This story appears in the Aug. 31, 2015, issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
How does something like this begin?
Maybe it begins the moment the coach tells you that you're not good enough. Maybe it begins the following day, almost by accident—a hot and humid afternoon, the football slipping out of your sweaty hand as you throw it, making it suddenly difficult to complete an act you've done so well for so long.
Maybe it begins the next morning, with the simplest drill at a summer practice. No helmets, no pads, no spectators in the crowd. Receivers lined up, running simple 10- to 12-yard outs. The bullet you're used to firing wobbles toward the target. A second pass, and the ball smacks the turf a few feet in front of a different receiver. You shake it off. Everyone has bad days.
Still another throw: This one sails five feet over the wideout's head. A few teammates will later compare the drill with that scene from Tin Cup in which Kevin Costner's character has the shanks on the driving range. There's nothing different about your throwing motion; the ball just comes out of your hand wrong. You all right? your teammates ask.
You are certain tomorrow will be better, but over the coming days and weeks your performance gets worse. What are you doing? you say to yourself. You've been throwing a ball since you were seven years old! Those who know you best will wonder if you will ever take another snap from center. Your story will become one of the strangest of the 2014 college football season: the tale of the quarterback who could not throw.
They call him Sunshine, after the quarterback from Remember the Titans, and the nickname was always perfect for Joel Stave: He's 6' 5" and 219 pounds, with Hollywood looks, wavy blond hair and a glittering smile. "He's such a freakin' cliché, it's laughable," says Wisconsin senior wide receiver Jordan Fredrick. "The quarterback is the smartest guy on the team and the best looking. When you're around him walking down a street, it's funny how many heads turn, like there's this glow around him."
Stave (pronounced STAH-vee) had the storybook start too: Wisconsin kid from Whitnall High in Greenfield (pop. 36,672) walks on to the program he grew up worshipping and becomes the starter in Madison as a redshirt freshman, leading a floundering team to a 4-1 record before a broken left collarbone in the ninth game ends his season. Then as a sophomore he threw the second-most touchdown passes (22) in school history, completing 61.9% of his attempts during a 9-4 campaign. Everything seemed to be falling into place for a breakout junior season until second-year Badgers coach Gary Andersen, less than two weeks before the opener, announced that 6' 6", 231-pound Tanner McEvoy and not Stave would start against LSU.
By all accounts the decision shocked the locker room. "He was our guy," says one Badger. "No disrespect to Tanner, but everyone knew who the best quarterback in camp was." (Andersen explained that a dual-threat quarterback such as McEvoy, a junior college transfer from Arizona Western, gave the team a better chance against the Tigers.)
No player was more surprised than Sunshine. "He didn't come out and say it, because he wanted to be a good teammate, but the truth was that he was furious," says Stave's brother, Bryan, a Wisconsin grad. "There's also no doubt his confidence took a hit."
The following day: Stave and Fredrick, one of his best friends, were playing catch in the team's indoor facility. "It was hot," Fredrick recalls. "The ball was slipping out of his hands, and he couldn't make any clean throws. I didn't think too much of it at the time. Then he came the next day"—referring to the Tin Cup episode—"and the exact same thing was happening. Except it wasn't wet." That Saturday at NRG Stadium in Houston, before the Badgers faced LSU, Stave was warming up and still couldn't complete any basic passes. His misfires were so bad that reporters in the press box began to take notice. When he threw 30- or 40-yarders, he felt fine. But the 10-yard throw? Impossible. A Badgers media staffer looking on that day thought, No way, this kid is never coming back from this.
On the Monday after a 28-24 loss to LSU, Andersen released a statement that Stave wouldn't play for a few weeks because of a shoulder injury from a hit he took during the Capital One Bowl eight months earlier. A few Badgers players were in the locker room when they saw the news on the TV crawl. "We're like, What? We know that isn't true," says Fredrick. "We knew what the real reason was."
Stave, whose shoulder had healed, was irked by his coach's misdirection, even if Andersen was trying to protect his quarterback. Later that day, in an awkward series of events, Andersen retracted his statement and Stave faced reporters to clear the air: His issues were mental. "I'll be throwing it good, throwing it good and then all of a sudden I feel like I hang on to it too long," he explained. "One will sail, one will slip and then you start thinking, 'Oh, I've got to hang on to it longer.' That's what happens when you start thinking too much."
The story of an athlete who suddenly loses the ability to perform is not unfamiliar, but this victim seemed particularly unlikely: Stave was always the unflappable golden boy who never shied away from center stage. Once, during a student-athlete talent show, Stave got up in front of 600 people and sang Train's "Drops of Jupiter." When he and his buddies would go to a Madison piano bar, Stave, who started lessons at age five, would not only bound onto the stage at the crowd's urging, but he would also bring the house down with his performance.
On the football field Stave had suffered spells of inconsistency before, but he had always battled his way back with hard work. That approach wasn't helping now. He found that more hours on the practice field, that more reps before and after team sessions, accomplished nothing. In fact, whatever he tried only added to the torment and the cruelty, laying his inner struggles out for all the Badgers to see. "When it started, it made me feel embarrassed. It made me feel just dumb," he says. "You start thinking about what everyone else is thinking, and that just wears on you really badly. You think, I'll show them, and then you start trying too hard, trying to force it too much, and you get even more lost.
"I kind of crawled up into my own head. And I got into a very weird, weird place."
The term was coined almost a century ago by the Scottish golfer Tommy Armour, who defined the yips as "a brain spasm that impairs the short game." Most prevalent in golf, the condition crops up in other sports: in darts it is dartitis; in archery it is target panic. In baseball it's been called Steve Blass disease (named after the Pirates' pitcher who suddenly could not find the strike zone) or Chuck Knoblauch disease (after the Yankees' second baseman who could not make routine tosses to first).
"There are two types of yips," explains Michael Lardon, a San Diego sports psychologist who has worked with Olympic gold medalists, golf champions, and MLB and NFL players. There's focal dystonia: a movement disorder, mostly in older athletes, that occurs when an unwanted muscle contraction—a tremor, a twitch—leads to an involuntary movement, as if the motor cortex is no longer moving smoothly. Then all it may take is a small adjustment—a change in the grip in golf, for instance—to alter the motor path slightly and rescue the player from what Lardon calls "the rut."
The second kind—which, Landon believes, Stave experienced—is similar to a panic attack. It manifests "when we're overwhelmed with anxiety and we short-circuit our cognitive mechanism," Lardon says before offering an example. "A tennis player who can't serve the ball into the court because she becomes so anxious that she's no longer able to think. That's accompanied by automatic hyperarousal—the heart rate is up, the breathing is fast."
Players dealing with the yips include kickers who suddenly cannot convert extra points (the Packers' Mason Crosby struggled not long ago before recovering) and receivers who drop wide-open passes (Braylon Edwards, whose career nose-dived as a result), but the condition is rare in football because the game is played mostly on instinct in short bursts. Stave's case is the rare one involving a quarterback, even though the position does seem more conducive than others to the yips: After dropping back, he's alone in the pocket with time to think—sometimes too much time.
Lardon surmises that Stave probably "was feeling more pressure, having lost his starting job," which led to "overthinking and creating an impediment in the reflex loop." He continues: "When Peyton Manning reads cornerbacks, it's all done at a subconscious level, automatically. You get into trouble when you want to be more accurate or perform better. By doing that [you're] thinking about something that's more reflexive rather than just doing it."
Everyone had an idea of how to fix Joel Stave. His parents, Barb and Karl, got letters saying, "Hang in there" or "Read this Internet post about Chuck Knoblauch." The football department received emails from fans, suggestions addressed to the offensive coordinator. Stave himself got emails. One advised him to throw with a bag over his head. Another recommended passing with only one eye open.
A few teammates urged Stave to see a psychologist. He never seriously considered it. "It was a good thing I was taking 17 credits," says Stave, a civil engineering major. "I was going to class and doing homework. I could get my mind off it when I was focusing on something else." Over the month that he could not accurately throw a football, he didn't fall into a depression and never considered quitting, but he did isolate himself because, he says, "to talk about it was to make it more real, and I didn't want it to seem real." The closest he came to therapy was disappearing into the music department building, where he'd lock himself in an empty practice room for an hour or two and play the piano.
"I would come in [to the football facility] on Sundays when no one was around, and I would grab a ball and just throw it at blocking dummies," Stave says. "It felt normal, but I'd get out to practice and I'd start thinking again, and it just felt off." After every practice Fredrick would stick around, and the two would throw "like we were in a backyard." If you walked by the facility at night, you could hear a voice booming: "What the hell? Millions of people in the state of Wisconsin, and I'm the second-best quarterback here!"
"It probably doesn't help also that fans here have been watching [the Packers'] Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers for the last two decades," says former Badgers tight end Sam Arneson. "I think that contributes to the scrutiny—and the criticism—Joel gets." There's also the pressure that naturally accompanies being the starting quarterback at a big-time college program, and Madison, of course, is no different from any Big Ten town: Football is a way of life, and the standards are high. When Russell Wilson transferred to Wisconsin from North Carolina State in summer 2011 and shattered the team record for touchdowns, set the single-season FBS record for pass efficiency and led the Badgers to an 11-3 record and a conference championship, the bar was raised even higher.
"No one's harder on me than myself," says Stave. "Football has always been so important to me. But to get through this, I think it was really about caring less."
Had Stave come to him, Lardon would have had him start with the long passes that he could effectively release, then work down to the 10-yard outs. "Incrementally add the pieces back in," says Lardon. "Slowly, bit by bit, build yourself back. If you're caring too much about that perfect pass, or that scouts are here, well that's not going to help. Care just about the fundamentals that the coach has been teaching you since you were 12 years old."
That is essentially what Stave did. "I would force myself to not think negatively," he says. "Really, it's simple as telling yourself this: Look out at the defense. See the defense. Find the window. Put it in there, just like you've done your entire life. And just have a little fun with it, too." During one workout late last September, after throwing a few balls in a warmup, he tapped the shoulder of his coordinator as if to say, Yeah, that's right. I can complete three 10-yard passes in a row. This was before the fourth game of the year, against South Florida, and Stave had a feeling he had yet to experience that season: If I played today, I would be all right.
The following week, before a game at Northwestern, Stave was back to practicing full-time, as the backup. Midway through the second quarter, with McEvoy ineffective after four series, Stave grabbed his helmet and went back on the field. On the surface Stave's return was a failure: He finished 8 of 19 for 114 yards with a touchdown and threw three interceptions, including an ill-advised fourth-quarter pass on first-and-goal from the three in an eventual 20-14 loss. But in reality the performance was one of the quiet triumphs of the 2014 college football season: There were no wayward heaves, no moments of panic, no evidence that this was the football player who had fallen further than any other. Joel Stave was once again just another college quarterback.
Stave knows this is the unsatisfying part of his story, that even now he can't explain why his ailment came and went, a football mystery with few answers. Yet it did prove instructive. "If I had let [the yips] win, that would be something I'd never be able to forgive myself for," he says. "Looking back, I'm almost glad I went through it. Knowing that I could get through something as bad as that was, it's made me tougher."
It is an August afternoon, and Stave is sitting in a room high above Camp Randall Stadium after a morning practice. Last year, after the Northwestern loss, Stave took over as the starter and led Wisconsin to seven straight wins, including back-to-back victories at Iowa and against Minnesota that clinched the Big Ten West Division title. Although the Badgers fell to Ohio State 59-0 in the conference championship, they rallied to take down Auburn 34-31 in the Outback Bowl. Stave completed 53.4% of his throws in 2014, with nine touchdowns and 10 picks. This off-season, even with a new coach—Andersen left for Oregon State—there was no quarterback controversy in Madison: Stave will be the starter for the Badgers, who open against No. 3 Alabama this Saturday in Arlington, Texas, the biggest game of college football's opening week. (McEvoy has been moved to wide receiver and safety.)
"This summer we sat down for the first time," says coach Paul Chryst, a former Wisconsin quarterback and offensive coordinator who returned after three years in charge at Pitt. "And of course I cut to it—let's talk about the elephant in the room. He wasn't lying down on the couch; I just wanted to see where he was at. He said he was in a good place, and that's all I had to hear."
"He's a different person," says Fredrick. "With the things he's gone through, he's much more confident with the team. He's a man of the team, and we've rallied around him."
Late last September, around the time when he had fallen into the darkest place, Stave sat in a room with teammates listening to former Badgers great Don Davey, a defensive tackle who, after years dealing with debilitating football injuries, has in his late 40s become a world-class triathlete. Says Stave, "There's a quote that he said that really resonated: 'It's amazing what the body can do if the mind will let it.' He was saying, If you're mentally feeling good and confident, you feel you can do anything. This was when I was going through my stuff, and I was thinking, Man, there's the other side, too. If you're not feeling good, it's just the opposite. It's so true with sports. It's sick how mental it is."
Joel Stave feels good.