Gary Friedman/Getty Images
We begin in a biology class at Wilson High School in inner-city Los Angeles, with the class clown and the annoyed teacher and a moment that defined a life. The genesis of the self-described Dream Maker, molder of quarterbacks, is here in this painfully predictable setting.
That was 16-year-old Steve Clarkson nearly 40 years ago, the star quarterback trudging through another day of class until that damn clock finally reached 2 p.m., and he couldn’t get to the practice field fast enough. Who in the world digs biology, anyway?
“Sounds like everything you’ve ever read in a book or seen in a movie, right?” Clarkson says now.
Only this is real and lasting, its impact far beyond the white lines of a football field and spilling over into what meant everything for a young man in the 1970s, a decade removed from the Watts riots and dealing with systemic obstacles because of the color of his skin.
Clarkson is black, his teacher is black, and the defining moment—the “hook,” as all those wannabe screenwriters just 10 miles away in Hollywood have said for all of eternity—was the very moment his teacher forced the star quarterback to stand up in front of the class and answer questions from homework he refused to complete.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
“I said, ‘C’mon, sister, gimme a break,'” Clarkson says, his eyes beginning to glisten at recalling the turning point of his young life. Three days later, he still couldn’t answer the questions, each painful minute in front of the class more torturous than the next.
“She pulled me aside and said to me, ‘Why do you think I’m doing this?'” Clarkson says. “I said, ‘Because you hate football players?’ She said to me—and I’ll never forget this—’We’re black; we have to be three times as good. If I let you off the hook, you’ll never get where you need to be. You’ll never be unique.'”
Quarterback whisperers are thick on the ground, but Steve Clarkson is unique enough to attract or create some of the best in the game.
He’s been doing it for two decades now, teaching and pushing and motivating the likes of Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck and Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley and so many more. None other than Joe Montana, maybe the greatest quarterback of all time, sent both of his sons to Clarkson.
The Dream Maker has tutored first-round draft picks and college All-Americans and 5-star high school recruits. He trains kids barely big enough to throw a regulation-sized ball past the line of scrimmage and men grinding away in the NFL.
If all goes as planned—it often does in the world of the Dream Maker—two of his students, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and UCLA’s Josh Rosen, will be the first overall picks in the 2017 and 2018 NFL drafts.
He isn’t the sharp-dressed, good-looking, perfect fit for television. His hairline is receding, his beard is graying and he has a 50-something paunch.
But he’s the best at what he does.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
On a perfect San Diego morning this summer, Clarkson is reliving that moment in biology class as he stands among fresh faces from eight to 18 years old at one of his elite quarterback camps. The message he received nearly 40 years ago resonates through another generation.
Life and sports—or in his micro-specific case, playing quarterback—aren’t really all that different.
“You have to ask yourself,” Clarkson says, his voice growing stronger as each word escapes, “will I do what’s required to get through, or will I do whatever it takes to be uncommon?”
In an era where the position is more important than ever, when mothers and fathers are paying top dollar for quarterback training as early as elementary school—and everything you need to know about playing quarterback changes with every new system or idea—the Dream Maker has stayed true to the ideal he learned long ago, that nothing replaces hard work.
“He’s not all about the hype and the talk and ‘look at me I’m on television’ stuff,” Green Bay Packers backup and former UCLA star Brett Hundley says. “He’s all about getting better.”
Always a great time training in Cali. pic.twitter.com/w8lJ7vsDgz
— Aaron McLaughlin (@aaronm_qb) September 20, 2016
Clarkson, who turned 55 on Halloween, may not be on TV much, but he can point to a progression of successful quarterbacks as his resume—one that begins at the NFL and moves through the college and high school ranks.
When this season began, some of the top college programs in the nation had starting quarterbacks with connections to Clarkson’s tutelage, including Miami (Brad Kaaya), Michigan (Wilton Speight), Texas A&M (Trevor Knight), Georgia (Jacob Eason) and USC (Max Browne). Meanwhile, the top quarterbacks for the 2017 recruiting class—the future of college football—were with him in San Diego for a two-day session before their senior seasons began.
Tua Tagovailoa (committed to Alabama), Tate Martell (Ohio State) and Hunter Johnson (Clemson) were among a group of elite high schoolers throwing right alongside fresh-faced preteens barely eclipsing 100 pounds—all receiving the same interaction and teaching.
“The thing about Steve that separates him from all the others in the business is it goes beyond the position,” Eason says. “He teaches you so much more than football.”
Martell is trying to explain the concept that is the Dream Maker. Anyone, he says, can tell you that your elbow is dropping and reducing velocity on your throws.
Anyone can run you through blind drills, where you learn to feel pressure in the pocket and avoid it by moving and sliding around tires placed on the field and never taking your eyes off the secondary.
Anyone can set trash cans at specific points on the field and run you through throws, and anyone can tell you that you’re not driving the ball with your legs or that your step finishes too tight or too loose.
“That’s why there’s so many [quarterback coaches] out there now,” Martell says. “But it has to be different, you know?”
It has to be, more than anything, someone who has been through the highs and lows of the grind and will tell you the unvarnished truth. It has to be a coach who will go beyond tweaking mechanics and dive deep into the philosophy that everything you do off the field is a direct reflection of what happens on it.
Or, as one FBS coach says, “Steve doesn’t bulls–t with those kids.”
Clarkson could’ve very easily shown up at the San Diego camp minutes before it opened and had assistants run through drills while he sipped sweet tea in the shade. Yet he arrived early, set up the field, lined up the cones and sat around a table with some of the nation’s top young talent to talk shop.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Every Clarkson truism (“Always embrace criticism, never settle for momentary success”) is mixed with talk of friends and family and relationships. Conversation with him can range from looking off the safety in Cover 1 to ignoring bad choices when the season is over and no one is looking.
“A lot of guys don’t understand the importance of doing the right thing every single day,” says Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson, the nation’s No. 1 recruit at the position from the class of 2016. “I didn’t. I was very fortunate, to be honest, that I didn’t get caught. Steve is more than a guy that coaches quarterbacks. He’s like a second father. He told me once, ‘If your life isn’t working the way you want it, you’re the only one who can change it.'”
Clarkson was in that very position after a prolific college career at San Jose State, where he was left with two undeniable truths:
1. He was eligible for the famed 1983 NFL draft quarterback class, one that included John Elway as the No. 1 overall selection and a couple of guys named Dan Marino and Jim Kelly.
2. NFL roster spots were a pipe dream for most black quarterbacks, who were usually asked to change positions.
“So I decided, shoot, I just won’t run” the 40, Clarkson says. “It’s quarterback or nothing.”
Clarkson purposely ran slowly during individual workouts with teams, ending any question of his playing defensive back or wide receiver. He went undrafted, and the Denver Broncos signed him as a free agent for $9,000. A month later, the Broncos traded for Elway, and Clarkson was out of a job.
He spent two seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Canadian Football League before realizing that north of the border wasn’t for him, and by the time he turned 26 he was managing a steakhouse in Los Angeles and had all but given up on football. Then his aunt saw an ad in the newspaper: A man was looking for a quarterback coach for his son.
“Who could’ve known, at that age, that it was the best thing that could’ve happened to me and him,” Perry Klein says now.
I get requests from beginner QB’s wanting to know the correct way to grip & throw a football. Step by step here: https://t.co/Ls99zAkKsM pic.twitter.com/JW06GA1KTe
— Steve Clarkson (@steveclarkson) October 12, 2016
The first-ever Clarkson pupil almost never happened. Clarkson didn’t want to do it initially and eventually went to see Klein, a 16-year-old volleyball player and gymnast who, like most his age, dabbled in other sports too. He wanted to play quarterback but frankly didn’t know the first thing about it beyond throwing to a spot on the field.
Clarkson went to watch Klein throw at a passing league game (a seven-on-seven competition). He wasn’t impressed with the kid’s ability. Then he saw Klein—the gymnast—do a backflip to celebrate a touchdown.
“I thought, a guy with that athleticism, I can work with that,” Clarkson says.
More than anything, it gave Clarkson an avenue back to the game he loved, the game that he hadn’t left—it had left him. He got the head coach at Palisades High School to hire him as an assistant and told Klein, almost matter-of-factly, that he’d set records and be the best quarterback in the state of California.
Sure enough, in his first game, Klein completed 46 of 49 passes for 567 yards and eight touchdowns—numbers Clarkson rattles off today like he’s ordering at a McDonald’s drive-thru.
In his junior season, Klein set the state record by throwing for more than 5,000 yards. The offense was way ahead of its time, working out of the shotgun and using the read-option, shovel pass, jet sweep and four- and five-wide receiver sets.
Bruce Zake/Associated Press
Perry Klein with the Atlanta Falcons in 1994.
“A lot of it was out of necessity because I didn’t know how to drop back and we didn’t have time to learn. I didn’t know how to play the position,” Klein says. “He put in this offense that no one was running. It was genius. I’ve never been around someone—and I’ve played at all levels—who knows the passing game better. He sees things others don’t and can simplify and relate it to players. There’s no one else in the quarterback coaching business who can take a quarterback from the cradle to the grave.”
Two years later, after Klein moved on with a scholarship offer to California, Clarkson’s next project—future BYU star John Walsh—broke all of Klein’s state passing records. Two years after that, Klein transferred to C.W. Post for his final season of eligibility, set multiple records and was drafted in the fourth round by the Atlanta Falcons.
From a gymnast doing backflips and knowing nothing about the position to playing quarterback in the NFL in five years: The legend of the Dream Maker had begun.
“Everybody wanted me to coach their kid after that,” Clarkson said.
The Dream Maker is standing in front of the latest group of wannabe quarterbacks at his QB Retreat in San Diego, each player having paid $1,500 to spend two days with the one teacher who can build something from nothing.
Clarkson is talking about leadership, how the cornerstone football position is an extension of life goals. Quarterbacks are the face of the team or franchise; they’re confident, natural leaders who provide answers when questions arise. They thrive on competition.
“Not unlike what they’ll face when this game is over for them,” Clarkson says. “This game is important for all of these guys right now for any number of reasons. What some of them don’t get is this game will prepare you for life.”
You want to be a successful quarterback, Clarkson says? Work for it and protect it.
You want to be a doctor or an attorney or a banker? Work for it and protect it.
Because it can all go wrong with one bad moment on Twitter, one inappropriate Facebook post, one senseless Instagram picture—distractions that mean absolutely nothing in the long run.
“Your brand is everything,” Speight says. “How do you want to be seen? Is that tweet really worth it? You have to be prepared for everything that crosses your path on and off the field.”
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Sometimes that preparation includes a deep dive into the wallet. Clarkson holds numerous camps like the one in San Diego throughout the year, but the real work happens during private instruction. He takes no more than 24 students a year, each paying about $8,000 a month (do the math).
He whittles the number to 24 with a rigorous 10-hour evaluation to test strengths and deficiencies and to separate those who have the temperament and passion for work. As much as Clarkson preaches to quarterbacks about their brand, he must be just as protective of his.
If you’re one of the 24 in private instruction, you can all but pick and choose where you’ll play college football.
“I have no idea how much I’ve spent with Steve,” says David Sills IV, father of Clarkson prodigy David Sills V. “But I know it’s worth every penny.”
No matter when you connect with Clarkson—as a 10-year-old (Sills and Martell) or in your second year of college (Rosen)—the concepts of the position never really change. Eight or 18, you’re reading defenses and looking off safeties and finding answers in a matter of seconds. Specific fundamentals become second nature. They’re the foundation of the process.
Working on footwork, moving in the pocket, avoiding obstacles without looking down and learning to feel protection and pressure: The object is to put quarterbacks in undesirable positions with down and distance and defensive scheme scenarios and see how they react. Some wilt under the pressure; some thrive within it.
Just like that biology class nearly four decades ago.
“If you don’t know where the ball is going,” the Dream Maker says, “how does it get where it needs to be?”
That sounds familiar.
That sounds real and lasting.
Bleacher Report contributor Matt Hayes is a veteran college football reporter whose experience includes more than 15 years at Sporting News. You can follow him on Twitter at @MattHayesCFB.