WAS HE READY? THAT WAS THE question that Greg McElroy considered as he sat behind a desk in the Alabama football offices on Sept. 1, four days before the Crimson Tide's season opener against Virginia Tech. McElroy was just discovering how his life would change now that he was the starting quarterback at Alabama. The night before he had walked into a Tuscaloosa restaurant with friends and felt every set of eyes lock on to him, sensed patrons monitoring his every move, his every bite of food. It was a first-of-its-kind experience for the 6' 3", 220-pound junior, and now he had to ask himself, Was he ready for those curious looks every time he left his off-campus apartment, ready for the second-guessing that always follows the starting quarterback at Alabama, ready for the pressure of game day, ready for the cameras and notebooks that would be waiting for him after every practice and every game?
"I've been getting ready for this moment basically my entire life," McElroy said as he leaned back and put his feet up on a desk. "Even when I've been on the sideline, and this goes back to high school, I've played the games in my mind. I've taken thousands of reps in my head. This gives me confidence in my ability to handle adversity both on and off the field. I almost feel like I was born to do this. So, yeah, I'm ready."
He certainly was. McElroy was an unlikely—and major—reason why Alabama won its first national championship since 1992. Though not blessed with the strongest of arms, McElroy threw for 2,450 yards and 17 touchdowns while completing 61.1% of his passes. And most important, he played his best games against the best teams the Tide faced: Virginia Tech, LSU, Auburn, Florida and—when it mattered most—Texas in the national championship game.
"The biggest thing about Greg is that he's a winner, pure and simple," says running back Mark Ingram. "He just knows how to get the job done and always seems to make a play when we really need him to step up. We believed in him from Day One. All of us did."
YOUNG GREG McELROY ALMOST ALWAYS HAD A BALL in his hands. When he was in junior high school in Southlake, Texas, he would grab a sack of footballs after the day's final school bell and walk into the gym, where for two hours on most days he would throw passes into a net. When he moved on to Carroll High, McElroy could be seen alone firing footballs into a trash can several days a week on the practice field. "I'm not a guy who can throw the ball 75 yards or hit a 45-yard comeback route, but I've worked very hard to be as accurate as possible," McElroy says. "Plus, it helped my development that I came from a great high school program."
Located in a suburb of Forth Worth, Carroll annually is one of the powerhouse high school teams in the Lone Star State. The school's 11,000-seat stadium has been sold out for virtually every game since it was built in 2001, and when the team goes on the road, the Dragons play in front of crowds as large as 35,000. In his sophomore and junior years McElroy sat behind Chase Daniel, who was named the nation's high school player of the year as a senior in 2004 after amassing 6,042 yards of total offense and 70 touchdowns. McElroy closely studied how the future Missouri star would read defenses and make timing throws that were NFL-caliber. Even though he wasn't behind center, McElroy was learning.
He became the starter in the fall of 2005. Carroll opened its season against Midland Lee, a school featured in the H.G. Bissinger book Friday Night Lights, which later became a film and a TV series. The game was televised across the state. How did McElroy, playing on the biggest high school stage in America, respond? He threw for 318 yards and three touchdowns in Carroll's 48-25 victory. After the game McElroy was mobbed by autograph seekers.
"Greg has been playing in big games for a long time," says Alabama coach Nick Saban. "His high school experience was so valuable in teaching him how to handle pressure."
McElroy went on to enjoy a spectacular senior season at Carroll. He passed for 4,687 yards and 56 touchdowns—the latter a state record—and he led the Dragons to a 16-0 finish. Carroll won the state 5A title, which is the biggest division in Texas, and USA Today named the team its national high school champion. By the end of the season McElroy, who had verbally committed to Texas Tech before he took his first snap as a high school starter, had scholarship offers from dozens of schools, including Tennessee, Michigan and North Carolina.
Alabama was late to express interest in McElroy because Tide coach Mike Shula had his eyes on just one quarterback: Tim Tebow. In December 2005, on the day before Tebow made his college announcement, the player and his family welcomed Shula into their home in Jacksonville. Shula didn't leave for 12 hours, putting the hard sell on the Tebows, even though Tebow's parents, Pam and Bob, were Florida alums and even though Tim had a poster of former Gators quarterback Danny Wuerffel in his bedroom. Shula was crestfallen the next day when Tebow held a press conference to say he was going to Florida.