One recent morning, Steve Clarkson—NFL washout and youth football eminence—was standing among 100 or so prepubescent boys as they ran between cones, avoided fake blitzes, and threw post and curl routes. Watching on the sidelines was a horde of eager parents, many of whom had plunked down $600 for Clarkson’s four-day Air 7 program. “It’s a big commitment,” says Jay Tuttle, who drove his 11-year-old two hours to the Los Angeles high school field. “But Steve really pushes my son’s skill set.”
For others, it’s a bargain. In the past two decades, Clarkson has become the country’s premier youth quarterback guru. His list of former pupils includes Super Bowl champion Ben Roethlisberger. Joe Montana hired him to tutor his sons. Last year, University of Southern California head coach Lane Kiffin offered a scholarship to David Sills, a Clarkson pupil who has yet to start high school. Youth quarterback coaching also happens to be an avocation Clarkson more or less created and then transformed into a miniature fiefdom. In addition to his Sunday Air 7 camps, he charges up to $10,000 per month for private lessons. “What you’re seeing at the quarterback position, at earlier ages, is specialization,” says Josh Heupel, the co-offensive coordinator at the University of Oklahoma. And there are plenty of takers. “This has been good for Miller,” says Eric Moss, watching his 9-year-old from the sidelines, “whether he plays football in the future—or invades China.”
Clarkson has given rise to one of football’s most profitable gimmicks, and one of its few economic gushers during the National Football League’s lockout that ended on July 25. There are now hundreds of camps run by an array of entrepreneurs ranging from NFL royalty to lesser quarterbacking profiteers. The Mannings—Peyton, Eli, and paterfamilias Archie—host the Manning Passing Academy every summer in Louisiana. The less famous Johnsons—Rob (who played for the Buffalo Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Bret (a brief stint with the Atlanta Falcons), and their dad, Bob—operate Camp Quarterback in California. And then there’s former high school offensive coordinator Terry Copacia. His brainchild, Terry Copacia’s All-State Quarterback School, holds two-day clinics throughout the country for $189 per student, grades seven and up. Darin Slack, who played for the Division-II University of Central Florida, charges $545 for his three-day Quarterback Academy, more than the four-day Manning affair.
The prices are justified, aspiring youth football moguls insist, by the fact that the position can be taught in a way a 7-foot frame or 95-mile-per-hour fastball cannot. And even if the NFL is out of reach for most kids, private coaches can help them earn a college scholarship—or at least make their high school’s first string. Quarterbacks also happen to be a good commodity to trade in since, private coaches note, they’re more likely to come from comfortable backgrounds. “It’s not a race thing,” says Clarkson, an African American. “It’s the demands of position. You have to be a stable person, and you’ll find most quarterbacks come from stable, two-parent homes.” Coincidentally, two-parent homes are more likely to be able to afford expensive quarterback coaches.
Clarkson discovered these truths with his first client, Perry Klein. After a season backing up John Elway in Denver—followed by two more seasons in Canada—Clarkson believed his career was over by 1986. That year, however, his great-aunt forwarded him an advertisement from a father looking for someone to help his 15-year-old son switch to football from gymnastics. “We threw the ball around on the lawn, and I remember thinking, the kid is O.K. but a little slender,” recalls Clarkson. “Then walking to the car, I turned around, and Perry was doing back flips. You could tell he was a great athlete. A light bulb went off in my head: If I could teach this kid to be a quarterback, he might be something special.” Clarkson took the job and devised a program targeting footwork, an efficient throwing motion, and reading defenses. Klein eventually won a Los Angeles high school title and spent two seasons with the Falcons. Soon other parents came calling, including Montana. “Just because you’re a Hall of Famer doesn’t mean you’re going to be a great coach,” Clarkson says.
This is encouraging news for a growing segment of the quarterback economy that’s never actually taken a college snap. Chris Johnston, who didn’t play beyond high school, has successfully rebranded himself from Brooklyn (N.Y.) prep school assistant coach to youth quarterback rainmaker. As Clarkson was roaming the field in Los Angeles, Johnston was giving private lessons inside a Jersey City high school gym. First up was Mike Rabasca, a 6-foot-1, broad-shouldered, and slightly oafish sophomore from nearby St. Peter’s Prep. In drills, Johnston had Rabasca throw the ball without his usual backswing, forcing him to generate power from his legs and trunk. “He was a backup last year, that’s why he’s here,” says his father, Mike Sr. “Chris has a good reputation in the area.”
Johnston tweaks his drills with his next client, Isaiah Moreira, the starter for nearby Union City High School. He has Moreira rest the ball on a wall behind him—at the top of his throwing motion—to speed up his delivery. Johnston also spends some time filming and reviewing his form and putting him through footwork drills. Although his prize pupils include quarterbacks of schools few people have ever heard of—Elon University, the now-renamed University of Missouri-Rolla—Johnston’s business is thriving. He charges up to $120 an hour, and $200 per head for the weekend “Complete QB” sessions he runs across the country. It’s his full-time job.
Other ex-high school coaches are likely to follow. “If you ask me whether you need to have private instruction at an early age, the answer is no,” says Oklahoma’s Heupel, himself a former national champion quarterback. “But I think we’re going to see more and more of it. It’s not going back the other way.”