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

The Fairfield Country Day School in southwest Connecticut is about the last place you'd look if you were trying to find a franchise passer-in-training. Its honeycombed campus of Georgian manses and terraced purlieu of ancient oaks is peopled by just a couple of hundred boys in blazers and Lands' End khakis, dropped off each morning by enameled mothers in German SUVs. Max Wittek has 16 kids in his class, and few, it's safe to say, have designs on the NFL, unless they're hoping to one day buy a team. Even in uniform Max looks alien here, a ruddy giant who dwarfs his peers, Gulliver among these rep-tied Lilliputians. When he transferred in from public school to start eighth grade, he was jeeringly called "New Kid" by his classmates and frozen out of cliques in the lunchroom. Then the New Kid started running the option as a bulling QB and mowing down the side as a starting pitcher, and suddenly his classmates were bumping fists with Max and inviting him to parties. By then, though, he wasn't able to hang, having thrown himself headlong at something else.

In the spring of eighth grade, Max had gone to one of Clarkson's camps and found his place fast among the gangly kids who could throw a ball high and far. He flocked to three or four camps that summer and joined Clarkson's exclusive circle of young-gun private clients. Accompanied by his father or mother, the then-13-year-old flew cross-country twice a month, spending hours in the film room with Clarkson and others and going out for two-a-days at Maranatha High with purebreds like Matt Barkley and Joe Montana's boys. He was awfully raw yet, tripping over his own feet and driving Clarkson crazy by holding the ball low. But by that fall, he overheard a private chat Clarkson had with his father, Kurt Wittek. "Steve was saying I had arm strength like Matt, and slightly better footwork at this stage," says Max. "I was like, what? Matt Barkley's the man. How am I even in that conversation?"

Freshly showered, he is minutes removed from an obscene demonstration of power, striking out 16 helpless hitters in a home win over Iona Grammar, a game in which he also bashed a moon shot over the chain-link fence in dead center. Afterward the kids from Iona swarmed him, giving awed fives to the boy who'd smoked them with a fastball in the low-to-middle 80s. Max, though, was underwhelmed. He'd struck out 17 his last start here, and besides, you know, this was just baseball. If he cared about the game – and he assuredly doesn't – he could be a high first-rounder three summers from now in baseball's amateur draft. But all he has thought about since the age of four, when he watched his first Bills game with his father, is leading an offense to the line of scrimmage with the game clock winding down and the ball in his hands for a last drive. Max is gifted at math but has no plan B. He is following this out as far as his arm will take him.

I stop by his house in Norwalk to join him for breaking down some film that Clarkson has sent him. It's the right-brain work of playing quarterback, learning every Z-shift and odd-man front till they're stamped in the corpus callosum, and to hammer home the point, Clarkson enclosed a blue binder with hours' worth of quizzes and notes. But it's a splendid May Saturday, and Max wants to show off his arm. On a wide, quiet block of pillbox Capes, he fires blue-streak slants and skinny posts to his wincing friend Wilson. It can be hazardous to your health to play catch with Max; his father, a real estate developer and onetime high school linebacker, tore tendons in his finger twice running patterns for him and knows better than to try it again. "He was throwing half-speed, and my pinkie still doesn't work," says Kurt over the phone from Northern California, where he, with a variety of partners, among them Joe Montana, constructs commercial buildings and housing tracts. "He always had an arm, but since he got with Steve, his ball's gotten so much heavier. I'm officially retired as his receiver."

Deep in a rhythm now, Max suffers my questions about what he's learned at camp. "Well, it started with footwork; I'd spend weekends with Steve where I never even picked up a ball. That first step from center, going straight back, not sideways – that was, like, a month by itself." He demonstrates the switch-foot, five-step drop, with its artfully explosive first two steps, and the hairpin dynamics of the throwing motion: the off-arm yanking through and down for torque; the hand with the ball turning over on release to plant the right thumb in the left pants pocket, a forkball delivery in baseball. "It was so hard to do that, the opposite of how I threw, but that's how you get it to spiral. Distance, too: I could air it 40 yards max. Now, I throw it 60 with no flutter."

Sixty, no flutter: It's one way to gauge the lengths Max has come since signing on with Clarkson. A year ago he was the left-out child playing football at a tiny middle school. Now he finds himself a prince-in-waiting, the heir apparent at Mater Dei High School, which has nine state titles to its credit. It's a little like being plucked out of the Babe Ruth League to do setup relief for the Yankees. But when asked if he's daunted by the leap, Max frowns and studies his feet. He can handle himself fine on the field, he says; as for off-the-field pressure, he'll do the best he can. "Besides," he adds, hanging his first big smile, "they have girls on campus there."

Still, the question bears re-asking, because he's just so young for this sort of life decision. At 15, Max is prone to two-word answers and is in every sense of the word a virgin. Aside from his weekends and vacations with Kurt, Max had rarely been away from his mom till he started working out with Clarkson. "He'll call from California saying he misses me, and that goes double for me," says his mother, Karen Kurensky, who works as a massage therapist. She never fought the move to California – "I'm about his best interests" – but the decision has cost her dearly. In 2004 she married a man who owned a thriving business in town. Last fall they split when she announced she would follow Max to California. She's also leaving behind her parents and three sisters, to whom she is tightly bound, and starting over in a place she has never been to and where she knows no one except her son.

So it goes now for passers of promise, following their talent to prime-time venues for better coaching and exposure. "Two percent of high school athletes get college scholarships," says Angelo Gasca, the football coach at California's Venice High, who works with Clarkson and helped grow J.P. Losman into a promising NFL quarterback. "Talent is great, but there are thousands of kids with the tools to play the position. What separates the ones who get to the next level is they grab on every chance to get better."