Matt Barkley and Other Quarterbacks Built Here

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.
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. Mason Levinson / Bloomberg / Getty Images

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.

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.

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.”

Actually, what separates most of those who make it is the money to see their dream through. “This isn’t for the poor,” said a dad at the March camp, having brought his young passer and two of the boy’s receivers thousands of miles west that weekend. “Kids from the inner city, I don’t see how they compete,” admitted Kurt Wittek over dinner in Norwalk during a business trip back East. “No position coach, no film room, no pro-style playbook – it’s not a level field for them.”

Indeed, you can’t drop by one of Clarkson’s camps without feeling pressed to do the math. Of the 135 attendees at the quarterback camp in March, no more than 20 were kids of color, and the majority of those were wide receivers. It’s much the same story at the top of the line. By last count blacks made up 67 percent of the players on active rosters in the NFL, but of the 32 regulars at quarterback last year, only three were black. Yes, there are dozens of other camps for passers with NFL dreams, but none are as costly or prestigious as the one being run by a black ex-pro whose color may have cost him a shot at breakthrough stardom. Clarkson treads very lightly, however, saying the issue is about want-to, not whiteness. “I’ve worked with kids from single-parent families, but they didn’t hold their end up,” he says. “They’d stop coming out here or ignored what I told them. In other words, didn’t value the chance. I can make you good, but I can’t make you care, and a kid has to want this more than anything else or it’s never going to work for him, skills or not.”

He’s every bit as careful on the subject of age, and how much is too much at 12. “Some kids are just naturally old for their years and can handle all the things I throw at them,” he says. Or others throw at them. The summer of 2007, while still in his 13th year, Max Wittek was cruised at one of Clarkson’s camps by a big-name coach from the ACC. No formal offer was given, though the intent was clear. “He said, ‘We’d love for you to come to our school,'” says Max, who was stunned and flattered. The NCAA prohibits colleges from recruiting middle school kids, and any contact made before their junior year in high school must be initiated by the boys or their families.

“Big-time coaches don’t care about rules. If they want a kid, they’ll go through a third party,” says Tom Lemming, of CBS College Sports, who hosts a show called ‘Generation Next’. “They’ll call up Clarkson and say, We like your guy; have him call us and we’ll get it done.” Every couple of years, he adds, schools move the process up, getting kids to commit now as high school sophomores or, in the case of major talents, as freshmen. “In 20 years,” Lemming snickers, “they’ll be offering it to newborns whose moms played some field hockey in high school. It’ll be like, ‘Hey, here’s your blankie and your letter of intent; just make your little X there on the line.’?”

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.

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