomes a nature versus nurture debate whether John Paddock was born for a moment like he experienced Saturday or if he was properly prepared to seize the opportunity.

Staring at a fourth-and-11 from his team’s own 15-yard-line, Paddock arrived in the Illinois huddle replacing an injured Luke Altmyer with the confidence of somebody who had envisioned a moment like this as a young child.

“I don’t think this moment has hit me yet,” Paddock said. “I don’t know if it will ever hit me like that. I like to stay relaxed and I’m a pretty competitive guy. Maybe that’s why you saw us have success like we did out there.”

Paddock finished the game-winning drive as a perfect 3-for-3 for 85 yards and a 46-yard touchdown strike to Isaiah Williams.

Paddock, who arrived at Illinois in January as a preferred walk-on for his sixth and final year of eligibility for college football, has grown up knowing the long family history and lineage associated with the Illini football program and the athletics department.

Paddock’s great grandfather, Robert C. Wright, competed in both football and track & field at Illinois in the 1930s and was the men’s track and field coach at Illinois from 1965-74 where he produced eight individual Big Ten champions and a second-place team finish in the 1972 Big Ten Championships. Paddock’s grandfather, John Wright Sr., was a first-team All-Big Ten wide receiver at Illinois in 1967 before being drafted in the second round of the 1968 NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons and playing for the Detroit Lions in 1969. Paddock’s uncle, John Wright Jr., left Illinois as the leading receiver in the school’s Big Ten history and 5th all time in NCAA history. Wright Sr. still lives on 80 acres of land near St. Joseph and Ogden, Ill. called Greyfield, where he trains bird dogs, hunts, fishes and uses the large piece of property as a training center for CEO’s of Fortune 100 companies, company leaders, NFL Hall of Famers, Super Bowl champions, Olympic medalists among others. Wright Sr., who was the CEO and former managing partner of the Wright Financial Group, Inc., has spoken at the NFL’s Rookie Symposium every offseason about player financial issues.

If there was ever anybody born to create a memorable moment in Illini colors, it may be the son of Steven and Ashley Paddock, or more specifically somebody with Wright family blood in their veins.

“It’s really nice for me because I love this place so much and I love the University of Illinois so much that I want to see this team succeed regardless if it’s today, tomorrow or 20 years down the line,” Paddock said. “Having that mindset weekly has kept me centered.”

However, with Illinois staring what seemed like a certain loss in his future, Paddock arrived in the huddle with the confidence of a gambler playing with house money.

“Doing what he did today is so hard and to do it with the confidence and swagger that he had immediately in the huddle is just so rare,” Illinois wide receiver Isaiah Williams said. “He came in there and I don’t remember much about what he said but I know how he made me feel though. He made me feel confident. I kind of looked around and saw Luke was out and got nervous but John just has this way to make all 11 guys feel like we can do anything. We knew we were going to make this fourth-down play with John at quarterback.”

Paddock, a 6-foot and 196-pound athlete who still holds his high school’s (Bloomfield Hills H.S. in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.) record in passing yards (4,086) and touchdowns (26) started all 12 games in 2022 for Ball State and completed 59.7 percent of his passes while recording 2,713 yards, 18 passing touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

“I told him after the Penn State that what we learned today is your moment is going to come and when it comes, whether it’s this next week, next month or the last half of this season, your moment is going to come,” Illinois head coach Bret Bielema said Saturday. “And I told him when your moment comes, I have a pretty good level of confidence that you’re going to be prepared. I just didn’t know if would be fourth-and-long backed up in our own end with no timeouts but that’s John to a tee.”

After losing the starting quarterback battle in preseason camp to Altmyer and barely seeing the playing field through nearly nine games, Paddock had to rely on the maturity he’s gained over five years of playing college football and earning 12 starts at Ball State last season to be mentally prepared.

“Young John Paddock would not have felt this way,” Paddock said Saturday when asked if his underclassmen self at Ball State would’ve been prepared to lead his team on a game-winning drive off the bench. “Young John Paddock would’ve been frustrated that I wasn’t playing. There would’ve been a lot more ebbs and flows.

Because of the quick turnaround following the injury to Altmyer, which seemed like a caution by the training staff fearing a head injury, Illinois head coach Bret Bielema wasn’t even able to say anything to Paddock before he ran on the field at Huntington Bank Stadium.

“I couldn’t get to (Paddock) and so all I told (Illinois offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr.) on the headset was there was still a minute left and there was a lot of football left to be played here,” Bielema said. “What I’ve learned as a head coach is you have to appreciate how much can be done with a minute or a minute and a half still left on that clock.”

However, because of how Bielema structures practices in the preseason and during the season, Paddock knew the plays in an emergency situation that would be called and after watching Minnesota from the sidelines for nearly three hours, knew the defensive coverage the Gophers would be in.

“Situational football is just beat into us by Coach Bielema and honestly, going back to high school - I played in a lot of one-possession games and there’s one-possession games in the Mid-American Conference basically every week and in the Big Ten the margin for errors is just so thin,” Paddock said.

Whether it was nurture, nature or a little bit both maybe mixed in with some good luck as an Illini fourth generation legacy, Paddock was ready for the moment when he was called upon - even if that moment involved a fourth down miracle and a 46-yard heave into the end zone.

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