SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Bobby Sabelhaus can laugh about it all now. Fifteen years earlier, it felt as if his life had ended. But as he polished off an egg-white omelet and gazed out the window at the Pacific Ocean a few months ago, Sabelhaus grinned as he recounted the day someone at Florida tried to hypnotize him into throwing spirals.
In the spring of 1996, Gators coaches tried to salvage the quarterback who had arrived in 1995 as one of the most hyped recruits in Florida history. Sabelhaus' play at the McDonogh School in suburban Baltimore had convinced recruiting analysts that the 6-foot-6, 225-pounder was one of the top high school quarterbacks in the nation. Recruiting publications in 1994 and 1995 frequently listed Sabelhaus above future NFL quarterback Brock Huard and above a 6-4, 215-pounder from San Mateo, Calif., named Tom Brady. Sabelhaus was a Parade All-American. When he signed with Florida in February 1995, Sabelhaus seemed the obvious heir apparent to Danny Wuerffel.
As the 1996 spring game approached, Sabelhaus needed help. Florida coach Steve Spurrier had spent months trying to alter Sabelhaus' sidearm delivery. The experiment was a disaster. Sabelhaus' personality was a poor match for Spurrier's needling coaching style. By that point in spring practice, Sabelhaus worried so much about throwing a spiral that he couldn't concentrate on which receivers ran which routes. Hypnotism felt like the last-ditch effort it was.
Sabelhaus recalls the person doing the hypnotizing was a student. Sabelhaus never fell into a trance, but he faked his way through one to make his hypnotist feel better. As he sat with his eyes shut tight, Sabelhaus listened to the student drone. Sabelhaus remembers one thought echoing through his mind.
"Where did it go wrong?"
After a disastrous spring game, Sabelhaus left Florida. He spent time at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Calif., before transferring to West Virginia, where he lasted less than a week. In 1998, Sabelhaus tried again at San Jose State, but, buried on the depth chart, he quit the sport entirely without ever playing a collegiate snap.
Last October, to describe Florida's quarterbacking failure against Auburn, ESPN anchor Rece Davis name-checked Sabelhaus. To a generation of college football fans, the word Sabelhaus means Bust. But that's what makes the tale of Bobby Sabelhaus so interesting.
He is not a failure. Far from it. His college football career didn't go the way a few recruitniks planned, but his life didn't end when he hung up his pads. Sabelhaus might not have grown into an All-America quarterback, but now he stands on the verge of an equally amazing adventure.
Bobby Sabelhaus, patron saint of busts, is now Bobby Sabelhaus, movie producer.
When Variety posted the story on its site June 30, 2011, it felt nothing like that day in 1994 when Sabelhaus and his high school teammates flipped through the pages of SuperPrep. The Variety item didn't lavish any praise on Sabelhaus -- in fact, it barely mentioned him -- but it represented the culmination of a year's work for Sabelhaus, producing partner John Zaozirny and writer Ian Schorr. The three had spent much of 2010 and 2011 developing a script that offered a futuristic, sci-fi take on Alexandre Dumas' classic revenge tale The Count of Monte Cristo. Even without a big-name director or actor attached, Warner Bros. optioned the script. If Cristo (the working title) gets made and becomes a hit, Sabelhaus' name could become as well known in Hollywood as it is in recruiting circles.
Much of Sabelhaus' gridiron reputation dates back to that 1994 preseason edition of SuperPrep. As he and his teammates scanned the magazine, Sabelhaus assumed he would be listed as one of the top players in his region. He had posted solid numbers, and his coach had presented him with a shoebox full of letters from colleges shortly after his junior season. Sabelhaus found the name of McDonogh receiver Dwayne Stukes, but he couldn't find his own name.
A few moments later, a teammate found it. "Sabelhaus, you're No. 1," the teammate said. Not the No. 1 in the mid-Atlantic region. The No. 1 quarterback in the nation.
That's how recruiting coverage worked in the mid-'90s. A few niche magazines set the tone and provided the bulk of the information. Truly deranged fans could call expensive 1-900 numbers for periodic updates on the nation's or region's top prospects, but it would take the late-'90s explosion of the Internet to convince anyone that a wider audience craved -- and was willing to pay for -- coverage of colleges' pursuit of high school football players. Today, Rivals.com, Scout.com and 247Sports.com would have begun evaluating Sabelhaus as a sophomore. All three services would have compiled an extensive dossier on his game and camp performances, and recruitniks would have reviewed his highlights ad nauseum on YouTube and drawn their own conclusions. It's difficult to project what might have happened had Sabelhaus grown up in the current age of non-stop recruiting coverage. He might have become a bigger celebrity, and thus a bigger bust. Or, the intensity of the attention might have made it obvious to all even before National Signing Day that a guy who throws sidearm should not sign with a coach who insists that all his quarterbacks throw the same way.
Earlier in his career, Sabelhaus worked on an update of a classic '80s football comedy. She's the Man, a lightly regarded Amanda Bynes vehicle released in 2006, is really a sanitized remake of the lightly regarded 1985 film Just One of the Guys. But if Sabelhaus produced a movie based on his own recruitment, it would look more like an update of 1988's Johnny Be Good -- only without the illicit cash and the steroid bar in UCC's weight room.
Sabelhaus flew on one of the state of Florida's jets with Florida State offensive coordinator Mark Richt to his official visit in Tallahassee. (This was still legal under NCAA rules at the time.) Sabelhaus and his father -- an Ohio native raised on Big Ten lore -- met former Michigan coach Bo Schembechler during an official visit to Ann Arbor. After Sabelhaus crossed Michigan off his list, the Wolverines intensified their pursuit of the aforementioned Mr. Brady. Sabelhaus chose Florida, he said at the time, because of the one-on-one instruction Spurrier gave his quarterbacks. A few months later, Sabelhaus wished he hadn't gotten so much one-on-one instruction.
Sabelhaus isn't bitter anymore about what happened at Florida. In fact, he cheers for Florida when he sees the Gators on television. He and Spurrier were a lousy fit for one another. Sabelhaus contends that Spurrier told his parents the sidearm motion wouldn't be a problem. Anyone who has watched Spurrier's quarterbacks throughout the years -- from Anthony Dilweg at Duke to Shane Matthews, Wuerffel and Rex Grossman at Florida to Connor Shaw at South Carolina -- knows the Head Ball Coach prefers that his quarterbacks keep their upper arms parallel to the ground with the ball cocked near their ears.
Not long after the Gators began preseason camp, Sabelhaus realized Spurrier wanted him to alter his motion. "Raise your elbow," Sabelhaus remembers Spurrier saying early and often. Spurrier rode Sabelhaus hard that season. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, Sabelhaus contends. Certain players, such as 1996 Heisman Trophy winner Wuerffel, respond well to Spurrier's style. Sabelhaus did not have that mentality. "For Danny, it was like water off a duck's back," Sabelhaus said. "Me, I took everything personally." Sabelhaus also suffered from dyslexia, which made learning the playbook difficult, but he said he "never went the wrong way on a play."
Sabelhaus realized how far he had fallen as he warmed up before the Fiesta Bowl with fellow quarterback Eric Kresser. "My throwing motion was so out-of-whack that I could barely get him the ball," Sabelhaus said. "He was 20 yards away from me." The nadir came in that 1996 spring game. Spurrier planned to give Sabelhaus significant playing time, but he scrapped that idea, yanking Sabelhaus twice. Sabelhaus completed three of his four passes, but unfortunately two of those completions were to safety Teako Brown. "You saw it -- he's just not ready to play," Spurrier told The Tampa Tribune after the scrimmage. "His teammates wanted to try and win the game."
Sabelhaus didn't return to Florida for the 1996 season. Instead, he attended Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Calif. There, he first fell in love with his future home. But Sabelhaus would suffer through more football before he would settle permanently in the Los Angeles area.
Sabelhaus transferred to West Virginia, but he didn't stay long. After a few practices, coaches suggested he move to tight end. Sabelhaus chose to leave rather than change positions. "I feel bad about this because he's the nicest guy around," West Virginia coach Don Nehlen told the Charleston Daily Mail. "He said, 'Every time I pick up the newspaper, I think I'm the greatest quarterback in America.' He's about as broken as you can get. He was embarrassed."
Sabelhaus returned to California, where he worked with quarterback guru Steve Clarkson to fix his mechanics and his battered psyche. Sabelhaus, feeling more like his old self, transferred again to San Jose State. Sabelhaus enjoyed spring practice, but he couldn't beat out Brian Vye for the starting job. In preseason camp, freshman Marcus Arroyo beat Sabelhaus for the backup job. Sabelhaus gave up football for good in September 1998. At the time, he revealed that he had been diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder, which causes periodic bouts of depression. Sabelhaus said football, which had been the escape he needed to manage those bouts, had become the trigger that caused them.
Sabelhaus hopes schools have improved their mental care for athletes since he played. He was happy to learn of the work mental coach Trevor Moawad has done at Alabama and Florida State, because Sabelhaus believes today's top recruits -- who have more sunshine blown their way than he ever did -- need to be taught how to handle failure as well as success. Most of them, Sabelhaus reasons, will not make the NFL, and some players are going to take that very hard. "Have the resources to prepare these kids," Sabelhaus said. "Not everyone is going to be a Tim Tebow. Not everyone is going to be a Danny Wuerffel."
Sabelhaus finished his bachelor's degree at Maryland, and he had an inkling he wanted to return to Los Angeles and try to break into the movie business. Shortly after Sabelhaus graduated, his parents threw a party. Sabelhaus felt like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate as his parents' friends repeatedly asked what he planned to do with his life. (No one, Sabelhaus said, suggested he go into plastics.) He mentioned to one of his father's friends that he had considered trying movies, and the man mentioned he had a friend named Alan Horn whom Sabelhaus should meet if he did decide to try Hollywood.
When Sabelhaus did move, he cashed in that favor. Only after he arrived in California did he realize how big a favor it was. "I didn't know who the players were in town," Sabelhaus said. "Well, Alan Horn was the head of Warner Bros." As Sabelhaus sat down in Horn's office, Horn mentioned that Arnold Schwarzenegger had sat in the same chair the previous day. "Great," Sabelhaus thought to himself. "What am I doing in this chair?" Sabelhaus knew asking for a job would be silly. Instead, he used his few minutes with Horn to ask what steps he needed to take to break into the business.
Armed with a blueprint, Sabelhaus took an unpaid internship at Village Roadshow Pictures. Though the work was menial, it wasn't without its perks. At the time, Village Roadshow was producing Ocean's Eleven. So every day after work, Sabelhaus and his fellow interns settled in to watch dailies featuring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts and Andy Garcia.
Later, Sabelhaus landed the job that would put him on the path to becoming a producer. Lauren Shuler Donner, the producer of St. Elmo's Fire, Any Given Sunday, the X-Men franchise and more than two-dozen other films, hired Sabelhaus as her assistant. The job, Donner said, is all-encompassing. Sabelhaus helped coordinate Donner's schedule. He helped her deal with every aspect of production. He also had to occasionally walk Donner's new puppy, Leo, who chewed up Sabelhaus' BlackBerry one slobbery day. "From the best to the worst," Donner said. "What can I say?"
Sabelhaus worked for Donner on three films, X-Men: The Last Stand, She's the Man and Constantine. "One of the reasons I hired him was because he was a quarterback and because he had that athletic history," Donner said. "It showed me he was a leader. It showed me he wouldn't be shy. It showed me he would be confident."
Donner was impressed with Sabelhaus, and she hopes he can follow in the footsteps of Donner assistant alumni such as Scott Stuber, who wound up becoming Universal's vice chairman of worldwide production before opening his own production company, and Nina Jacobson, who worked as an executive at Dreamworks, Universal and Disney and who will produce the upcoming Hunger Games trilogy. "It is the best preparation," Donner said. "He understands negotiating with agents, talking to studios, talking to talent, the hard, long process of development. ... It's the best education you can have."
After Sabelhaus left Donner, he teamed up with Zaozirny, whose background is in screenwriting. Zaozirny said it helps that he and Sabelhaus have similar sensibilities. "We both think Die Hard is one of the greatest movies ever made," Zaozirny said, without a trace of irony. Unlike actors, who typically downplay the commercial in favor of the erudite in interviews regardless of IMDB résumé, producers can appreciate the artistic value of a film that has mass appeal. "If you can do a commercial project that connects with people," Zaozirny said, "that's the best of both worlds."
Cristo, Sabelhaus and Zaozirny hope, is one such project. Depending on who is chosen to direct and star -- if it gets greenlit -- the budget might close in on nine figures. Because Sabelhaus and Zaozirny haven't brought a movie to the screen before, Warner Bros. partnered Sabelhaus and Zaozirny with Kevin McCormick, who produced the recent Arthur remake and the upcoming The Gangster Squad. "We can get the ball to the 10-yard line," Sabelhaus said. "Someone else has to punch it in."
Cristo is one of about a dozen projects Sabelhaus and Zaozirny have in development at the moment, but it is the closest to becoming a silver screen reality. In 2011, Cristo made The Black List, a compilation of the most intriguing unmade screenplays in Hollywood. Still, Sabelhaus knows projects can get derailed for any number of reasons. "We could go into production in a year," he said. "Or we could go into production in five years. Or we could never go into production. That's why you've got to have a lot of things going."
Sabelhaus has made a name for himself in Hollywood, but Zaozirny said sometimes the name draws an inkling of recognition. Zaozirny estimates that about one in five people he and Sabelhaus deal with in the movie business are big sports fans. Some connect the dots.
Sabelhaus still marvels at the number of people who remember him as a recruiting cautionary tale. Last year, Sabelhaus traveled to France with his fiancée, Kate Jackson. While in Aix-en-Provence, Sabelhaus and Jackson encountered another couple, and the conversation turned to football. The husband had planned to retire to his room to try to find the Florida game on the Web. Sabelhaus, who still has the physique and chiseled jaw of a quarterback, mentioned he had spent some time in Gainesville. The man asked his name. Sabelhaus told him. The man was taken aback for a moment. Then he smiled. "Man, if you hadn't played for Spurrier," he said, "you'd still be playing in the NFL." Sabelhaus laughed. "I don't know if that's true," Sabelhaus said. "But you just made my day."
Sabelhaus said he wouldn't trade his football experience because of what it taught him. He could have let the Bust label ruin his life; instead, he created an entirely new life. "It was a blessing, in a lot of ways, that I had that failure at that age," Sabelhaus said. "Because it taught me so much about life. It taught me that you can work hard, and you might take a few steps back. You might fall on your face. But get up."
Someday, strangers may recognize Sabelhaus more from coverage in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter than from coverage in SuperPrep. Needless to say, he didn't enter Hollywood with such high expectations. TheWrap.com is beta-testing its Power Grid, which ranks the various players in Hollywood. Consider it a Rivals.com for moviemakers. (Or consider it further confirmation of the absurdity of society's incessant desire to rank everything.) Donner, for example, is the No. 24 producer -- a definite five-star. Sabelhaus is ranked No. 3,310. Donner believes her former assistant is destined to rise. "I expect him to have a big hit movie," Donner said. "I'll be first in line, too."
Of course, Sabelhaus knows he'll always remain linked to his football past. It came rushing back again during the NFL's conference championship weekend. Sabelhaus, a die-hard fan of his hometown Baltimore Ravens, saw his team's Super Bowl dreams ruined by Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. "Brady," Sabelhaus spat. "He won't leave my life. He's the bane of my existence."