In 2009, Matt Barkley was one of the droves of strong-armed teenagers gunning to be the next Tom Brady at Steve Clarkson's signal calling academy.
Instructors work with attendees of Steve Clarkson's Air 7 Quarterback University on the field at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, May 6, 2007.
Credit: Mason Levinson / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Playing quarterback is the hardest position in sports not because you're running for your life half the time, but because that's the very least of your concerns. The job requires the thought speed of a NASCAR driver, the coolness under fire of a tank commander, the grace below the neck of a ballroom dancer, and the recall of a Vegas mentalist. You have 500 plays you must remember and master and, as the need arises, opt out of at the line; three or four receivers running precisely timed routes that they too can alter as the coverage dictates; and seven or eight defenders in the tackle box, any and all of whom may be rushing full tilt and are themselves adept at concealing the schemes they're in. It takes apprentice QBs years just to learn protections, years more to recognize defensive patterns, and years again to trust their split-second reads and make the right decision by the count of four, when all hell breaks loose in the pocket. Film study is crucial, and the Peyton Mannings of the world do more of it than the entire staff of Cahiers du Cinéma: four to six hours daily during the season. It is only an adjunct, though, to the thing itself – the six-day-a-week grind of practices, 48 to 50 weeks a year.

"The first thing I tell a kid when he comes to me is you better be able to deal with boredom," says Clarkson. "Playing the game's the most fun you'll ever have, but the stuff leading up to it is dull, dull, dull, and if you don't have a burning desire to work, then do your folks a favor and take up golf."

When a kid is brought to Clarkson for evaluation, he typically spends a weekend assessing him, though he often knows by the start of day two whether the boy's cut out for this. "If he went back to his hotel after the Saturday session and spent hours in the mirror doing what I showed him, then he's got the makeup to play QB," he says. If not, Clarkson has neither the time nor the patience to baby the kid along. He's a phenomenally busy man, running his local camps, training an extensive and far-flung list of private clients, and rolling out a national version of all this with his new business partner, Edward DeBartolo Jr. Starting next year he and the former owner of the San Francisco 49ers will stage huge minicamps for passers and wideouts at locations around the country, bringing their veteran team of coaches and coordinators to work with kids hand to hand. From there they will spread the gospel overseas, teaching kids in China and England to throw a hot spiral on the run.

It's the basis of what Clarkson now calls his life mission: to plant and nurse the grassroots of quarterbacking so that great ones emerge more than once or twice a decade almost by accident. "Aside from a handful of guys in the league, this is a real downtime now for passers," says Clarkson. "What we need is more kids coached right from the get-go, so that the quantity and quality goes up at all levels and we see six or seven good ones every draft."

It is a wildly ambitious life for a guy who was bounced out of football after the briefest cup of coffee in the NFL and who, 20 years ago, was the district manager at a Black Angus restaurant in L.A. Sitting on one of a pair of matching leather couches in his massive corner office in Pasadena, Clarkson, at 46, looks more like a linebacker now than the fleet QB who came out of college ready to detonate the league in '83. That, you may remember, was the annus mirabilis class, a quarterback draft so awash in passers that Dan Marino went last of the six selected in round one. Clarkson had twice outplayed John Elway in head-to-head duels when Elway was the consensus all-American at Stanford and Clarkson was breaking records for Elway's father Jack at rival San Jose State. But Elway went first in that mighty draft, and Clarkson – well, Clarkson was never chosen, though in those days the draft went 12 rounds, not seven, and 16 quarterbacks, all of them white, were selected. Denver scooped him up as a street free agent for the whopping sum of $9,000, then turned around and swung the huge trade for Elway, paying a king's ransom for his rights. Clarkson, a proud man who wept in his kitchen the night of that draft, went up to play in Canada for a couple of years after the Broncos cut him, then came home to Los Angeles and declared himself done with the game. "I was raised in a racially mixed part of L.A. and couldn't accept that the game would be that racist. But at the Broncos' camp, they straight set me up to fail, sending plays in to get my head knocked off. I chose to keep my mouth shut so they couldn't call me a rebel, but it really turned me off to the sport I loved."

A big-boned kid with a howitzer arm, he'd fallen hard for football as an eight-year-old at his first Rams game with his father. "We were sitting in the cheap seats with all the hippies around us smoking grass, and I'm watching Roman Gabriel, the first glamour-boy passer, throw bomb after bomb to Lance Rentzel and Jack Snow, and thinking, That's what I want to grow up doing. I want the ball in my hands on every play, and I want to look good throwing it."

Clarkson helped lead L.A.'s Wilson High to three straight city titles, two as a stylin' QB. (He played in a tailored uni and self-customized cleats, painting the school mascot on the heels.) But he never really took the game seriously until college, when Jack Elway put his own job on the line by starting a black QB. "The hate mail he got, the death threats and back stabs – man, that grew me up fast," says Clarkson. "I went to him one day and asked for film of the great quarterbacks, starting with his son, of course. To this day I've never seen a better technician. John Elway's reads and footwork? Perfect."

Clarkson graduated as an academic all-American and a wised-up student of the game. That's why his treatment by the league cut deep: He wanted to demonstrate that blacks could think the position, not just wing it by scrambling. But if he was done with football, football wasn't done with him, luring him back with the cheapest of ruses: an ad in the local pennysaver. A man in the area was looking for a coach to tutor his high school son; Clarkson's great-aunt spotted the ad and gave the guy Steve's number. Clarkson agreed to meet the boy and watch him play. Unmoved by what he saw, he begged off politely and got back into his car. But before he hit the gas, he took a last look and saw the kid nail a string of backflips. "He was a great athlete but couldn't play a lick," says Clarkson. "I thought, if I can turn that kid into a quarterback – well, if nothing else, it'd make a great story."

That kid, Perry Klein, was a gangly sophomore who had inherited his gymnast father's genes. "I'd never even taken a snap from center, and went to a school with a lousy coach and very few pass plays," says Klein, now 37 and a computer-parts supplier after a two-year stint in the NFL. "But Steve created a whole new offense for me and said, 'You're going to set records for passing.'" Six months later, Klein was chosen all-county, having rewritten the record book at Carson High, and Clarkson was getting mentions in the local papers as the Midas who'd spun copper into gold. A handful of parents called about their kids. Clarkson took a breath and a searching look in the mirror and quit his job at Black Angus. It was touch and go for money the first 10 years, but he kept churning out precocious QBs who could run the spread offense in their sleep. Then a profile ran in an L.A. newspaper, and the next day 60 teens and their dads besieged the little park where he taught. Just trying to eke out a living, Clarkson had tapped a well of parents who'd pay any sum to make their sons stars.

In short order, his small shop became a monolith. The Air 7 Quarterback University hired veteran coaches with college and pro credentials and added classrooms for chalk talk and crews to film the kids. Suddenly Clarkson became one-stop shopping for college coaches who ran a pro-style offense; they called to get his take on high school sophs they couldn't, by rule, scout in person. Word got out to the parents of these stars that Clarkson had the ear of a Norm Chow or Rick Neuheisel, and those kids, the Barkleys and Clausens, were lining up to be his private clients. "What you see in Steve's kids – and I've gotten four of my quarterbacks from him – is they're miles ahead of the others, technique-wise," says Chow, the offensive coordinator at UCLA and formerly a coach at USC and BYU, who has turned out six of the top 12 rated college passers ever, including Steve Young. "Just super-solid above and below the waist."

Getting the best kids was to be expected: There's only one starter at a QB launchpad like USC, and hundreds of gifted teens all gunning for the job when the current Heisman winner moves along. What Clarkson didn't count on was the other class of kids now stepping off planes in droves: the rawboned but ambitious 11-year-olds. They were boys barely out of car booster seats but by far the best passers in their Pop Warner leagues and possessed of a blind passion to get better. As bad as they craved it, though, some of their parents craved it worse. They yanked their sixth-graders out of class to fly to Clarkson, hired trainers back home for additional speed-and-strength drills, and supervised film study – such that football was a full-time, after-school job for kids who hadn't yet hit puberty. One mother I met persuaded a doctor to prescribe growth hormone and steroids for her son, even though he was absurdly big for a 12-year-old and could throw a 50-yarder by flicking his wrist. Posted on their fridge was a jointly signed contract, stating how much money the child would earn for every pass completed and touchdown thrown. In his primitive scrawl, the boy had added a rider providing a $100 bonus for a Pop Warner title.

"I try to weed out folks who want it more than their kid, but every now and then one gets through," says Clarkson, who discovered the woman was doping her own son when a shipment of growth hormone, addressed to her, wound up at his Pasadena office. He confronted the mother and dropped her son from the program, though it should count for no surprise that the boy, now 13, is still being aggressively recruited by premium high schools.