Arms Race

After decades of irrelevance, Texas passers—from Colt McCoy and Greg McElroy to Drew Brees and Vince Young—have suddenly become the dominant players on football fields at every level. What turned our little old high school programs into virtual quarterback factories?
Arms Race
J. W. Walsh, a senior at Guyer High School, in Denton, is the highest-rated quarterback in Texas.
Photograph by Peter Yang

Colt McCoy’s finely tuned, defense-destroying brain is still trying to process the events of January 7, 2010. “I knew it was going to be a great night,” Colt says. “And then it’s over, in one little hit.” Colt and his dad, Brad, whom Longhorns fans know as his ever-vigilant high school coach, are back in the McCoys’ adopted hometown of Tuscola. They’re sitting at a long table in an old hotel that a friend has recently converted into an office. Both men appear friendly and solicitous, if slightly guarded. A gallery of taxidermied hunting trophies surrounds the McCoys, a metaphor, if we’re feeling literary, for athleticism interrupted.

Colt and Coach are sitting here in May, four days before Colt must report to the Cleveland Browns, who selected him in the third round of the NFL draft. But this discussion—this reckoning—centers on the events of the national championship game against Alabama, and it is awfully uncomfortable. A four-year starter at UT, Colt became the winningest quarterback in the history of college football, but the national championship remained just beyond his reach. That one little hit, which came on Texas’s fifth offensive play, made Colt’s right arm go numb.

They asked me to pick it up,” Colt says. “I could raise it to about right here.” He points to a spot just below his shoulder, then drops his arm and lets it dangle by his side. His doe-like eyes have always made him look childlike, but with his arm hanging stiffly he looks positively helpless, like a kid forced to try on a sports coat and check the length of the sleeve.

After he was hustled off the field, Colt and his dad huddled for more than an hour in a locker room at the Rose Bowl. None of the 30 million viewers at home had any idea what Colt and Coach were planning, a rare blackout in our information-saturated world of sports. When word finally came that Colt wouldn’t emerge from the tunnel like Willis Reed and beat Alabama, some fans—here we’re thinking of Texas Exes with accounts on Internet message boards—were so dumbstruck that they wondered if Colt had laid up to protect his NFL prospects.

People say that I skipped out on it because of my future,” Colt says, a tinge of anger in his voice. “That’s stupid. If I could have gone back in the game, I would have. I couldn’t hold on to a ball. I couldn’t take a snap.” In the seven years that he’d been a starting quarterback, Colt had never felt so forsaken. In 2003, Coach says, he and Colt rode down Graham Avenue, Tuscola’s main street right outside this office, in a fire truck to celebrate Jim Ned High School’s undefeated regular season and a run to the state title game. He finished his high school career as the all-time leading passer in 2A and was twice named state offensive MVP by the Associated Press. But if he fell short of a state championship, failure had never visited him in such a freaky, near-biblical way—which is to say, his arm had never just stopped working like it did in the Rose Bowl. As UT offensive coordinator Greg Davis puts it, “You just wonder … why?”

What we need is to inject some kind of meaning into that numb right arm, to write a satisfying ending to the story of Colt McCoy.

Coach has a suggestion. He says the injury allowed his son to become a religious messenger. Colt told ESPN after that game that, despite the seeming unfairness of it all, he would continue to put himself in God’s hands, that he was “standing on the rock.” The statement proved powerful. When Coach repackaged the story of Colt’s unbreakable faith for a speech at a church, a speech he has given many times since, an account of it quickly appeared all over religious and football websites.

But this is not the Colt McCoy ending that we seek. Forgive us, for ours is football-oriented. Colt was a near-legendary college quarterback: He threw for more yards (13,253), more touchdown passes (112), and had a higher quarterback rating (155) than any UT passer before him. He also rushed for 1,571 yards, won 45 games in 53 starts, and took a horrendous weekly beating—who could forget Coach’s reaction shots on TV? But beyond being a great quarterback, Colt was heralding a new era of football in Texas. High schools have turned into a quarterback assembly line. The state is churning out great passers like Colt every year, and now those quarterbacks are beginning to overrun college football and the NFL.

Consider that night in Pasadena, for example. As Colt was witnessing his faith, another Texas high school quarterback, Southlake Carroll’s Greg McElroy, was hoisting the national championship trophy for the Crimson Tide. And Colt’s own replacement in the Longhorns backfield was Garrett Gilbert, a two-time state title winner from Lake Travis. Austin Westlake’s Drew Brees, the quarterback of the New Orleans Saints, won this year’s Super Bowl. Matthew Stafford, of Highland Park, was the first overall pick in last year’s draft. And according to ESPN.com, four of the top five quarterback prospects for next year’s draft—Colt’s heirs—are Texans too.

Just look around the Big 12,” says Davis. Now a senior, Humble’s Jerrod Johnson has developed into a freaky-good passer at A&M, becoming the first Aggie to throw for more than 300 yards in seven games. Robert Griffin, a sophomore from Copperas Cove, breathed some life into Baylor’s cursed football program as the youngest starting quarterback in the NCAA before injuring his ACL last year. Ennis’s Graham Harrell graduated from Mike Leach’s quarterback finishing school at Texas Tech in 2009 having set the NCAA record for touchdown passes, with 134. Since there are only so many job openings in the soon-to-be downsized Big 12, Texas quarterbacks have formed a kind of Friday Night Lights diaspora across the NCAA. Andy Dalton, a product of Katy High

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