HAYWARD, Calif. -- Here is a name that just might mean something someday in the annals of football lore, if everything breaks in the most optimal way imaginable: Sam Darnold. At the moment, Darnold is a soon-to-be senior quarterback at San Clemente High School, south of Los Angeles; at the moment, Sam Darnold is a three-star recruit (out of five) according to most scouting services, and at the moment, Sam Darnold is drawing interest from FBS programs like Utah and Colorado State and Duke and Nevada. At the moment, Sam Darnold is another quarterback prospect in a vast ocean of quarterback prospects, one more cog in the quarterback-industrial complex. But it's possible that changed last Friday, when Sam Darnold impressed a quarterback who once won a Super Bowl.
Here are some more names: Brady White, Travis Waller, Brian Lewerke. Along with Sam Darnold, those were the quarterbacks chosen as "finalists" at the Elite 11 regional quarterback camp at Chabot College in Hayward, Calif., a yearly skills competition sponsored by the kingmakers at Nike and ESPN and overseen by quarterback-turned-broadcaster Trent Dilfer (the finals will be held later this summer in Oregon). White has already committed to play at Arizona State; Waller is weighing offers from Tennessee and Alabama and Oregon, among others; and Lewerke has committed to Michigan State. And Sam Darnold? "You may not have known his name coming in," Dilfer said, "but you'll know it now."
Perhaps this anointment will elevate Sam Darnold into the upper echelon of 2015 quarterbacks. But, with all due respect to Trent Dilfer, who clearly knows a great many more things about quarterbacking than the average person, I'm pretty sure this is not the first time a statement like that has been uttered at a camp like this. One of the attendees in Oakland, Tate Martell, committed to the University of Washington in the eighth grade but still has some growing to do; one of Martell's quarterback-circuit friends, David Sills, committed to USC while in the seventh grade but may never actually play a down there. You look at the names of the quarterbacks chosen for the Elite 11 finals since 1999 and some of them are verging on household (Tebow, Luck, Bridgewater) and many more of them are not.
The accuracy varies so much from year to year that it almost seems random: In 2001, eight of the Elite 11 were eventually chosen in the NFL draft; in 2004, two of the Elite 11 were chosen in the NFL draft, and one of those was Mark Sanchez. Sometimes all this schooling and tutelage and year-round dedication to quarterbacking pays off, and sometimes it doesn't, and what's remarkable -- the one thing you start to realize after watching roughly seventy high-schoolers work through a five-step drop -- is that despite all the time and money and science that's now invested into perfecting the quarterback-industrial complex, no one on earth seems to know what the hell makes the difference.
There were, best as I could tell, three elements to the roughly three-hour session of the Elite 11 regional: There was the technical instruction, there were the motivational speeches, and there was the competition itself. The technical instruction, the drills, felt weirdly like a science-fiction film: Eleven quarterbacks in matching Nike shirts lined up along the 40-yard line, simultaneously practicing their footwork; eleven quarterbacks taking turns throwing the same fade pattern, or the same curl, while avoiding the same simulated rush. All these groups of aspirants shuttling from one drill to the next as the Elite 11 staff delivered instruction and platitudes, which leads us directly to the motivational portion of the evening.
"As a quarterback, you're the center of the team, the face of the program," said Manny Wilkins, a past Elite 11 attendee whose fledgling career, to his credit, already has the makings of a junior high school assembly speech. "One of the biggest things you'll learn at Elite 11 is have no fear."
This was the gist of the motivational advice: Don't get too high and don't get too low. Don't let success change you, and don't let failure destroy you. Be A Quarterback. Which brings me to the Be A Quarterback speech I heard from one of the instructors in attendance. The Be A Quarterback speech began with this instructor noting that Trent Dilfer does not identify himself as an athlete, but that Trent Dilfer identifies himself as a quarterback. And so the question these quarterbacks must ask themselves is, Am I being a quarterback in everything I'm doing? This includes schoolwork, and this includes football, and this includes family life, and this includes the day-to-day vagaries of teenage existence, and this even includes girls. "I'm not interested in dating the sixth prettiest girl," this instructor said. "I'm finding 'Most Desirable' in the yearbook"-- not sure if that's an actual yearbook category, but whatever, he was on a roll -- "and I'm taking her to the prom."
No position has been idealized through modern American history quite like quarterback; I guess it's not a surprise that this idealization still holds in the mechanized age. Quarterbacks, the theory goes, are strikingly confident, which is why quarterbacks are able to see beyond their mistakes and work beyond their slights. At some point, one of the instructors brought up Tom Brady, and I imagine that at every quarterback camp in every town for the remainder of human history -- or at least until high-school football is swamped under a tsunami of lawsuits -- someone will be required pull out a Tom Brady anecdote. At camps like these, Tom Brady gives hope to the hopeless, or at least those who are too small or too thin or a step slow; Tom Brady is a quarterback who made his career off being a quarterback.
In the end, there was the competition: Something called the "pressure chamber," a simulated two-minute drill among some of the standout participants that involved sideline patterns and fades and one last throw to the end zone above the outstretched arms of three volunteers. A few of the quarterbacks made the throws, and a few didn't, and afterward, Dilfer said it might have been the most impressive regional in the history of the competition, given the current boon of quarterbacks on the West Coast. Choosing four finalists, Dilfer said, was like splitting hairs, and I guess this is why the most desirable and most studied position in American sports remains such a conundrum: Because there is a fine line between being a quarterback and not quite being a quarterback, and even the experts aren't sure how that line should be drawn.