Joe Callahan

Tri-State Player of the Year Joe Callahan lit up the nation

By Joseph Santoliquito

In Joe Callahan’s first college start for Wesley College, he threw for a single-game school record 37 completions and 510 yards passing. The gaudy numbers the 6-foot-1, 215-pound quarterback out of Holy Spirit High School, in Absecon, N.J., posted would enlighten any coach into thinking something special has arrived. But it wasn’t until Callahan’s third start that stirred Wolverines’ coach Mike Drass into that way of thinking.

The Wolverines were playing Mary Hardin-Baylor, down in Belton, Texas, on September 21, 2013. Wesley didn’t have a prayer. Callahan was sacked four times. He was hit probably 30 times. Mary Hardin-Baylor throttled Wesley, 35-7. And Drass found out something.

“That’s when I knew that I had something special,” Drass said about Callahan. “Mary Hardin-Baylor whooped us pretty bad. They gave Joe the beating of a lifetime. And he walked back onto that field every series the same way he did when he was throwing for over 500 yards against Widener. That did it for me. We couldn’t protect him. With a lot of kids in that scenario when you’re dominating, it’s easy to be that shining star when you’re throwing for 500 yards. To me, when you’re getting pounded like Joe did that day, he kept getting up and playing hard. That told me he was a leader who would never give up.”

Callahan left Wesley as the owner of every major passing record in school history. In addition, he became the first NCAA Division III quarterback to ever throw for 5,000 yards in a season, joining Hawaii’s Colt Brennan as the only quarterback in all of college football history to throw for 5,000 or more yards and 55 touchdowns in a single season. In his senior year, Callahan passed for 5,063 yards on 346-for-496 passing (69.8%) and 55 passing touchdowns, which earned him the Gagliardi Trophy, Division III’s Heisman, awarded to the country’s best NCAA Division III college player, based on on-field performance, academics, and community service.

Callahan can add another prestigious piece of hardware to an amazing senior year and an incredible career as the Maxwell Football Club’s Tri-State Player of the Year.

His exploits will be sorely missed at Wesley, and it seems like they will be forever remembered. There was, for example, the impossible situation he faced against Johns Hopkins in the Division III playoffs his redshirt sophomore year. Down 24-23 with :44 left and sitting at the Wolverines’ 18, Callahan drove Wesley up the field on five plays, hitting receiver Steve Koudossou with a 33-yard touchdown pass with :13 left to win the game.

“Nothing ever phased Joe, and I remember telling him as he went back on out against Hopkins that we could do this, and Joe just nodded,” Drass recalled. “Joe was the same kid against Mount Union a few weeks later when he threw for (633) yards and eight touchdowns. He made us a believer a number of different times. This year, Joe’s knowledge of the game was superior. He understood what was going on before, during and after the ball was snapped. He set NCAA records for passing and total yards. That was kind of special. That kid is going to succeed at anything he does. I hope he gets a shot at the next level, because he can certainly make all of the throws. He has the intelligence and the heart. All he needs is the opportunity.”

That’s what Wesley provided. Coming out of Holy Spirit, which seldom threw the ball, Callahan was barely recruited. But Drass noticed the rare times when Callahan did throw the ball that he had a strong arm. During most of Callahan’s high school senior year he was out by halftime because they were blowing teams out. It gave college recruiters a small sample size.

“I saw what type of offense Wesley had and it seemed like a great fit,” said Callahan, a CoSIDA Academic All-American who carries a 3.56 GPA and will graduate with a degree in exercise science. “I had some interest from I-AA programs my junior year. But that fell off a lot after my senior year. At Wesley, they played some FCS schools. Coming out of high school, you have to be lucky sometimes and find the right fit. I was fortunate at Wesley, too, because when I got here, they had an All-American quarterback in Shane McSweeny and that really helped me. A lot of times, freshmen get thrown into a system and they never really get the system down. In Wesley’s system, the quarterback gets a lot of freedom. I learned behind one of the best quarterbacks in the country in Shane. He kept telling me that there are certain things that you can only learn in a game.”

Callahan suffered a sports hernia his true sophomore year, playing sporadically here and there before Callahan and Wesley decided to shut it down and come back the following season.

“I don’t know if I can pinpoint one game where I can say I knew I could play college football,” Callahan said. “I think that sense of confidence came through time. But that (redshirt) sophomore year was a big help. We had so many fourth-quarter comebacks. That year was the coming out party. I remember the Mount Union game, too, because I threw three interceptions in the first quarter and I finished the game with a few NCAA records. It was tough walking off the field the last time though this year, especially being a D-3 player, because you never know what the future holds. I’m currently training to pursue an NFL career and I hope I get that shot. I want to continue playing. After we lost to Mount Union (in the NCAA quarterfinals), once it set in that was it, it hurt. The next day I called my parents and that gave me a chance to reflect on the experience I had playing college football. It was an amazing time, the best time I ever had playing football.

“I’m going to miss game day. Nothing compares to it. You work the whole week towards game day. The work is what makes getting this award from the Maxwell Club such a great honor.”

Callahan will be a part of football royalty, up on the dais for the 79th Maxwell Club National Awards Gala with Cam Newton, Derrick Henry and current past and present greats of the game. Not bad for a kid that was barely recruited out of high school.

Award Profile

Winner: Brian Westbrook Tri-State Player Award – 2015

Wesley College