The Sweet Smell of Cut Grass
It’s August. The smell of cut grass is different in August. It’s palpable. Its a smell and a taste and a state of mind if you are a football player. If you’re an “old” football player it’s… nostalgic. It’s a trip down memory lane that includes friends and foes and victories as well as disappointments.
But this story is for the young and aspiring football players who are just beginning to understand what the sweet smell of freshly cut grass might mean to them later in life. I don’t need to lecture any parent of a student-athlete, girl or boy, about the rigors and pressure that is being applied to athletes at younger and younger ages. The pressure comes from coaches, teams, schools, leagues, peers, and yes, you parents. It’s about specialization. It’s about following the system. It’s pretense is the need to be the best you can be… at one sport. Diversification be damned!
Really? I Can’t Play Both?
So you play Little League baseball, soccer, recreational basketball or even Pop Warner type football and by age 11-12 you specialize. You go to the camps, you get a personalized coach, you aspire to make the ultimate: the travel team! In most of these sports the popular opinion is if you are not keeping pace within the specialization system, tier by tier, you are on your way to a career as the school librarian (I love libraries, but they don’t pay like the pros) and not the NFL.
The perception is that you need to play on the Pop Warner Raiders, and come up through the ranks, in order to be considered a viable candidate for the High School Raiders. If not you’d be so far behind! It’s the same offense, the same terminology, the same plays! It’s a competitive disadvantage if you don’t get onboard early. I disagree.
There’s a problem with this approach when it comes to football. I’m sorry, but specializing in football doesn’t work for every eleven or twelve year old. The problem is some kids are just not ready to get smacked in the mouth at age twelve. As I wrote in my book The Road to Athletic Scholarship (NYU Press) football is unique in the fact you need to have, or develop, a love of contact. At the very least, you need to accept it as part of the game. Many eleven or twelve year olds are not yet ready for that confrontation with their own intestinal fortitude. I know I wasn’t.
Consequently, we see a high drop-out rate in football. I’m certain there were many young athletes who if given the chance to mature in other sports would have crossed over to football a little later in life. But the system denies them easy access if they don’t come up through the ranks. And there are strong arguments for playing within the system. To wit:
Alabama Offers 8th Grade QB
Trent Seaborn, who started at Quarterback last season as an 8th grader for Thompson High School in Alabama and led them to the 7A state championship, was “offered” a full scholarship by none other than Nick Saban at Alabama. Since offers are not official until September of a player’s Junior year, this will be a long recruiting process for Trent and ‘Bama. He has also received offers from Auburn, Ole Miss, and Oregon among others. Interesting to note, Trent has added some diversity to his middle school development, as he has played in the band as a saxophonist! I’m guessing Saban will not be encouraging a cameo for Trent and his sax during Alabama halftime shows. And Trent is not the only 8th grader in the country who is already in the recruiting sales funnel, there are quite a few.
What if You Aren’t Ready?
Any success I achieved in sports and specifically football I owe to my father. Jack McQuilken was the ultimate backyard dad. He worked hard all day in the insurance business, but he always had time to go out in the backyard and throw the ball. When I was 10, 11, and 12 we threw all kinds of balls. Baseballs, footballs, softballs, tennis balls; you name it. My dad was always instructive, but never critical. Always supportive… I appreciate that now more than ever. Thanks Dad.
But, I was not a Pop Warner football candidate. I loved throwing the football in the backyard, playing “touch” with the neighborhood kids, but that was it. That helmet thing? No thanks. The first year I played organized football I tried out for the 8th grade team offered in junior high school. In 8th grade at Raub Junior High School in Allentown, PA I was 5’6” and 105 lbs! I was the equivalent of a blade of grass. Nick Saban was not calling. Did I mention Trent Seaborn is 6’1” and 180? I was also a little gun-shy. I migrated to Quarterback for two reasons; 1) I was skeptical of being hit on every play, and 2) we discovered I had a gift for passing the football. While Trent Seaborn was winning a state championship in 8th grade, I was sitting on the bench and never took a snap.
When Do You Know You’re Ready?
In preparing for 9th grade at Raub Junior High I worked hard in the off season refining my skills and gaining some confidence in my abilities. When 9th grade tryouts rolled around I was a whopping 5’8” and 112 lbs! Strangely, I was also not afraid of being hit anymore. Hard to explain, but I was now ready to accept that a certain amount of violence was part of football and I was ok with that. Go figure. Maturity? I guess growing up is just not the same for everyone.
I was able to hold off the competition for QB1 and started all six games that made up our season. Allentown had a pretty cool Junior High football program. There were four Junior Highs and we played each other twice. These games were played as a double-header on Saturday mornings in the massive J. Birney Crum Stadium (named after a great coach) which held some 23,000 seats. The high school varsity had it reserved for Friday nights under the lights. We thought it was pretty big-time football. Some nights it was.
But, I learned a powerful lesson about football on that first Saturday morning when I became the starting Quarterback. I was still physically immature, but gaining emotional IQ and the related psychological composure required to lead a football team. We played heavily favored Central Junior High in that first game and we surprised the entire league with an upset win. My highlight was dropping back with the game on the line and hitting halfback Ken Shafer with a pass over the middle. Kenny went 50 yards for the winning score! My first blood! My first ever TD pass.
The Carol Clymer Effect
Oh, the lesson learned? Well, the tradition was that if you played the first game of the double header you could take the team bus back to your lockeroom, shower and make it back to J. Birney Crum for the second half of the second game. This was a must if you won your game as all the Raub parents, fans and (ahem) cheerleaders were still in the stands. So, the Raub teammates were back in the stands in short order.
You see I had known Carol Clymer for years. We went to the same elementary school for crying out loud. We were acquaintances, but it’s fair to say I was NEVER on Carol’s bucket list of potential boy friends. She was the “it” girl at Raub. Carol was beautiful, smart and very popular. I was an admirer from a pretty fair distance. Well, the Raub players arrived in the stands and no sooner had I sat down when none other than Carol Clymer rushed over, grabbed me and said, “Kim McQuilken, I never knew you could throw a football like that!” And then, she kissed me! Right in front of everyone! I almost passed out. I still haven’t washed that cheek!
Now, Carol hadn’t fallen in love with me. She really didn’t even want to “go out” (it was only one TD), but boy, she did me one huge favor. When all the other girls saw the “It” girl plant one on me I immediately became a person of interest. Possibilities began to present themselves. The lesson learned: girls like to kiss Quarterbacks. At least winning QBs.
Still Not Ready…
William Allen High School, the one with the 23,000 seat stadium, had some good football teams and players back then. In 10th grade I was now 5’11” and 135 lbs! My arm was stronger, and coaches were beginning to see my release was “special.” I was demonstrating poise in the pocket, but I was still a blade. Fritz Halfacre, the William Allen head coach and a man who changed my life, would later tell me, “you were so skinny I was really worried you’d get killed in a varsity game.” He was right, so I played on the sophomore JV team.
It was the perfect stepping-stone for my development. We had a strong group of sophomores and almost all of us played JV. We played a nine game schedule and from game one the job was mine. We had a small but very fast wide receiver named Joey Tatasciore and we clicked on the field. In nine games I ended up passing for 17 TDs and Joey must have caught 10 of them. We went 7-2 and we gained a lot of confidence. I was still playing catchup to the system, but, I was gaining on it…
Can Late Bloomers Overcome Bad Breaks?
So if we fast forward I won the varsity QB1 job my junior year and our class was poised for greatness as training camp started for our senior season. The cut grass was beginning to smell pretty sweet around J. Barney Crum stadium. Then, disaster. Through 3 or 4 preseason scrimmages we were on fire. Our offense was rolling up big scores vs our opponents. In the final quarter of the last scrimmage I went down with a broken clavicle. I’m hospitalized the week of our opening game, but, for some reason I’m not emotionally crushed. I’m challenged. I fought back in a way I could never have foreseen just a year or two earlier. By the fourth game I was back in the line-up (albeit wearing an awkward harness on my left shoulder) and competing. We suffered a few other key injuries that year and our season was only salvaged when we pulled out a comeback victory (we were down 27-0) over arch-rival Dieruff HS.
I was named team MVP, even with the shortened season, but, Nick Saban was still not calling. Nor was anyone else. I received one scholarship offer from Villanova and that was only because Coach Halfacre was close to the ‘Nova coaching staff and gave me a serious recommendation. But Villanova football was down and I passed, opting for a partial scholarship to Staunton Military Academy for a PG (post graduate) year. Staunton was in the highly competitive Virginia Scholastic Military League (VSML). It was a very competitive football environment with over 30 PGs coming in to Staunton from around the country.
A PG Year is a Great Opportunity for Late Bloomers. Stupidity is Not!
By this time I was 6’2” and 160. Yes, that is still a blade! But my arm, release, poise in the pocket, and leadership were all coming together. I was finally beginning to look and play a bit like Trent Seaborn does in 8th grade, just four years behind his growth curve.
In preseason I was in tight competition with a QB from Arkansas but eventually prevailed and was named QB1 for the opener. Then once again, disaster. But this one was self-inflicted. Three days before the game I was caught out of my barracks, down the hall, playing cards with a few of my offensive linemen. Remember, this was a Military academy. We had active duty army instructors as part of the faculty. Being out after bed check, even for a few minutes and just down the hall, was a violation. I was benched.
It took us opening 0-2 and down big in the 3rd game for the coach to look down the bench and say “McQuilken get in there.” Again, I was prepared. I had kept my head in the game, even on the bench. I was ready and lit up the fourth quarter and fell just short of a stunning comeback. Over the next 6 games I teamed up frequently with WR Freddy Whitmore for some real fireworks. Again, in an abbreviated season I was named team MVP and all-league QB. But Nick was still not dialing me up. Nor was anyone else. Except one coach from one school I really didn’t want…
Sometimes it’s Better to be a Big Fish in a Small Pond…
My high school coach had played football at Lehigh University, and was friends with the current coach, Fred Dunlap. Lehigh was in Bethlehem, PA right next door to my home town of Allentown. Lehigh had not had a winning season in over ten years. Lehigh did not throw the football. Lehigh was a tough academic school. That was close to 0-4 on my wish list, but Fred Dunlap ended up as someone who changed my life.
Fred was persuasive. He looked me in the eye and told me I was the missing piece he needed to transform Lehigh into a winner. He sold me on the fact Lehigh would be converting to a wide open offense that would feature drop back and play-action passes. As far as academics, I had peer-pressure from my mates at William Allen High School where the likes of Jim Thomas (William & Mary), Jim Stephens (Princeton), Wayne Hoffman (UVA) and Jon Coleman (UVA) were all going to great academic schools. I was 6’2” and 165 lbs and I needed a home. Lehigh and Fred Dunlap offered me a need-based scholarship. I grabbed it. The rest, as they say, is history.
By the time my sophomore season rolled around (freshmen were not eligible to play back then) I was 6’2” and 180 lbs! Lehigh had a great senior class that year and we crafted a record breaking 8-3 season, the first winning record in a decade. By the middle of my junior year I held every Lehigh game, season and career passing record. Our senior year we won the Lambert Cup, being recognized as the best D-2 team in the East. We defeated arch-rival Lafayette college three straight years in the most-played rivalry in the history of college football. I was the first-ever two-time MVP of that game. We also were invited to the first-ever D-2 national playoffs, competing as the only private institution in the 16 team field. Roger McFillin and I were elected team captains, and I became a consensus first team All-American.
Always Trying to Prove Something as a Late Bloomer…
Nick Saban never called, but the NFL did. Except there was one more “challenge” for this small college late bloomer to overcome. I was clearly on the short list of Quarterbacks being scouted by the NFL. I was also on the lists to play in the North/South Shrine game in the Orange bowl, the Coaches All-America game in Lubbock and the East/West Shrine game in San Francisco. Fred Dunlap advised me my ranking was so high I didn’t need to play in those games and risk injury prior to the NFL Draft. I was now 6’2” and 208 lbs. I was determined to prove the late bloomer had arrived and so I headed South to Miami for the North/South Shrine game. On Christmas night of my senior year, less than two months before the NFL Draft, I tore my medial collateral ligament in the second quarter of the game. Yet another challenge to overcome.
As it turned out, I was the third quarterback in the nation chosen in that draft by the Atlanta Falcons with the 69th pick in the 3rd round. The Falcons flew me down for the press conference which I attended on crutches. Soon, I would sign a three year contract that was the beginning of an 8 year career in pro football. But, the bloom was finally off the rose. I was no longer fighting that uphill battle against size, maturity, and the system.
Josh Allen and Carson Wentz too…?
I get the fact that my story is about a small town guy from a small town school who had, basically, a small-time career in a big-time league. But, I can share two contemporary stories about QB late bloomers, that frankly, seems impossible! Josh Allen, all 6’5” and 245 lbs of him and Carson Wentz at 6’5” 237 lbs were both late bloomers!
Josh grew up on a big farm in Fresno, California. He always wanted to go to Fresno State. In high school Josh was a mere 6’3” and 180 lbs, not exactly a blade, but also not who he is today. He didn’t attend any elite QB camps and Josh, against popular opinion, played baseball (90 mph fastball) and basketball (where he was the leading scorer). He attended Firebuagh HS and resisted transferring to bigger programs. While not only playing other sports Josh also was very active in the Future Farmers of America (FFA) and won numerous awards for his agricultural work.
But, not only did Fresno State pass on Josh Allen, so did everyone else. Allen received zero offers from D-1 programs including FBS and FCS schools. San Diego State made him a walk-on offer but he turned it down. Instead, Josh opted for Reedley Junior College (think PG year) in California. After a breakout year in 2014 (25 TDs vs only 4 Ints) his coaches at Reedley anticipated a great deal of D-1 interest for josh. Didn’t happen. Now 6’5” and 210 lbs (again not at his full maturity level) Josh sent out emails to every head coach, offensive coordinator, and quarterback coach in the FBS, but received very little response. Only Eastern Michigan and Wyoming offered scholarships and Eastern eventually withdrew their offer.
The offensive coordinator at Wyoming, Brent Vigen, couldn’t help but see similarities between Josh and another QB he had recruited when he was coaching at North Dakota State; Carson Wentz. Wentz was similar to Josh, sharing his small-town, multi-sport, and late-blooming background. Wentz was 5’8” and 125 lbs as a freshman at Century HS in Bismarck, ND, played JV as a sophomore and was injured as a junior (sound familiar ?) and did not start until his senior year. He went on to FCS North Dakota State and eventually would be the #2 pick in the 2016 NFL Draft (highest drafted FCS player ever) and lead the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl season in 2017.
Following Wentz, Josh Allen packed off to Wyoming after making a final and fruitless pitch to Fresno State. His freshman year he played very little and in his only start he suffered a broken collarbone (ok this is way to close to home!) which ended his season. He came back in 2016 as QB1 and passed for 3,200 yards with 28 TDs. He was also maturing as a dual threat, rushing for 523 yards and 7 TDs. His senior year Josh would add more beef to his frame as well as his college stats, leading Wyoming to an 8-5 season and a Bowl win over Central Michigan.
The Buffalo Bills would trade up to the 7th pick in the 2018 draft to select Josh Allen. He would sign a four-year fully guaranteed $21 million contract. The rest, as they say, is history. Josh Allen is a tier one NFL QB and rated by many pundits as the top dual threat QB in the NFL.
“A late bloomer is a person whose talents or capabilities are not visible to others until later than usual.” It’s a metaphor used to describe an adolescent who develops slower than others in their age group, but who eventually catches up and even overtakes their peers. Typically, to fulfill their ultimate potential, late bloomers take “the road less traveled.” If you are a gifted, but late blooming Quarterback, there is a chance you may recognize your own potential before anyone else. You may possess a burning desire to overcome your challenges and fulfill your destiny. If you have that special self-realization, embrace it. Covet it. Nurture it. Chances are, the cut grass of August already smells a little different to you than most other people.