Unfazed by a 15-yard chop-block penalty that negated a 16-yard completion to wideout Jacquez Green on the first play, King obliged with a nine-play, 65-yard touchdown drive that tied the game and seized the momentum from Detroit's relentless defensive front seven. King completed four passes in seven attempts for 64 yards and picked up another 14 yards on a pass interference penalty. Most significant was the throw King made with Tampa Bay facing a third-and-17 at its own 28. Going with a play that wasn't in the game plan, the Bucs lined up in the shotgun and sent three wideouts on vertical routes. King threaded a laser among four defenders and into the hands of wideout Reidel Anthony for a 30-yard gain. "Shaun just has some kind of magic to him," says Christensen. "He has that Brett Favre thing, where even if you're down 14 points and it's third-and-15, your guys believe and their guys are scared."
King, it seems, is unflappable. Before the draft Tampa Bay worked him out at Gibbs High, which he attended in St. Petersburg, under ominous skies with gusts approaching 40 mph. High winds? Nowadays neurotic NFL prospects postpone workouts if someone breaks wind. "We're all looking around like, Are we really going to work this guy out in a hurricane?" recalls Dungy. "Shaun shows up and says, 'I'm ready. I'll work out. Wherever. Whenever. For as long as you want. I'm ready to play' That's just Shaun. Nothing bothers him." Although some of King's throws sailed into the stands that day, the Bucs walked away knowing they had found a gem.
Following last Friday's practice, King jumped into his new red Navigator (license plate: AIR10) and headed to the yellow house in Tampa, where he's staying until his place in the upscale suburb of Villa Rosa is completed. On the ride over he popped The Matrix into his vehicle's three-screen DVD system with Surround Sound. "I put that movie in for a reason," King said, watching as he drove. "Keanu Reeves's character is a guy who's one in a million. He's not even sure yet if he's ready to be a leader, but people around him can sense he is, and they're ready to go to war with him. He's the chosen one, the guy who can change the world. That's what I have always wanted to be like. That's me."
That quality caught McKay's eye six years ago when King became the starting quarterback for the perennially weak Gibbs High team and threw for 50 touchdowns and nearly 5,000 yards in his final two seasons. Still, King, who was recently named the No. 1 high school football player in Pinellas County history by the St. Petersburg Times, didn't even get a phone call from recruiters for Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. Instead, he went to Tulane, where he struggled for two seasons until Bowden's son Tommy was hired as coach in December 1996.
King never really wanted to play for the Green Wave (he almost backed out on signing day) and was down in the mouth with passing skills to match in his first two seasons at Tulane. During spring ball in 1997, however, the new offensive coordinator under Bowden, Rich Rodriguez, tore King down and then built him back up. He installed a prostyle offense, complete with shotgun formation and no-huddle attack. As a junior King broke most of the Green Wave's passing records and led Tulane to a 7-4 record, its first winning season in 16 years.
The next year he had arguably the best season by a quarterback in college football history. He set the NCAA record for passing efficiency with a 183.3 passer rating. He threw for 3,332 yards and 36 touchdowns while tossing only six interceptions. By adding 532 rushing yards, he became the first player in Division I-A history to hit the 3,000/500 milestone. Tulane went undefeated for the first time since 1929 and beat BYU in the Liberty Bowl. Oh, yeah, and King did all that while playing the final nine games with a cast on his broken left wrist. "I don't care what society says the perfect quarterback looks like," says King. "You don't measure someone's will to win with a ruler." Adds Green Wave assistant coach Frank Celfo, "People say you need a lot of luck to go undefeated. Well, that's not true. You need a little luck and a lot of Shaun King."
After the season King played in the Senior Bowl, at which he was coached by Dungy and his staff. (The consolation prize for the coaches of the team with the best record in each conference that doesn't make the playoffs is the Senior Bowl assignment.) Later, in preparation for the draft, the Bucs put together a tape of each of King's throws in 1998 and watched in awe as a pattern emerged. Whenever Tulane needed a big play, King made something happen.
The Tampa Bay coaches and scouts weren't the only ones high on King. Among others, the Oakland Raiders, the San Francisco 49ers and CO. Brocato, a longtime scout now with the Tennessee Titans and one of the most respected talent evaluators in the business, liked what they saw. "Five years from now Shaun King will be the best quarterback of this bunch," Brocato said before the passer-rich 1999 draft, during which five quarterbacks were taken in the first 12 picks.
The last one out of the locker room on Sunday night, King stopped outside the door for a brief interview with a Japanese TV crew. "How can you do all this when you are only, what they say, a rookie?" the reporter asked. "I believe," said King, referring to his strong religious faith. "I always believe."
King then made his way out of the stadium. Outside he signed autographs and got a bear hug from Bucs fullback Mike Alstott. Before getting into his Navigator, he turned around one last time to soak up a scene he must have been dreaming about since his days in the Fish Bowl. Behind him a long row of fans wearing Bucs jerseys and cardboard crowns chanted, over and over, "Long live the King!"