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 job of quarterback, like that of film star or lead guitarist, is by now so accoutred in myth and hope as to be as much a thing of fantasy as ambition. Y.A. Tittle, gored but gallant after being leveled in his own end zone; Tom Brady, wearing confetti and a dazzled grin, aloft on the Super Bowl dais: Their faces are engraved in our limbic system, and no one knows that better than Clarkson. He loves to stage events at which the great ones gather, trailing clouds of glory as they go.

Memorial Day weekend he threw a gala in the Santa Barbara hills for his first annual Super 7 QB Retreat. In the courtyard of Fess Parker's Doubletree Resort the stretch limos and roadsters were wedged in tight, heralding the arrival of the gods. Off the lobby Joe Montana hugged Jerry Rice; 10 feet away Wayne Gretzky shook hands with coaches. The rotundas and breezeways were clogged with college passers – Jimmy Clausen of Notre Dame and Jake Locker of Washington, among a half dozen others – as well as the very best high school talent in the country. Meanwhile, Clarkson's current clients, who paid $3,000 apiece for a weekend of drills and dinner, buzzed like the preteen kids they mostly were at each new entrance and sighting.

The next day was a circus of sound trucks and boom mikes, as media outlets ringed the turf at the Santa Barbara City College Stadium. Much of the press pack had made the trip for their first action glimpse of Terrelle Pryor, the most talked-about signing in Ohio State history. Pryor is 6-feet-6 and has salad-bowl shoulders and the subzero swagger of his soon-to-be neighbor LeBron James. From the moment he shed his wind suit and took the field, all eyes and long-angle lenses were on him, the click-buzz-whir of the star machine. Under the north goalposts Clarkson led a group of future first-round draft picks, including Pryor and fellow entering freshmen such as E.J. Manuel of Florida State and Matt Scott of Arizona. Then Snoop Dogg rolled up, fastidiously late, in a black-on-black van with brutal rims. Out spilled his horde with their own camera crew – the one from his E! show Father Hood. Last down the steps was the family prince, Snoop's gifted but indolent son Corde, who, as usual, had forgotten his cleats.

A half-hour later, ignored by satellite trucks, a group of very tall high school freshmen drilled at the stadium's southern end. Among them were Trevor Gretzky, as lean as his father but, at 15, two inches taller, a two-sport star with a cannon arm and a future in baseball or football; Jerry Neuheisel, the surf-do'ed, handsomely gifted son of UCLA's head coach Rick; and Snoop's boy, who, in borrowed spikes, showed off the footwork that gets Clarkson excited. With these progeny of the famous was one Max Wittek, the taciturn child of no one bold-faced, yet the star, nonetheless, of this rotation. As he worked all morning on ball fakes and check-downs and hit his slot receiver on the run, he drew approving nods from the retired QBs that Clarkson had brought in to lend a hand. Perry Klein, the ex-backup for the Atlanta Falcons, said Max's "mechanics were better than most of the seniors."

Klein nodded upfield, where Pryor was shocking everyone with his raw, almost clownish, play. Time after time he fired, wrong-footed, above and behind his target. "Five different throws from five different arm slots," tutted Clarkson. "Bend your knees so and load the hip, then point your big toe at the receiver." On several occasions he stopped a drill cold to take Pryor back to step one, making him work without a ball, at one point even showing him how to grip it. The rest of the Super 7 campers watched in consternation. "Front shoulder down!" Clarkson then yelled at Josh Freeman, who last year broke five records at Kansas State in his first full season as a starter. "You'd have cost yourself millions in draft position if you'd done that at the NFL combine!"

But Clarkson, who seldom smiles and seems to have been born wearing his game face, also has a streak of showbiz in him, and later that day he donned a body mike to host a QB challenge. Playing to a sizable crowd of parents and siblings and college students who'd strolled over from class, he put his Super 7 through a state-fair gauntlet of speed and arm-strength tests. They ran obstacle courses to fire footballs at bull's-eyes over 2-D-cutout blitzers and hurled bombs at targets strapped to moving golf carts 40 and 50 yards downfield. As the 'E!' cameras rolled, Snoop's boisterous posse heckled every underthrown ball. Max, seated in front of them but oblivious to their chatter, watched the contest raptly. Occasionally he whispered to the kid beside him, 16-year-old Nick Montana. Afterward I asked him what they'd talked about. "Just taking notes," he muttered, frowning. "Tomorrow they're making us do this."

It won't be airing on basic cable, but Max Wittek went out that next morning and dominated the QB challenge, easily besting Gretzky and his age-group peers in distance and accuracy. No one much noticed – his name wasn't called when the winners were announced – but Max seemed not to care. He was still on the field as the cam crews packed and the celebrities and spectators left; even Clarkson departed in his dazzling M6 with the plates that read drm8ker. All but alone under a fickle sun, Max threw half-speed spirals to his father, a young man working at the thing he loves on a cool spring afternoon. Kurt Wittek, catching his passes, gave soft grunts.