Quarterback Matthew Stafford was at the line of scrimmage, running the spread offense, when something caught his eye. With three receivers to his left and one to his right, Stafford took the snap, then looked over at his secondary receiver to the right, connecting on a perfect touchdown pass. As Stafford walked off the field, his coach quickly congratulated him. One problem. The play was designed to go to one of his teammates out on the left. “What were you thinking?” asked his coach.
"Matthew said, ‘I looked over and I saw the cornerback’s feet pointed to the inside and I knew there was no way he was going to turn and catch Morgan, so I went for it,’’’ recalled John Stafford, Matthew’s father.
This wasn’t another home game at Ford Field, Calvin Johnson wasn’t the receiver he’d connected with for the touchdown and Matthew Stafford wasn’t taking the snap as quarterback for the Detroit Lions. This was Stafford’s eighth-grade team at Highland Park Middle School in Dallas, and his receiver on the right was a kid named Morgan. That eighth-grade quarterback is still at the same position, still throwing touchdowns and showing off that magic arm. Now it’s just in the NFL.
Matthew Stafford has helped make the Detroit Lions matter again. One year before he was chosen with the No. 1 pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, Detroit was 0-16. Last year, the Lions finished 10-6 and clinched one of the NFC wild cards, while ranking in the top five in both total offense and passing yards per game. Stafford finished the regular season with 41 touchdowns and a career-high 5,038 yards passing, third in the NFL, behind only Drew Brees of New Orleans and New England’s Tom Brady but ahead of Super Bowl quarterbacks Eli Manning of New York and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers . In three years, he’s already led Detroit to three comebacks of 20 points or more, including last year’s 24-point come-from-behind victory at Dallas on Oct. 2. Stafford, 24, is just a guy who wears his ball cap turned around and appears to know how to balance hard work with fun. His dad still texts him reminders before every game: "Have fun out there." That’s not difficult, though. Quarterback is right where he wants to be. It’s the only place he’s known since the fourth grade.
That eighth-grade quarterback is still at the same position [...] Now it’s just in the NFL.
Stafford had already been playing soccer, basketball and baseball when it came time to sign up for six-man football at the Park Cities YMCA, located in an affluent area that includes both Highland Park and University Park. John Stafford -- a former Florida State swimming coach who now sells insurance -- coached his son’s football team along with another father.
Six-man football is a fast-paced game still played in high school in some small Texas towns and by some smaller private schools. Played with a center, quarterback, two receivers and two backs in the slot, every player is eligible to run the ball or pass. Yet while most teams were running, Stafford’s team chose to pass. They finished around .500, but all the kids got to be involved. All of them knew what it was like to run with the ball, touch it, feel it and be part of scoring. "Everybody played hard because they knew they’d have a chance to get that football," John said.
Texas' longstanding love affair with high school football isn't a secret. Just recently, a new $59.6 million high school football stadium opened in Allen, a north Dallas suburb. The state has produced legends like Sammy Baugh, Earl Campbell and Adrian Peterson, as well as this year’s top two NFL draft picks in Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III. In Texas, fans will follow some football players beginning in junior high. Stafford’s arm already had coaches talking even before he stepped foot on the field at Highland Park High School.
“He had a vision of where he wanted to be and how he was going to get there. That was the main thing,” Highland Park head coach Randy Allen said. “This wasn’t a surprise to Matthew. This whole thing wasn’t a surprise.”
Allen first heard about Stafford when he was just a seventh grader. Allen’s next-door neighbor had a son who was best friends with Stafford. The neighborhood has big lush trees hanging out over the street, with sidewalks on both sides and the houses are close together, so they’d go out into the street and throw the football around. There’s this kid that’s unbelievable, Allen was told. And he’s a seventh grader! Allen could walk outside his house and see for himself how strong the boy was.
This same seventh grader had gone to a Florida State football camp and after the first day was moved up to play with the ninth graders. That fall, Stafford and his seventh grade team were out east of Dallas playing in Terrell. Parents from both teams set close together on one side, watching Stafford fling the ball downfield with ease. Finally a Terrell parent had had enough. “Wait a minute!” the man yelled. “They’ve got a ninth grader in there! That’s a ringer! That’s not fair!”
"I want to win a state championship."
Allen and Stafford’s relationship began when he was still attending middle school. Stafford’s coaches were raving about him to Allen and one day the coach came over and shook the eighth-grader’s hand.
“What are your goals?” Allen asked him.
“I want to win a state championship,” Stafford replied matter-of-factly.
Allen watched him play and saw his obvious ability. He already knew with the depth his team had that Stafford would start on varsity as a sophomore. Highland Park had already had its share of great quarterbacks dating back to NFL Hall of Famer Bobby Layne, who threw for more than 26,000 yards in 15 NFL seasons, including nine seasons (1950-1958) with Detroit where he led the Lions to NFL championships in 1952, 1953 and 1957. Now here was Stafford, and fans were showing up at middle school games just to catch a glimpse of the next great Highland Park quarterback.
One of those who was impressed was Gil Brandt, Stafford’s neighbor and Vice President of Player Personnel for the Dallas Cowboys from 1960-1989. “He was like a 12-year-old performing with a 20-year-old's ability,” Brandt said of Stafford.
“He was like a 12-year-old performing with a 20-year-old's ability."
Stafford spent his freshman year playing with the junior varsity, but got called up to the varsity at the end of the season, something that many Texas high school football teams do to give young players exposure to postseason football. Before the playoffs began, Matthew came home with a booklet of 20-30 hand signals used by coaches to call plays from the sidelines. Even though any game-time experience would come in mop-up time, he had to learn them all. Stafford still took the list and went into his bedroom.
Fifteen minutes later he came out, confident he had it down. With his family sitting in the living room, Matthew had his father drill him on the signals. His first time through he forgot one at the most, but when he was reminded of it, he nodded, and then asked his dad to start over. Second time through: Perfect. Do it again, Matthew asked. Third time: Perfect again. He got it.
Once the playoffs began, Matt McKay, the longtime color analyst for Highland Park radio, stood there watching as Stafford took turns with the second team during pre-game warm-ups. He took snaps from the shotgun and threw beautifully, McKay recalled. His form was outstanding and he threw a super-tight spiral. But when he threw a quick slant or post, Stafford’s pass would sometimes be a half step behind the receiver. The speed of the game at the varsity level wasn’t something Stafford was used to -- yet.
“I said to myself, 'It's just a matter of timing,’’’ McKay said. “Matthew just hadn't played with guys this fast. As I watched that I had a good feeling. I was going, ‘This transition to varsity is not going to be a problem for him.’”
Someone else noticed Stafford during the playoffs, too. Before one game, Allen led his quarterbacks onto the field for pregame warm-ups. Current North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora, then an assistant at Florida, had come out to watch Highland Park senior quarterback Bill Foran. Fedora stood there impressed as he watched the ball being thrown.
“Who’s that guy?” Fedora asked Allen.
“That’s not Bill Foran,” Allen replied. Foran was still in the locker room.
“Who is it?” Fedora asked.
“That’s just a freshman,” Allen said. Matt Stafford.
Stafford knew he would have a chance to win the starting quarterback job as a sophomore.
His dad pointed out how there were others ahead of him on the depth chart. Matthew knew he had the talent; he just had to go compete and work hard. Stafford didn’t start the first two games of his sophomore season -- “It’s a long story, I don’t want to go into it,” Allen says, when asked today -- but his opportunity came in the third game, when Highland Park faced Stephenville at the Tom Landry Classic at Southern Methodist University’s Gerald J. Ford Stadium.
Allen started a senior at quarterback for Highland Park, but Stafford came off the bench in the second quarter. When he got in the game, Allen played to his strengths and called plays that took advantage of Stafford’s arm, throwing the ball deep. “We just shifted gears,” Allen said looking back. Stafford finished with 270 yards passing and led Highland Park to a 45-27 victory.
This was the grand stage, a place kids from all over Texas dreamed of playing in.
Despite sitting out the first two games, Stafford finished his first varsity season with 3,182 yards, along with 38 touchdowns and just five interceptions. The Stephenville game was one of five in which Stafford threw for more than 250 yards, but most Highland Park fans remember the playoff game with Ennis High School at Texas Stadium.
Home for the Dallas Cowboys from 1971 to 2008, Texas Stadium is where coach Tom Landry roamed the sidelines, where Roger Staubach became a legend and where Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin and Troy Aikman led Dallas’ dynasty in the 1990s. The stadium has also been an integral part of the Texas high school football playoffs, hosting countless tripleheaders and state championship games. This was the grand stage, a place kids from all over Texas dreamed of playing in.
Ennis, led by senior quarterback Graham Harrell, was the top-ranked 4A team in the state. Harrell, who finished as Texas’ all-time leading high school passer with 12,532 yards and 167 touchdowns, later went on to star at Texas Tech, and was a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2008. But the pressure and magnitude of the game didn’t even phase the 15-year-old Stafford.
On one particular play, Matthew had a receiver in the left slot who was supposed to go up for a curl route. He completed the pass, but the receiver had to jump back to get it. It wasn't because the ball was poorly thrown: Matthew saw the safety coming over, and knew he couldn't lead him so he stopped his receiver by throwing to his back shoulder. He finished with 403 yards passing, and helped Highland Park pull off a 38-28 upset in front of more than 20,000 people.
Dave Henigan, now a head coach at Grapevine High School, had been around Stafford since he was a sixth grader at McCulloch Intermediate School, where Henigan taught Physical Education while coaching at Highland Park. By the time Stafford was entering the ninth grade, Henigan had left to take an offensive coordinator job at Denton Ryan High School, located north of Dallas. The Ennis game, which he attended as a scout, was actually Henigan’s first time to watch Stafford play in person.
“Seeing him do that didn’t surprise me, to be honest with you,” said Henigan. “It was an unbelievable performance, especially for a sophomore. He was the best player on the field. And he was a sophomore. And there were a lot of great players on the field. He made some throws that were unbelievable, that not many people can make.”
Randy Allen called it Stafford’s “coming out party.” The sophomore quarterback wasn’t a secret any longer. College coaches took notice.
Heading into Stafford’s junior year, he was rated the top quarterback in Texas by Randy Rodgers, a longtime recruiting expert in Texas and former University of Texas assistant coach. Rodgers considered him a national recruit, and had seen Stafford twice as a junior, when he finished with 1,700 yards and 18 touchdowns.
That spring, during the 2005 NFL Draft, then Florida head coach Ron Zook told Stafford he might be the No.1 pick in a few years.
He saw a kid who was confident in making great throws. Part of the maturity process, as Rodgers explained, is for quarterbacks to learn they can’t throw it and make every completion. Rodgers, who watched him again in the spring of his junior year, thought he had a very quick release. Stafford still made a lot of “arm throws” at the time, but with his arm strength he could get away with it.
College coaches flocked to Highland Park. That spring, during the 2005 NFL Draft, then Florida head coach Ron Zook told Stafford he might be the No.1 pick in a few years. When coaches wanted to see his arm, Stafford would go out with six receivers to throw routes. His passes were thrown so hard and fast that Allen said “you could hear it spinning in the air.”
“He’s got the best fundamentals on throwing the football, and he’s accurate, but he throws the ball with great velocity,” Allen said. “And he’s got such a quick release. That’s what you look for is a guy that can get the ball to the receiver in a hurry. One of the things he does so well is he can throw the ball from so many angles with accuracy.”
Entering his senior year, Rivals.com -- regarded as one of the nation’s top recruiting websites -- rated him as a five-star prospect and the nation’s No. 1 high school quarterback. ESPN had him No. 2. One of his recruiting visits, naturally, was to the University of Texas.
Matthew watched film with head coach Mack Brown and then offensive coordinator Greg Davis. Afterwards Davis told AP that Stafford could start right then for the Longhorns. Their starting quarterback at the time was Vince Young, the same player who later finished second in the 2005 Heisman Trophy balloting, the same player who later led Texas to a 41-38 victory over USC for the BCS National Championship and who was picked third by the Tennessee Titans in the 2006 NFL Draft.
"He knew how successful he was going to be.”
Although the recruiting process was intense, Stafford didn’t get overwhelmed and he remained honest through the process. He knew what offenses colleges were running, knew the systems that were best for his development, and he knew he didn’t want to play anywhere up north. If certain coaches called, he would politely tell them thank you and that he didn’t see himself playing for their school. By May 2005, the process was over and Stafford had committed to the University of Georgia. He felt he could be himself with head coach Mark Richt, and had also grown up watching Florida State football when Richt was their offensive coordinator.
Stafford came of age during a time when prep players, especially quarterbacks, are spotted and groomed from an early age. There are a wealth of college summer camps and scouting combines that many players start attending early in high school because of the opportunity both to improve and to market themselves to colleges.
But in Stafford’s case, apart from the one camp he attended as a seventh grader, the camp circuit taken by most prep quarterbacks wasn’t possible. Stafford, who was named the starting shortstop for Highland Park’s varsity baseball team as a freshman, generally played between 75-80 baseball games during the summer. But in the summer after his junior year, Stafford was one of 12 quarterbacks from around the nation who qualified to attend the prestigious Elite 11 camp in California. Co-founded by Bob Johnson, the longtime head football coach at Mission Viejo (Calif.) High School, the camp gives quarterbacks a chance to improve on their skills through various drills on and off the field.
Among those who also attended the camp that year were Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman, Tennessee Titans quarterback Jake Locker and the Jets’ Tim Tebow. One of the camp competitions was a blackboard drill. Coaches drew up various offenses and defenses and the young quarterbacks had to diagram the plays they would run and which receivers they would throw to. Stafford was the clear winner.
“He was real mature for his age. He took it very serious,” Johnson said. “He went there to learn but he went there to have fun as well. He knew how successful he was going to be.”
Participating in the college camp/combine circuit doesn’t guarantee success, however. Johnson said that in his time running the Elite 11 camp, there were plenty of quarterbacks who didn’t turn out. A prime example was Jevan Snead, another Elite 11 participant that same year with Stafford. Snead, who played at Stephenville, originally committed to Texas, but later transferred to Ole Miss and eventually went undrafted by the NFL. Stafford was a player who not only had the talent, but the patience and perseverance to deal with the pressures that come from success. A player has to become well-rounded, Johnson explained, not with just a cannon for an arm, or football smarts. A player has to have it all, and Stafford did.
“All the guys labeled great players, all of them had a great work ethic, all of them put in time and practiced,” Randy Rodgers said. “You have some who had skills but fall short of their potential. You have some that had skills, but put in a lot of work and they were really overachievers. You look at guys in the NFL like Drew Brees, or with (Major) Applewhite (at Texas). They didn’t have good measurables, but their work ethic and smarts allowed them to reach a high level. Guys like Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers, they have great measurables and great arm strength, but they work at their craft.”
For Stafford, this never became a grind.
“If you love it, it isn’t work,’’ John Stafford said. “So it didn’t matter what court it was, where it was. You couldn’t get him off the field.”
Stafford always enjoyed practices, especially watching film. In his free time, he would go in to watch tape. Sometimes he would do it with Allen. Other times, it would be in the coaches’ meeting room before practice with the rest of the running backs and receivers.. Stafford would always sit up front. His questions were always well thought out and mature, like the kind you’d hear from an assistant coach. “He was studying for his future profession,” Allen said. “He knew that.”
By his senior year Stafford and Allen had forged a strong bond. From eighth grade on, Stafford ran the same offense and the coach could talk strategy with his quarterback because Stafford fully understood what they were doing. Allen called the plays, but he gave Stafford the ability to run a play, or check the offense into something else. He always loved to throw, but he also was great with the option, and loved to run and block, too. Allen lit up when he talked about a reverse Highland Park ran that called for Stafford to block the backside defensive end. Stafford didn’t just block him, he went at the defender like a lineman, put his hands under his shoulder pads and turned the defender over.
“He had his mind on bigger and better things.”
Before games, the two often went through a drill together. Using different colored poker chips Allen would set up the offense and defense based on who they would be playing. He would then begin moving the defenders around. Even before he took his hand off the chips, Stafford would already make a move with the offense to counteract the defense.
Asked if coaching someone like Stafford was fun, Allen doesn’t hesitate.
“Mmm-hmm,” he said emphatically while nodding his head. “They make you a better coach. Always said it’s bad luck not to have a good quarterback.”
Entering his senior year Stafford had put up big numbers, committed to Georgia and gone to the Elite 11. He still wasn’t satisfied. “All I wanted to do was concentrate on us winning a state championship,” Stafford told the Dallas Morning News. Highland Park went 15-0 and defeated Marshall High School 59-0 to win the Class 4A Division I state championship. Allen called the score “kind of surreal.” At halftime, his team was up 42-0 in what he called a “completely dominant performance by our football team.”
Near the end of the fourth quarter, Allen started pulling all the starters. One by one, as each senior came off the field, they were given a standing ovation by the fans. Stafford was the first to walk off. He completed 10-of-18 passes for 202 yards in the game, finishing the year with 4,013 yards passing and 38 touchdowns. He also was named the Class 4A Offensive Player of the Year in Texas by the Associated Press.
It was a sweet moment, but one he couldn’t bask in for too long.
“He was leaving for Georgia in two weeks,” Allen said. “He had his mind on bigger and better things.”