The perfectly thrown foot- ball, moving at a high rate of speed, makes a ripping sound as it leaves the hand, something between a whoosh and a mortar launch. If you stand beneath its path you can hear its hard whistle, an oblong arrow in flight. If you're 40 yards downfield, the whistle gets louder and then the ball is on you, faster and heavier than you'd have predicted, a warhead, not an arrow, dialing in. The safest way to catch it is to spread your hands wide and try to grab the sides of it going by. Should the nose of the ball hit you in the palms or chest, you stand a fine chance of a deep edema or a four-dot shiner on your sternum that stabs like a dagger when you breathe.
Despite the rain and bluster of a raw March weekend in a manicured hilltop stadium near Pasadena, California, you hear that sound a lot over the course of the two-day session of the DeBartolo Sports University's quarterback academy. Almost a hundred of the best young passers in the country have come from 32 states to learn at the foot of a master. His name is Steve Clarkson, and he has sent a procession of teenage phenoms to premium college programs and then to the NFL. Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Leinart, Colt Brennan, J.P. Losman, the Clausen brothers Jimmy and Casey – the list of famed alumni goes on and on, and there are more right behind them in the pipeline. Over there, running bootlegs, is the Next Tom Brady, a high school senior by the name of Matt Barkley who's bagged every award an underclassman can win and is promised to USC. Behind him is Jake Heaps, a junior from Seattle, who at 15 already has interest from a half dozen Pac-10 and Mountain West schools. Joe Montana sends his sons to Clarkson. Will Smith, Wayne Gretzky, and Snoop Dogg do likewise. And less famous but well-heeled parents have brought their big-armed boys to learn from the most accomplished private quarterback coach the sport has ever produced. Clarkson's fees are sky-high – $650 for these weekend camps, and $700 an hour for private sessions, with a minimum commitment of a year – but the aim of his students is higher still: to become a three-year starter at a Division-1 power, get drafted into the league as a franchise-in-waiting, and spend a year or two toting a clipboard before gaining admission to the most exclusive sodality in professional athletics – the NFL Starting Quarterbacks Club. Current membership: 32 and holding firm.
At Clarkson's camp there's no time for standard drills or leisurely one-hand touch, as groups of 10 shuttle from strength-and-speed sessions to intense film study with ex-NFL coaches, then take the field again for inch-by-inch breakdowns of their throwing mechanics. Clarkson, as brawny as a drill instructor and every bit as deft with an insult, spares no one, not even Barkley, the Gatorade player of the year, hailing bad passes with deadpan barbs like "You just sent your receiver to intensive care. Are you going to call his parents or should I?"
On a field with dozens of 6-foot-2 high school sophomores who've already made their name on scouting sites and YouTube dossiers, it isn't easy picking out an unmapped star, a kid not on the radar by 14. But by and by, your eye locks onto a boy whose feet are as much the story as his arm. Though absurdly tall for his age, he glides on tiptoe through his five-step drops, bouncing to unload another head-high spiral, football as ballet in two-inch cleats. A good deal of passing happens below the waist, and Clarkson spends years teaching blue-chip talents how to open up their hips and transfer weight. Max Wittek learned it cold in a couple of months and is so far along the learning curve that Clarkson can't help but gawk. "Rarely does anyone get it that quick," he says, watching Max work through his progressions. "What he's picked up in a year is off the charts – but don't even think of saying I said that."
When his father brought him to Clarkson in the spring of '07, Max was so raw that Clarkson almost sent him home, half-convinced he wasn't worth the bother. Six months later Clarkson sat his parents down and told them their son's talent was sufficiently robust that he'd be best served by moving from Norwalk, Connecticut, to a passer-friendly high school in California. At great personal cost, the parents, who were never married and are no longer together, agreed. Max's mom followed her son out to a suburb of Los Angeles, and the father visits from his home near San Francisco. This fall Max, a shy 15-year-old kid who has never been on a date unchaperoned, will attend Mater Dei, the Santa Ana prep school that has turned out two Heisman winners. At Mater Dei, he'll back up Barkley in his swan-song season, then compete for the starting slot in '09.
But that's not the kicker in this passion play about talent and its all-points pursuit. No, the kicker is what Max's and other families have staked for a preposterously small shot at pro stardom: thousands of dollars, forfeited vacations, marital breakups, and, in the case of at least one prominent 12-year-old at this camp, an aggressive doping program.