True Blue: UCLA's Brett Hundley preps for heralded year after passing on NFL
This story appears in the Aug. 4, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Onset of the afternoon rush in west Los Angeles, and Brett Hundley is stranded in the middle of Jefferson Boulevard. Jefferson is no back road -- six lanes coursing from the Ballona Wetlands to the Shrine Auditorium -- and Hundley is no charity case. He stands 6' 3", 227 pounds, a prodigy turned prototype, with Flacconian arm strength and Kaepernickian speed. He is the object of NFL longing and UCLA fervor, having arrived in Westwood before it was fashionable and remained after it was necessary. Now he is the best college quarterback in California and arguably the best one west of Tallahassee, about to embark on a nine-month football odyssey with potential stops at the Heisman Trophy ceremony, the inaugural playoff chase and the NFL draft green room. But in the middle of Jefferson he is as anonymous as a traffic cone, dressed in a gray tank and black workout shorts with number 17 on the thigh. Cars hurtle past a young man perched on the precipice. “This summer feels like the end of something,” Hundley says, “like your whole life is about to change.”
Here is how he spends his last brush with normality, according to the color-coded schedule he keeps on his phone: 14 workouts per week, eight hours of sociology classes, three film sessions with fellow quarterbacks, two meetings with a passing guru and two more with an agility coach. Then there’s everything that’s not on the schedule: daily prayers on the roof of Ackerman Student Union; skull sessions with Philip Rivers, Tim Tebow and Jeff Garcia; hikes with teammates in Runyon Canyon; paddleboard excursions off Marina del Rey; and modest cliff jumps in Malibu, which he captures on his GoPro.
Chef Hundley, as he terms himself, grills for his linemen, promotes his annual walk with the Epilepsy Foundation and reminds receiver Eldridge Massington to finally clean his locker. “I don’t know how a person functions with that ... mess,” Hundley grouses. He keeps his west L.A. apartment clutter-free, apart from the projector he bought from the Afrikan Student Union, which he uses to watch tape with his girlfriend, former UCLA track star Dawnielle Baucham. “Either film or Family Guy,” Hundley clarifies.
His mother, April, is a flight attendant for US Airways, which allows him to fly standby whenever he pleases. One weekend he visits his father, Brett Sr., and uncle Albert in Denver. He reclines in the living room where Nebraska coach Tom Osborne recruited his dad to play running back, eventually losing out to Arizona. The next weekend he sees his grandmother, Karon Jones, outside Houston. He hangs out on Lake Conroe, where as a boy he’d lose rods in struggles with largemouth bass. This year is a gift he gave himself by postponing the draft and returning to UCLA for his redshirt junior season, and he is wringing the most out of it. He stops by the office of Rip Scherer, an associate athletic director who used to be an offensive assistant with the Browns and the Panthers, and asks, “What’s the usual workday like in the NFL? How did Trent Dilfer study? How did Jake Delhomme develop camaraderie with receivers?” He has a lot on his mind, so it’s understandable if he overlooks something, such as the needle on the gas gauge.
As Andrew Luck and Matt Barkley would gladly attest, a return to school doesn’t guarantee a joyride. Obstacles arise. Improvisation is required. When Hundley’s black Honda Accord comes to a halt on Jefferson, he flips on his hazard lights, hops out of the car and directs traffic around him. He sends his passenger, Massington -- who conveniently runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash -- on a fly pattern to the nearest Chevron station. Massington returns toting two red containers of unleaded. Hundley calmly fills the tank. They beat the rush back to Westwood.
Last week of classes for Hundley at UCLA, and he bounds through Haines Hall in flip-flops. He carries a camouflage backpack and swigs from a gallon of Arrowhead spring water. He remembers his first week of classes, in January 2011, when he was sitting in a philosophy lecture and a women’s volleyball player asked him, “You’re Brett Hundley, the savior?” The Bruins were coming off a 4-8 season yet had improbably landed a five-star dual-threat quarterback recruit from Chandler, Ariz. Hundley signified hope.
He visited UCLA only because his mom hooked up the free flight. Head coach Rick Neuheisel sent Hundley on a tour of Mattel Children’s Hospital with Brian Reemtsen, a pediatric heart surgeon and former Bruins linebacker. Hundley, who posted a 3.9 grade point average at Chandler, saw UCLA as a place where he could accomplish both his undergraduate goals: to study on a premed track and defibrillate a dormant football team. As Hundley stood on the sideline at Drake Stadium during a subsequent visit, watching the Bruins scrimmage in the sunset, Neuheisel told him, “Come here and you will change everything. Your face will be on billboards.” He committed the following month and covered his ears when friends told him that he was crazy.
Hundley’s expectations were so high, he cried on the bench during an intrasquad game at the Rose Bowl when it became clear he would not start as a true freshman. Neuheisel’s decision to redshirt him probably cost the coach his job, but it helped the player and the program. Hundley recorded Neuheisel’s soliloquies in quarterbacks meetings and transcribed the tapes into notebooks. He stood next to junior QB Kevin Prince on the sideline and deconstructed plays as they occurred. “[Brett] was the future star,” says center Jake Brendel, “but after he took all the pictures and kissed all the babies, he put in the work.”
When Hundley was named the starter in 2012, he wept again. He called pastor Bryan Pace at River of Life Church in Phoenix and asked to be patched into the Sunday service so he could thank the congregation that had prayed for him. Teammates voted Hundley a team captain before he took a snap. He rushed for 72 yards on his first play, a zone read against Rice, and he set the school record for passing yards in his first season (3,740 yards), outgunning Troy Aikman and Cade McNown. UCLA beat USC in consecutive years for the first time this millennium and won 10 games in 2013. “Stanford turned the corner because they had a guy like Andrew Luck,” says UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero. “We view Brett the same way.”
Coach Jim Mora, to extend the analogy, is UCLA’s answer to Jim Harbaugh, with staying power. When Mora signed a six-year extension in December, rebuffing his alma mater, Washington, he called Hundley before he called his own wife. “I knew she was coming back,” Mora says. “I wasn’t as sure about him.”
On the eve of the Sun Bowl, Hundley lounged in Mora’s room at the Marriott in El Paso and discussed whether he should turn pro. Mora, who coached the Falcons and the Seahawks, believed Hundley could be the first quarterback drafted. The more important question was how he’d fare afterward. Mora showed Hundley a 60-page PowerPoint study analyzing all 35 quarterbacks picked in the first round from 1990 through 2005. The QBs were broken into three groups: blue for long-term starters, purple for backups or spot starters, orange for busts. Eleven fell into the blue group, and of those, nine had started 30 games or more in college. Only two, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Bledsoe, started fewer than 30. The Sun Bowl was Hundley’s 27th start.
A week later Hundley outlined a speech in a notebook, to be delivered at a press conference the next day. Bullet points included: “Bringing UCLA back to national prominence. ... Developing to be the best quarterback I can. ... Enjoying what I have. ... Getting a degree.” Hundley majors in sociology, having backed off premed, and expects to graduate in the fall after completing a to-be-determined independent study project. “He’s got two insurance policies,” says Brett Sr. “One that’s $10 million, and one that’s four letters: UCLA.”
First, Brett needs to pass Sociology 102. He sits in the middle of the room and picks from a bag of dried fruit. He turns on his MacBook Pro, and Arizona State game tape flashes on the screen. He minimizes it and opens a Word document. The professor, Mark Jepson, stands in front of the blackboard in a beige polo shirt and wire-rimmed glasses. He describes a sociological perspective called symbolic interactionism. “The self is a process, not a thing,” Jepson explains. “The self is never complete, never finished. It’s always a work in progress.” Hundley nods as he types.
Lunch hour in Santa Monica, and patrons at the Lazy Daisy Cafe hear what sounds like a series of small explosions coming from across Pico Boulevard. Hundley crouches between a purple and a pink hula hoop on the grass at Virginia Avenue Park, still damp with dew as the lingering fog breaks. Two boys play soccer. A man reads a book under a eucalyptus tree. A couple bikes through the makeshift field. Hundley takes five-step drops between the hoops and fires 20-yard out patterns that smack into Steve Clarkson’s gloves. Clarkson’s patter follows each pass: “Back foot at 90 degrees. ... Your shoulder is a scope. ... Stride straight at my nose. ... Don’t waste any motion.”
Clarkson was a quarterbacks coach before that became a cottage industry. Over nearly three decades he assembled a client list headed by Ben Roethlisberger, Josh Freeman, Matt Leinart and several other pros. In February 2010, Clarkson launched the Dreammaker Tour, which was sort of like American Idol for high school QBs. The first of 16 tour stops was at the Rose Bowl, where on a stormy Saturday morning approximately 600 aspiring signal-callers showed up to throw, run and interview with the Dreammaker himself.
Clarkson had never heard of Brett, who failed to win the starting quarterback’s job at Chandler as a junior and fumed when he was moved to wide receiver. He resisted the urge to transfer, but he didn’t embrace the position switch, didn’t delete the Donovan McNabb screen saver from his computer. In the second game of the season Chandler trailed highly regarded Peoria Centennial 34-6 at halftime, and coach Jim Ewan told his assistants, “We have to see what Brett’s got.” In the second half Brett completed 14 of 18 passes for 204 yards and rushed for 83 more. The Wolves lost, but they scored 32 points and found a quarterback.
The only camp Brett attended after the season was Clarkson’s. “Sometimes you find kids who are intelligent, and other times you find kids who are physical specimens,” Clarkson says. “But if you ever find one who is both, then you’ve identified somebody truly special.” At the end of that Rose Bowl pageant Brett called his dad, who was staying dry in the press box. “I think I won this thing,” Brett said. The Dreammaker Tour had lived up to its name. In nine months Brett went from a second-stringer to a five-star recruit.
Ewan, who had planned to retire, hung on another year at his quarterback’s behest. Brett bolted to UCLA in January 2011, after his senior season, but returned for prom, showing up with a friend he feared other boys wouldn’t invite. “He worries about everyone else,” Ewan says. If someone is five minutes late to a meeting with Hundley, he sends a text with the Pin Drop of his exact location.
Now Clarkson comes to him, carrying the hula hoops that mark the pocket. “In terms of tools Hundley has it all: size, speed, arm strength, the ability to extend plays, the ability to put the ball where he wants,” says Daniel Jeremiah, a NFL Network analyst who used to be a scout. “What he has to work on is getting quicker going through his progressions.” As Hundley runs figure eights around the hoops, mimicking responses to pressure, Clarkson hollers, “Keep your eyes downfield! Remain a passer!” Hundley slips on the sod, which his cleats have turned into ground beef, and puts a hand down to steady himself. “You’re under duress!” Clarkson roars. “You have to improvise!”
Hundley’s natural instinct, if his first and second options are covered, is to take off. But he’s more than a scrambler. He pirouettes, plants and unleashes a 30-yard dig route that pops into Clarkson’s mitts. The man reading under the eucalyptus perks up. “See how fluid you are, big man?” Clarkson shouts. “In a time of chaos, that’s where you shine. We practice the imperfect throw today so on August 30 it’s the perfect throw.”
One p.m. at a field beneath the hills of Playa del Rey, and Hundley stands on the sideline in the dark. “Close your eyes and put out your arms,” says Erich Nall, part speed coach, part life coach. “Now think about something you don’t like.” Nall pushes down on Hundley’s arms and they collapse by his sides. “Now think about something you love.” Nall pushes down again. “Look how much stronger you became. How did you get stronger? You channeled the power of thought. When you are out there and 100,000 people are screaming in those stands, take yourself to the place you feel loved.”
What Hundley sees when his eyes are shut is Paris. She is one year older, and when they were kids they raced scooters next to their father as he took his morning jogs along a canal off the Salt River. They graduated to bikes, and during one ride Brett asked his dad, “When you’re in heaven, will you be able to watch me in the NFL?” Brett was six, already enrolled in the Arizona Cheetahs Track Club, where he ran with his big sister. She was a sprinter. He excelled in the turbo javelin. Their parents were divorced but shared custody, and at their dad’s apartment they slept on twin beds in the same room. They even played a season of flag football together. “She’s my foundation,” Brett says.
When Paris was 11, she suffered her first grand mal seizure while dressing for a banquet to honor her achievements with the Cheetahs. Brett saw foam coming out of her mouth and flew into a panic, nearly tearing a wooden post off his bed. “We thought she was going to die,” his father says. Paris was diagnosed with epilepsy, and hundreds of seizures followed, often resulting in dislocations of both her shoulders. During one episode she kicked over a toilet, and during another she burned her feet on smoldering concrete. Doctors could only prescribe pills and more pills.
Paris was teased at school and forced to quit sports because of her health. Brett started jogging alone next to his dad every day at 5 a.m. He was running for her, and after he arrived at UCLA he became a spokesman for the Epilepsy Foundation of Greater Los Angeles. Three years in a row he has participated in the annual Walk to End Epilepsy at the Rose Bowl, turning the event into a de facto team activity. “He’s been a huge boon for us,” says Susan Pietsch-Escueta, the foundation’s executive director. Paris recently earned an Epilepsy Foundation scholarship, which she will use at cosmetology school in Atlanta, where she lives with her mom.
“You have a beautiful family,” Nall tells Hundley, whose eyes are now open. “They love you, right? They love you without football? Well, no one else matters. Other people are going to tell you, ‘You’re this, you’re that, you’re good, you’re bad.’ It should not affect you. Let that go. Free yourself from it.” His cadence rises and falls, like a preacher’s. “Remember, the genius is inside of you. You were born with it. You’ve got everything you need right here. You don’t need anything else. When you ran for 86 yards in that bowl game, Virginia Tech was just the stimulus bringing out what was already there.”
Hundley gazes toward two kids tossing a Frisbee on the other side of the field. “I’m going to ask you the question I keep asking,” Nall continues. “Why not you? Answer that damn question! Don’t you dream? Aren’t your dreams crazy? You should be dreaming some stuff right now that’s so big, you can feel it in your stomach. Think about it! Contemplate it! Those dreams are real.”
After Hundley finishes his speed work, shuffling between steps of a 12‑yard vinyl ladder laid flat on the turf, he asks Nall to bring two books to their next session: The Power of Your Subconscious Mind, by Joseph Murphy, and As a Man Thinketh, by James Allen. Hundley seems uncomfortable without homework. As he starts to leave, he remembers one more thing that’s been on his mind. “Is ice cream O.K. after a workout?” he asks.
“Within the first 45 minutes,” Nall replies. Hundley has to hurry. The clock is ticking on his beloved Blue Bell banana pudding.
Film study in the quarterbacks room at the Acosta Center, and Hundley is presenting play-by-play of the Broncos’ red zone offense. He spent the previous weekend at the Manning Passing Academy in Thibodaux, La., where he followed Mora’s instruction to “just watch Peyton.” Hundley left with an important observation. Most teams practice their red zone attack once a week. Manning’s teams practice it every day, which helps explain why the Broncos scored an NFL-record 76 touchdowns last season.
UCLA offensive assistant Evan Burk cues up what looks like a highlight film. Manning throws a fade to Demaryius Thomas for a touchdown. “A perfect ball,” Hundley gushes. Then a shovel pass to Julius Thomas for a touchdown: “So, so nice.” And a post to Wes Welker in the back of the end zone: “Wow, wow, wow.” Finally Manning runs play action and walks in a bootleg. “Can I get these games sent to me?” Hundley asks Burk.
The Mannings tab top college quarterbacks as camp counselors, and Hundley was joined by more than two dozen peers, including Oregon State’s Sean Mannion, Oregon’s Marcus Mariota, Baylor’s Bryce Petty and Heisman incumbent Jameis Winston of Florida State. Together they form a QB class that could rival the 2012 crop. “Who was the best NFL prospect at the camp?” UCLA backup Jerry Neuheisel asks Hundley. The room falls silent for a moment. “You can’t pick yourself!” Neuheisel clarifies. Hundley bows his head sheepishly.
Neuheisel’s dad, Dick, refers to Hundley as “Colin Kaepernick with a better arm.” Mora comes up with another comparison. He texts a photo of Hundley, throwing in midair, alongside a stunningly similar shot of the last African-American quarterback to lead UCLA in passing: Jackie Robinson. The Bruins have not won a national championship since 1954 or a Rose Bowl since ’86. USC has monopolized the Southland for a generation, thanks largely to signal-callers such as Carson Palmer, Leinart, Mark Sanchez and Barkley. The pendulum may finally be swinging across town.
Mora handles Hundley the same way he did Michael Vick in Atlanta. During the week they work on progressions and on ways Hundley can exploit single-high coverage. In practice Hundley must slide to avoid contact when out of the pocket. But on game day Mora tells Hundley what he shouted at Vick right before that unforgettable fourth-and-goal against Carolina a decade ago: “If all hell breaks loose, just go! Just run!”
Hundley flashes a cool thumbs-up, a gesture that used to enrage his superiors and now assures them. “I’d yell at him all the time, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that,’ and he’d give me the thumbs-up,” recalls offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. “Finally I told him, ‘If you give me that thumbs-up again, you know where I’ll stick it.’” That was before Hundley won 19 games in two years, throwing for 6,811 yards and rushing for 1,103. UCLA has since hiked assistants’ salaries into the top 10, according to internal research. The school has also raised more than $40 million toward a new football facility set to break ground in 2015. There is no limit to what the right coach and quarterback can accomplish.
Mora’s staff is filled with NFL vets enthralled by college. Hundley reviews pass protection with Adrian Klemm, who won three Super Bowls as an offensive lineman for the Patriots, and coverage schemes with Jeff Ulbrich, who spent nine years at linebacker for the 49ers. UCLA runs a spread, but coaches also put Hundley under center and force him to scan the field. They are preparing him both for this season and for seasons beyond.
Twilight in the Rocky Mountains, and Hundley dives into a bucket of Popeyes chicken. He eats alongside his father and his uncle at the tan house with brown trim where the two older men grew up, in the Montbello neighborhood of Denver. The three have scripted their pregame activities for the opener, Aug. 30 at Virginia. Brett Sr., known around the Rose Bowl as the Governor of Lot H, will arrive at his tailgating location six hours before kickoff. His son will drink a Naked Juice and a gallon of water at the hotel. He will use the restroom approximately 15 times. They will all meet at the bus on the way into the stadium. “Handle your business,” Senior will say. He may get the thumbs-up.
Then Brett Hundley Jr. will disappear into a tunnel, where he’ll find untold adventure and adversity and opportunity. He probably won’t emerge for nine months, and when he does, nothing will be the same. He’s ready for the journey. His tank is full.