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Heading into Saturday’s 1:30 playoff game against Georgia Southern, Callahan’s statistics are nothing short of spectacular – especially for a walk-on fifth-year senior who had never played a down for the Tribe prior to this season, and who had to win the job during preseason competition.
He has thrown for 1,546 yards, and accounted for 11 touchdowns. His 65-percent completion percentage is the fifth-best in school history. He averages slightly less than 14 yards per completion, tops in the Colonial Athletic Association, and his average of 8.4 yards per completion is second in the conference.
The only quarterback in coach Jimmye Laycock’s 31 seasons at the College to start a game for the Tribe despite having no previous collegiate experience, his per-game average of 193.3 passing yards is fourth-highest total in the CAA. He has been a primary reason the Tribe enters Saturday’s game with an 8-3 record, their first CAA title since 2004, and the No. 2 seed in the FCS playoffs.
“I told all of our quarterback (candidates) before they left (last summer) that it was not about trying to pick who’s No. 1 or 2 or 3. . . What I wanted was to get a quarterback to play at the level it’s necessary to play in this league to be successful,” Laycock said. “I could see in preseason scrimmages that Mike Callahan was playing at that level.
“Then we opened against UMass and he took us right down the field, just like he’d done in practice. The only thing that maybe I was waiting to see is if he did the same thing in the games as he did in practice, and he did.”
Callahan’s quarterback efficiency rating of 154.21 would lead the CAA – and stand sixth in the nation -- had he played enough games to qualify.
That he hasn’t played enough games is an unfortunate fact that brings us to the rest of the story.
A starting quarterback at every level since the third grade, Callahan had never been injured during a game until this season. Kept secret from the public until this week, Callahan tore meniscus in one of his knees three days before the Tribe’s Sept. 25 game at Maine.
His mobility severely limited, Callahan could not escape the Black Bears’ rush and separated his shoulder after being sacked. Suddenly out of action, Callahan underwent knee surgery, and was healthy enough to re-take the field in relief of Mike Paulus on Oct. 23 against Delaware.
But the following week at North Carolina, Callahan suffered a second separated shoulder and was shelved until Nov. 13 against James Madison.
“Just bad luck and bad timing,” Callahan said. “I’m not someone who stays on the bad. I’ll mention it, understand what’s happening, but then I’m positive and moving forward. I’m a fifth-year senior; I was wiling to do anything I could to get back on the field.”
If his return from injury isn’t proof enough of his resolve, his collegiate career certainly is.
Callahan was a high school star back home in Montville, Pa., a first-team all-league selection who led his team to a 19-4 record over two seasons, and threw for 4,159 yards and 44 touchdowns, both school record.
College recruiters loved everything about him – except his size. At 5-feet-11, the feeling was that he was too short to be an effective quarterback.
That includes William & Mary, where Callahan chose to attend purely for academic purposes, and will receive his Masters degree in Accounting this spring. He walked-on, made the team, and began a four-year wait behind quarterbacks Mike Potts, Jake Phillips, and R.J. Archer. Included in the inaction was a knee injury suffered in preseason a year ago that sidelined him for the year.
“Quitting was never an option for me,” Callahan said. “I wasn’t playing, and that’s always frustrating. But at William & Mary I’ve had the privilege to play behind and learn from three really good quarterbacks. I took that experience for what it was and tried to learn from them every day, to make my game similar to theirs.”
The plot thickened last spring when Michael Paulus transferred in from the University of North Carolina. Physically, Paulus is everything Callahan is not: 6-4, 220 pounds, laser arm. Callahan briefly wondered if the new arrival wasn’t one final obstacle he might not be able to overcome.
“You always think the worst-case scenario when you’re working and trying to get to the best-case scenario,” he admitted, “especially when they brought in Paulus, the big-name transfer. Competition is one of those things where you have to be on your ‘A’ a game every day, and you know if you slip up there’s going to be another guy to come in and take over. It’s something I thought about.
“But it also pushed me to work harder and be very prepared.”
And that diligence has paid off in a season to savor.
“I’ve been here five years, and we always talked about winning a conference championship,” Callahan said. “It hadn’t happened since 2004 for the guys to get a ring. But it’s gratifying to see our record go from 3-8 to 4-7 to 7-4 to 11-3 and now to get the number two seed and kind of be in the driver’s seat. We control our own destiny.”