|George Whitfield worked with and defended Cam Newton from his critics. (Getty Images)|
Never mind "Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III?" There was a more vexing question on a lot of people's minds as they tuned in to watch the Stanford star go through his Pro Day March 22: What's up with The Broom Guy, the one chasing -- and flailing at the potential No. 1 overall draft pick?
Eric Branch (@Eric_Branch): Unexpected development: Man w/ broom is charging Luck as he throws, simulating pressure of a very skinny NFL defensive end.
Ann Killion (@annkillion): Luck being pressured by a guy with a broom while he throws. Really. Hilarity ensues among press corps.
Samuel Chamberlain (@SChamberlainSBN): The guy with the broom alone is worth watching at Andrew Luck's Pro Day.
The Broom Guy, truth be told, is almost as hot a commodity these days as either first-round quarterback prospect. In addition to prepping Luck for the NFL draft, The Broom Guy trained Oklahoma's Landry Jones and Clemson's Tajh Boyd that week up in the Bay Area. Both college standouts decided to use their spring break time to fly to the West Coast just to work with him. Last year he helped groom Cam Newton as the Heisman Trophy winner tried to make the transition from Auburn's spread offense to the NFL.
Not bad for the self-professed "Quarterback Builder," a guy who, while studying for the LSATs, fell into a profession he never knew existed.
• • •
I remember the first time I'd heard about George Whitfield. It was three years ago at the Nike high school football camp on the USC campus in Los Angeles. I was there with a film crew working on a pilot for a show about high school quarterbacks.
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We met Whitfield -- a guy built more like a tailback than a quarterback -- during the warmups. He was there with a caravan of four carloads of QB hopefuls who had made the two-hour drive up from San Diego. One of his kids, Pete Thomas, a chiseled 6-5, 220-pounder looking like a young Brady Quinn, came to USC that day toting one of the bigger reputations in Internet recruiting analysts' eyes. Thomas reportedly had scholarship offers from Maryland, Arizona State and Northwestern.
Whitfield, then 31, said he had been training Thomas since the kid was in the eighth grade. Whitfield also gushed about another QB he brought, a lanky 6-6 quarterback with zero offers. But the kid was about to break out, like a submarine ready to rise, George said.
Whitfield was engaging. The camera liked him. Turns out, the camera liked him more than the coaches liked the QBs he brought that day. Thomas struggled with his accuracy. That other quarterback, the sleeper, appeared overwhelmed by the scene. At one point during the day the kid tried to wander into the top group of QBs the camp's coaches had put together after about an hour of observation. However, the main coach overseeing the drills, noticed the taller kid trying to blend in before getting his turn to throw. He called the kid out, telling him to point to which coach had sent him over. The kid pointed in the general direction of about 20 people but when the older coach, in his 60s, demanded he show him exactly which coach, the kid just dropped his head and walked away.
You felt for the kid as he slunk back from where he came, to a group of younger kids. You also wondered about Whitfield. Was he just another curious character in the growing fringe surrounding the college football world?
• • •
In California, the "QB guru" business has been booming for more than a decade. Long-time high school coach Bob Johnson and former CFL quarterback Steve Clarkson each have developed dozens of college QBs. They have triggered numerous other ex-college coaches and QBs starting their own quarterback tutoring gigs. Some parents shell out tens of thousands of dollars on their kids' training. They see it as an investment, assuming the aspiring signal-caller may land a scholarship worth five times as much.
There's also the influx of the seven-on-seven offseason circuit that has sprouted all over the country with its own added layer of influence.
"There are a lot of 'gurus' out there these days," huffs one college coach.
Some of these coaches aren't just working with teens. Some, like Whitfield, are also now assisting established college QBs looking for an edge either in the offseason or during their spring breaks. Another California-based private quarterbacks coach, Steve Calhoun, hosted Nebraska's Taylor Martinez, Washington's Keith Price and Nevada's Cody Fajardo for three days last month. Calhoun's business is called Armed and Dangerous Football Training.
"[Calhoun] taught me a lot of stuff," Martinez told the Omaha World-Herald.
College quarterbacks leaving campus for outside training is a prickly subject. Some of their coaches can be territorial, fearing the outside guy might screw up their player. In fact, four of seven college coaches contacted for this story say they'd prefer their QBs not work with someone else, even if it's only for a week.
"You do worry about someone getting in their heads and doing something to them that you might have a hard time undoing," says one college coach. "It really depends on who they're going to. If I don't know the guy, it makes me nervous."
Before Landry Jones and Tajh Boyd came to California, Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas also ventured west to train with Whitfield. (Whitfield charges $200 a day for the college QBs, he says.)
Thomas' position coach at Virginia Tech, Mike O'Cain, said he had no problems with his QB spending a week working with Whitfield. O'Cain said due to NCAA's restrictions there's a lot of time when a college coach is prohibited in taking his quarterback out on the field to work with him.
"For the most part it's gonna reinforce what I'm telling him," says O'Cain, "and Logan may pick up a little something on the side. It also goes with knowing George. I don't worry about him messing him up."
• • •
George Whitfield's dad, a high school football coach, would drive him four hours to Fremont, Ohio, three times a week the summer before his senior year of high school, just so he could learn the nuances of the position from Tom Kiser, a keen football mind who also worked as an engineer.
Whitfield went on to quarterback the most storied high school program in the nation, the Massillon Tigers, playing in front of 20,000 fans on Friday nights in Paul Brown Stadium in the mid '90s. He fielded offers from MAC schools and the Air Force Academy to play defensive back, but opted for Youngstown State to play for Jim Tressel, then the coach at YSU. One year later, after Tressel talked about moving him to another position, Whitfield transferred to Division II Tiffin University in large part because he would be down the street from Kiser, so he could continue working him. "He taught me that results aren't always the reality of what happened after he deconstructed it," says Whitfield, who went on to become one of the most prolific passers in school history.
After graduation, he joined Kirk Ferentz's staff at Iowa as a graduate assistant, but left the Hawkeyes program after one year to resume his playing career. Whitfield bounced around Arena Football for three seasons, playing for the Chicago Rush, Shreveport Battle Wings, Louisville Fire and Memphis Xplorers. He started thinking about law school and begun studying for the LSATs. To help pay his bills, he applied for a marketing job with a local company in Southern California when he was presented with a different opportunity: The family that owned the business Whitfield contacted, knew he played football and asked if he'd be willing to train their son. The boy was a fifth grader. His mom told Whitfield they'd pay him $40 a session. "It was about a 45-minute drive to get there, so I probably spent half the money on gas," Whitfield says. The workouts took place on a Little League baseball field.
Whitfield's efforts with the fifth grader proved to be a hit. By the end of Mikey Hinkley's Pop Warner season, Whitfield was coaching more than a dozen other kids. "I realized how cool it was whenever there was an 'A-ha!' moment when a little kid gets it," said Whitfield, who admits that at the time he had no idea you could make tutoring QBs a profession. "I didn't know about [Steve] Clarkson or Bob Johnson up in the L.A. area."
Whitfield pulled the plug on his fluttering playing career. He landed an internship with the San Diego Chargers in 2006, where he helped assist offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Whitfield first met him back when Cameron was Michigan's quarterback coach and his stepdad was a coach at Massillon about a dozen years earlier. Whitfield cut film, charted practice and got to observe how Cameron and the staff studied minute details that the former Arena QB had been oblivious to. "It was like being a junior high science teacher sitting in at NASA working with government scientists," Whitfield says.
Details Whitfield had taken for granted as a player, he was forced to reconsider. These became his 'A-ha!' moments. "A snap is a snap," he says. "I just thought guys put their hands under however they're most comfortable. But they [the Chargers] had a systematic reason for doing it a certain way."
The Chargers would have one cameraman lying on his belly filming up next to the center and a second cameraman, also on the ground, four feet behind filming up through Philip Rivers legs to see exactly how the quarterback clasped the ball when he received it. The team would spend 45 minutes twice a week filming these exchanges during their OTAs, Whitfield says. Cameron had become so consumed by the details dating back to his Michigan days in the mid '80s, he told Whitfield, after learning how then-Wolverine baseball phenom Jim Abbott, despite being born without a right hand, excelled as a high school quarterback and never fumbled a snap.
Another example of the level of the attention to detail: All his life Whitfield had been coached to drive off his back foot in his delivery. With Cameron and San Diego QB coach John Ramsdell, it was "drive off the inside arch of your back foot."
"They were splitting hairs, splitting atoms, everything," Whitfield says. "There was a science to it because if you're not specific, something can mean different things to different people."
• • •
In 2009, Whitfield started to gain traction beyond budding San Diego area QB hopefuls. Hunter Cantwell enlisted Whitfield to help the former Louisville Cardinal tighten his delivery and became an NFL player. A year later, Whitfield posted a 15-minute video breaking down Tim Tebow's mechanics as well as drills that the coach explained would shorten the Florida star's throwing motion via some before-and-after clips of adjustments he'd made with Cantwell and other former college QBs. The video got considerable attention from media fixated on Tebow's transition to the NFL.
After Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season and was prohibited from working with the Steelers coaches, he hired Whitfield to keep him sharp. Roethlisberger's agent became sold on the coach after seeing his work with Cantwell, one of his other clients. Then, after Newton finished leading Auburn to the national title, he tabbed Whitfield and flew to San Diego for his pre-draft training.
Whitfield's training regimen targets a quarterback's base and stresses footwork. He's become creative in the ways to develop those elements. One day he brought Pete Thomas and another high school protégé Shane Dillon out to train on North Pacific Beach. What better place to work on their drops than in the soft, thick sand, he figured.
While there, though, Whitfield noticed how the surfers struggled in the water walking with their boards and got another idea. Why not have his QBs practice their drops in the ocean, where the waves would surge in and rush through them at mid-thigh?
"You can't take any step for granted in there," Whitfield explains. "With the ocean there are gonna be times where the waves come in on you in mid-drop, and are you strong enough to continue dropping [back] against the weight of that water? If your steps aren't true, you're gonna fall in the water."
The broom idea came from watching former Nebraska assistant Shawn Watson at a camp years ago. It was a way to influence a quarterback without being up on him, simulating evading pressure. Or as Whitfield dubbed it "chaos training." While working with Roethlisberger, he used a rake, which he thought seemed pretty imposing. (Whitfield covered it in some pipe foam to avoid the risk of gouging the Steelers star.) When he headed up to the Bay Area to train Luck, Whitfield went to Home Depot and bought a pair of $11 brooms. "They're much safer than the rake," he says, adding that he doesn't use the broom with his younger QBs. The broom is more for "graduate-level" stuff.
• • •
Perhaps the trickiest part of the Quarterback Builder business is getting so invested in each guy you coach. Whitfield hasn't been shy about defending Newton or Luck whenever someone has doubted their abilities. He has tweaked some of Newton's old skeptics after the Carolina Panther won NFL Rookie of the Year honors.
After former NFL QB Phil Simms remarked how he just didn't see "big-time NFL throws" from Luck, Whitfield invited the CBS announcer to Stanford for pro day.
Over the weekend, Whitfield made more headlines when he was asked by a writer for the Indianapolis Star about the possibility of the Colts not using the first pick on Luck as it has appeared that Robert Griffin III's draft stock is soaring, possibly at the Stanford star's expense.
"If they over-think this, they're going to make a mistake they'll regret for years," Whitfield was quoted as saying. When the USA Today picked up the story, it ran with the headline: "Luck's coach: If Colts pick Griffin, 'They'll regret it for years' "
Whitfield said it bothers him how Robert Griffin III or his family may take that. "I wouldn't take a single quote back but the headlines make it sound like I was taking a swing at him, and I'm not. I was just saying Andrew Luck is a special player. That he is going to continue to get better. I never meant to say anything about Griffin.
"And it was the same with Cam, I couldn't help it. I wanted to stay on the sidelines but you read things and see people say things like, 'Cam's lazy.' It did get personal. Cam's here and you've seen him put in long days but then you hear these guys go on TV and say, 'I just think he's a self-serving guy.' And before you know it, you're off the sidelines."
• • •
Asked where he sees his career going (Does he want to coach for a team? Would he like to become a TV analyst? Does he want to become a franchise?) Whitfield says hopes his business can move into a "different realm," in the same way Dr. James Andrews has become synonymous for performing orthopedic surgeries on high-profile athletes: "He's become so well-trusted and there is so much confidence in him where if something happens, this is the guy who you go see."
Things are progressing so rapidly for Whitfield, it's been a challenge just to keep up with the demand. He has one part-time assistant who helps him filming and recently added an intern. Certainly the exposure from working with Newton and now Luck, broom or not, has changed his life.
"I know I was 'The Broom Guy' that day, but it's gotten to the point where football people, and those are the people that I really care about, are starting to know who I am," he says.
The past few years he has taken a couple dozen high schools on a 10-day cross-country trek to several college summer camps for exposure. He called it the "Rock Tour." Whitfield had planned on doing it again this summer, but his business has picked up so much he realized last week that had to table the Rock Tour for 2012. He hopes to do it again in the future. On top of his private QB business, he's also going to coach the EA Sports Elite 11 quarterback camp later this summer -- same he did last year. And he's been getting calls from parents all over the country, asking him to train their kids. Just last week, he coached two high schoolers from Chicago who flew out to San Diego.
"It does seem surreal if you hear from some of your old high school classmates talking about [seeing you on TV] or from the people at my dad's high school saying how proud they are of me," he says. "It's been one fishing expedition after another, and it's taken a lot of worn-out shoes to get this way. It's fun though."