Here is Nirvana for a high school quarterback: five days of coaching and counseling by former pro and current college passers at a serene, mission-style center near what is billed as the Riviera of the Pacific. Trips to an Anaheim Angels game, Del Mar racetrack, Laguna Beach and the oceanfront home of Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Rob Johnson. And following a brief welcome to the San Diego Chargers' training camp by quarterback Drew Brees, diminutive 1984 Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie walks over to chat with the visiting teens. "When I was your age, I had a scholarship offer from New Hampshire," Flutie, 39 and the Chargers' starter last season, says to the 12 wide-eyed quarterbacks circled around him. "Then two guys who Boston College was after went to other schools, so I was offered a scholarship." Flutie looks up at the 12, all at least five inches taller and not even half his age, and adds, "But I guess you guys can go to any school you want."
Before Flutie stood perhaps the finest senior quarterbacks in the country—the 2002 class of the Elite 11 Quarterback Camp. In its fourth year the camp, held at the foot of the coastal hills in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., has become the most talked about summer activity in high school football, a hot topic among players, coaches, agents and, recently, NCAA officials. Fourteen former Elite 11 campers, in fact, are listed as starters or second-string quarterbacks at Division I-A schools this fall, including Florida State's Chris Rix and Tennessee's Casey Clausen. Also, nine former camp counselors, including Brees, David Carr and Kurt Kittner, are in the NFL. "When I go back home, tell my friends where I've been and who I've met...they'll think I'm big" says Jamarcus Russell of Williamson High in Mobile, who is also a major college basketball prospect.
Bob Johnson, a longtime California high school coach and father of the Bucs' quarterback, and Andy Bark, founder of the marketing and media company Student Sports Inc., dreamed up the Elite 11 while they were running Nike's spring high school football combines around the country. Based on what they see at the Nike camps, plus input from Student Sports Inc. researchers and recommendations from college coaches, Johnson and Bark select the campers in late spring—in their judgment, the 11 best quarterbacks in the country, plus one project.
Johnson runs the camp, makes the training schedule and provides most of the coaching and classroom instruction. A dozen sponsors, including EA Sports and PowerBar, cover the cost of running the camp as well as all the expenses of the participants. "It's an awesome experience for the high school kids," says Cal quarterback Kyle Boiler, a counselor last week along with Wisconsin's Brooks Bollinger and USC's Carson Palmer. "They get to be friends with guys they will be competing against in the future. And breaking down film and talking to college players and pros is stuff most high school players never get to do."
Parents lobby Johnson at the Nike camps on behalf of their sons, and college coaches call him to push for their top high school recruits. Kyle Wright of Monte Vista High in Danville, Calif., was plucked from the Nike combine at USC in April. "Kyle probably wouldn't have gone to the Nike camps," said his mother, Kathy, "but he wanted to make the Elite 11."
"The [Elite 11] camp is all about marketing," says Purdue offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, whose sophomore quarterback, Kyle Orton, is an Elite 11 alumnus. "It's become prestigious. If you get a verbal [commitment] from a quarterback attending that camp, it's a big deal."
The camp has helped Johnson and his oldest son, Bret, who played quarterback at UCLA, Michigan State and briefly in the CFL, move to the forefront of a growth industry. Tutoring high school quarterbacks is big business in California. In addition to the Elite 11 camp the Johnsons also provide individual coaching to quarterbacks 13 years and older in three-hour sessions that cost $100 per session. Their competition in Southern California includes former San Jose State quarterback Steve Clarkson, who runs the Pasadena-based Air 7 academy. The business is spreading to the rest of the country as well. Stacey Bailey, Clarkson's ex-roommate at San Jose State and a former wide receiver for the Atlanta Falcons, started a tutoring business outside Atlanta two years ago.
The Johnsons, who get calls from parents of children as young as seven, will branch out next summer, staging nearly a dozen regional workouts leading up to the Elite 11. "It will enable us to see more kids and spend more time with them," says Bob, the Mission Viejo High coach who celebrated his 57th birthday last week by picking up pizzas for the campers. "I love kids, and I love teaching the passing game. We are shopping the nation for QBs."
Some have accused Johnson of shopping on behalf of others, notably prominent NFL agent David Dunn. Based 20 miles up the coast, in Newport Beach, Dunn, who split with fellow agent Leigh Steinberg early in 2001, represents Rob Johnson and has paid Rob's father to train clients such as Kittner, formerly of Illinois and now an Atlanta Falcons' rookie, and Joey Harrington, formerly of Oregon and now in his first year with the Detroit Lions. Steinberg was guest speaker at the first Elite 11 camp, and last year Dunn joined campers for lunch at Rob Johnson's house. In addition Bob Johnson accompanied Dunn on the agent's recruiting visit to Fresno State ( Johnson's alma mater) to court Carr, who ended up signing with agent Mike Sullivan.
Dunn's rivals claim that Bob is a white-collar, suburban version of the runners that agents use to attract inner-city athletes. Their theory is that Dunn's access to Elite 11 participants and the relationships the Johnsons build with quarterbacks and their parents, as well as with the college players who serve as camp counselors, help Dunn procure clients. Dunn landed at least one Elite 11 assistant from each of the first three camps ( Chris Redman, A.J. Feeley and Kittner, respectively). But, as Bob Johnson points out, Dunn failed to land the big-money counselors: Brees in 2000 and Carr last year. "All of that talk is so stupid," Johnson says. "I don't care who kids sign with." ( Dunn could not be reached for comment.)