THE NATIONAL quarterback crisis reached its peak on Oct. 14, 2007, when 43-year-old Vinny Testaverde, who had been called out of retirement, started for the Carolina Panthers against the Arizona Cardinals and their 36-year-old starting QB, Kurt Warner. Maybe Steve Clarkson can help prevent such a matchup of retreads from happening again. The California-based coach has built a reputation as the country's foremost molder of young quarterbacks, and last weekend his first Super 7 QB retreat, at Santa Barbara City College, drew eight of the most prominent high school signal-callers in the country, including the No. 1 recruit this year ( Terrelle Pryor, headed to Ohio State) and the probable No. 1 recruit next year ( Matt Barkley, a junior at Mater Dei in Santa Ana, who is committed to USC). "I like to think we are on the verge of a big quarterback boom," Clarkson says. "Six or seven years ago we had a lull, and we're still not all the way out of it. But I think this next generation will be a lot more prepared going into college."
NFL teams have taken heat for failing to develop quarterbacks, but there's work to be done at the grassroots level too. Clarkson attributes the recent shortage of elite QBs to NCAA rules prohibiting college coaches from spending more than 20 hours a week with players. He says that quarterbacks, who must decipher defenses and make snap decisions under extreme pressure, need more time and tutelage. That's where Clarkson, 46, comes in. In 1996 the former San Jose State star—he played for John Elway's father, Jack, from 1979 to '82—founded Air 7 Quarterback University, a high school academy in Pasadena. More than 200 of Clarkson's charges have gone on to play for Division I teams, but his national profile took off about four years ago, when former pupils Ben Roethlisberger (now with the Steelers), Matt Leinart ( Cardinals) and J.P. Losman (Bills) began making names for themselves in the NFL. Last August, Clarkson sold Air 7 and joined DeBartolo Sports and Entertainment, the sports agency and consulting group run by former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo. Clarkson recently broke ground on a facility in Piscataway, N.J., to complement his home base in Pasadena. He has 24 staff members, more than 200 clients and charges $700 an hour. (Last week's retreat cost $6,000.) Clients range from high school blue-chippers like Barkley to M.C. Poe, a 96-pound fifth-grader from Nashville.
Many of Clarkson's regulars were in Santa Barbara. Joe Montana stood on the sideline watching his sons, Nate, 18, and Nick, 16; Wayne Gretzky watched his son, Trevor, 15; and a camera crew from E! focused on 14-year-old Corde Broadus, son of Snoop Dogg. The young QBs spent the first two hours of the camp on footwork. Throwing was an afterthought. "Steve gets on you about which way your toes should face when you drop back," Barkley said. "It's a little thing. But he's preparing you for the NFL."
Clarkson himself never played in the NFL. (He spent two seasons in the CFL.) The reason, he says, had little to do with footwork and a lot to do with race. Clarkson is African-American, which 25 years ago made it hard to be accepted as a quarterback. But he has apparently not met the same resistance as a coach. "Every time I flip on the TV on Sunday, I can see two or three guys I worked with," Clarkson said. "It's like I'm playing all over again."