Invitation Only For a handpicked group of the nation's top high school quarterbacks, the Elite 11 camp offered a taste of the big time--and a whiff of controversy

Aug. 05, 2002
Aug. 05, 2002

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Aug. 5, 2002

Invitation Only For a handpicked group of the nation's top high school quarterbacks, the Elite 11 camp offered a taste of the big time--and a whiff of controversy

Here is Nirvana for a high school quarterback: five days of
coaching and counseling by former pro and current college
passers at a serene, mission-style center near what is billed as
the Riviera of the Pacific. Trips to an Anaheim Angels game, Del
Mar racetrack, Laguna Beach and the oceanfront home of Tampa Bay
Buccaneers quarterback Rob Johnson. And following a brief
welcome to the San Diego Chargers' training camp by quarterback
Drew Brees, diminutive 1984 Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie
walks over to chat with the visiting teens. "When I was your
age, I had a scholarship offer from New Hampshire," Flutie, 39
and the Chargers' starter last season, says to the 12 wide-eyed
quarterbacks circled around him. "Then two guys who Boston
College was after went to other schools, so I was offered a
scholarship." Flutie looks up at the 12, all at least five
inches taller and not even half his age, and adds, "But I guess
you guys can go to any school you want."

This is an article from the Aug. 5, 2002 issue Original Layout

Before Flutie stood perhaps the finest senior quarterbacks in
the country--the 2002 class of the Elite 11 Quarterback Camp. In
its fourth year the camp, held at the foot of the coastal hills
in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., has become the most talked about
summer activity in high school football, a hot topic among
players, coaches, agents and, recently, NCAA officials. Fourteen
former Elite 11 campers, in fact, are listed as starters or
second-string quarterbacks at Division I-A schools this fall,
including Florida State's Chris Rix and Tennessee's Casey
Clausen. Also, nine former camp counselors, including Brees,
David Carr and Kurt Kittner, are in the NFL. "When I go back
home, tell my friends where I've been and who I've met...they'll
think I'm big," says Jamarcus Russell of Williamson High in
Mobile, who is also a major college basketball prospect.

Bob Johnson, a longtime California high school coach and father
of the Bucs' quarterback, and Andy Bark, founder of the
marketing and media company Student Sports Inc., dreamed up the
Elite 11 while they were running Nike's spring high school
football combines around the country. Based on what they see at
the Nike camps, plus input from Student Sports Inc. researchers
and recommendations from college coaches, Johnson and Bark
select the campers in late spring--in their judgment, the 11
best quarterbacks in the country, plus one project.

Johnson runs the camp, makes the training schedule and provides
most of the coaching and classroom instruction. A dozen
sponsors, including EA Sports and PowerBar, cover the cost of
running the camp as well as all the expenses of the
participants. "It's an awesome experience for the high school
kids," says Cal quarterback Kyle Boller, a counselor last week
along with Wisconsin's Brooks Bollinger and USC's Carson Palmer.
"They get to be friends with guys they will be competing against
in the future. And breaking down film and talking to college
players and pros is stuff most high school players never get to

Parents lobby Johnson at the Nike camps on behalf of their sons,
and college coaches call him to push for their top high school
recruits. Kyle Wright of Monte Vista High in Danville, Calif.,
was plucked from the Nike combine at USC in April. "Kyle
probably wouldn't have gone to the Nike camps," said his mother,
Kathy, "but he wanted to make the Elite 11."

"The [Elite 11] camp is all about marketing," says Purdue
offensive coordinator Jim Chaney, whose sophomore quarterback,
Kyle Orton, is an Elite 11 alumnus. "It's become prestigious. If
you get a verbal [commitment] from a quarterback attending that
camp, it's a big deal."

The camp has helped Johnson and his oldest son, Bret, who played
quarterback at UCLA, Michigan State and briefly in the CFL, move
to the forefront of a growth industry. Tutoring high school
quarterbacks is big business in California. In addition to the
Elite 11 camp the Johnsons also provide individual coaching to
quarterbacks 13 years and older in three-hour sessions that cost
$100 per session. Their competition in Southern California
includes former San Jose State quarterback Steve Clarkson, who
runs the Pasadena-based Air 7 academy. The business is spreading
to the rest of the country as well. Stacey Bailey, Clarkson's
ex-roommate at San Jose State and a former wide receiver for the
Atlanta Falcons, started a tutoring business outside Atlanta two
years ago.

The Johnsons, who get calls from parents of children as young as
seven, will branch out next summer, staging nearly a dozen
regional workouts leading up to the Elite 11. "It will enable us
to see more kids and spend more time with them," says Bob, the
Mission Viejo High coach who celebrated his 57th birthday last
week by picking up pizzas for the campers. "I love kids, and I
love teaching the passing game. We are shopping the nation for

Some have accused Johnson of shopping on behalf of others,
notably prominent NFL agent David Dunn. Based 20 miles up the
coast, in Newport Beach, Dunn, who split with fellow agent Leigh
Steinberg early in 2001, represents Rob Johnson and has paid
Rob's father to train clients such as Kittner, formerly of
Illinois and now an Atlanta Falcons' rookie, and Joey
Harrington, formerly of Oregon and now in his first year with
the Detroit Lions. Steinberg was guest speaker at the first
Elite 11 camp, and last year Dunn joined campers for lunch at
Rob Johnson's house. In addition Bob Johnson accompanied Dunn on
the agent's recruiting visit to Fresno State (Johnson's alma
mater) to court Carr, who ended up signing with agent Mike

Dunn's rivals claim that Bob is a white-collar, suburban version
of the runners that agents use to attract inner-city athletes.
Their theory is that Dunn's access to Elite 11 participants and
the relationships the Johnsons build with quarterbacks and their
parents, as well as with the college players who serve as camp
counselors, help Dunn procure clients. Dunn landed at least one
Elite 11 assistant from each of the first three camps (Chris
Redman, A.J. Feeley and Kittner, respectively). But, as Bob
Johnson points out, Dunn failed to land the big-money
counselors: Brees in 2000 and Carr last year. "All of that talk
is so stupid," Johnson says. "I don't care who kids sign with."
(Dunn could not be reached for comment.)

Bark, a former Air Force and Cal wide receiver, says the Elite 11
has never violated NCAA rules and as a precaution will not permit
an agent to speak at the camp again. However, Bill Saum, the
NCAA's director of agents, gambling and amateurism, says that in
the coming months his organization will review these issues with
Elite 11 organizers to insure that athletes did not receive
improper benefits from agents. "At this time there are not any
violations, just questions we would like answered," says Saum.
"You worry that some of the camp is based on the theory of, Let's
develop relationships with the athletes. We're concerned anytime
student-athletes are associating with sports agents."

The hint of impropriety may have scared off some college
quarterbacks. According to two sources Clausen, a camper in 1999,
did not accept an invitation to return as a counselor this year,
because Tennessee coaches advised against it. "Previously,
schools might not have known much about the camp and what
relationships there might be," Saum says. "But now they've
started hearing the rumors and asking questions." (Tennessee
declined comment.)

If the Elite 11 loses its college counselors, much of what makes
the camp beneficial to the high schoolers will vanish. Bob and
Bret Johnson know football, but they can't satisfy the curiosity
of kids nervous about the adjustment to college life. One
evening last week Wisconsin's Bollinger counseled Wright,
Michael Affleck of Timpview High in Provo, Utah, and Robert Lane
of Neville High in Monroe, La., on an all-too-important college
decision: Should I buy a motorized scooter to get around campus?
"I had a blue one, a little Smurfette, but it got stolen,"
Bollinger said. "Guys steal them in Madison, take them for a
joyride and then dump them. But they are great because you can
park them anywhere." Earlier in the day Bollinger and USC's
Palmer had delivered another message to campers. During passing
drills the college passers' velocity seemed twice that of the
high schoolers', and the older quarterbacks excelled in the
accuracy competitions as well. "You see how far you have to go,"
Lane said.

The consensus, however, was that one player doesn't have too far
to go. Wright, 6'3" and 190 pounds, starred during the two-hour,
heavily scripted throwing sessions each morning. With his blond
hair shaved close and his light-blue eyes, Wright looks very
much the California quarterback. The product of 100 drop-back
passes a day since the seventh grade, he won the accuracy
competition last Thursday and then tied counselors Boller and
Palmer in a second competition the next day. In daily chalk
talks he didn't provide a wrong answer. During one session he
answered a difficult question from Palmer about "high-lowing" a
linebacker (sending receivers in front of and behind a
linebacker in zone coverage and then hitting the receiver left
uncovered) so perfectly that the class broke out in applause.
With USC rumored to be Wright's school of choice (Miami, Florida
State, Tennessee and Texas are also on his short list), Palmer
might have been preparing his successor.

During the chalk talks the high schoolers acted like football
nerds finally allowed into an advanced-placement course. They
nodded as Bob Johnson spewed quarterback speak ("Cincy rout,"
"read smash," "cover two beaters," "comeback flat") and often
remarked, after Johnson pointed out a weakness in a defense,
that their high school programs had been executing certain
offensive sets incorrectly. Johnson's teaching style is strictly
run-and-shoot. A typical monologue, spoken while he paced the
room barefoot, red-faced and sweating profusely: "Chris
Palmer.... You know him. Used to be Cleveland's coach.... Raw
deal there.... He was Rob's, my son's, position coach.... You
should see his charts. See these pens, these two colored pens?
He's got like 10 colors.... He's a genius.... You should see his
charts. It's like something out of an anatomy class....
Amazing." The players loved it when Johnson answered a question
about three-step drops during one session with, "You're not
going to get sacked on a three-step drop unless you play for
Buffalo"--a dig at Rob's old team. Johnson would have talked
well past the 11 p.m. lights out on Thursday if allowed, but an
EA Sports-sponsored video-game tournament scheduled for that
evening got the players out after 45 minutes.

A running joke during many chalk talks came at the expense of
Lane, who, given the choice, would tuck the ball and run.
Sturdier than Wright at 6'3" and 210 pounds, Lane carries
himself much like his hero, Brett Favre, with a similar gait and
a desire to improvise on almost every play. Also rated among the
top 10 high school baseball prospects in the country, Lane
called Cleveland Browns quarterback Josh Booty recently to
discuss a decision Lane will face next year: whether to take pro
baseball dollars as a third baseman or go to a college (LSU is
the leader) where he can play football too. (Booty recommended
that he try to play both sports.) Lane will make up his mind
before Oct. 1, he says, "because that's the start of
deer-hunting season."

On Thursday night counselor Bollinger watched the finals of the
video-game tournament (won by Chris Leak of Independence High in
Charlotte) and compared the Elite 11 to the high-stakes Nike and
Adidas basketball camps, which college coaches swarm over.
Bollinger then paused and offered a key distinction: "Those
camps are for the coaches. This camp is for the kids."

FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH PICK OF THE LITTER Among the young guns trying to impress coach Johnson (left) at the five-day California camp were (from far left) Russell, Lane and--most impressive of all--Wright.COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER THE COMMODITIES MARKET College stars Brees (top), Carr (center) and Kittner were all Elite 11 counselors, but Dunn, the agent with ties to Johnson, signed only Kittner.COLOR PHOTO: RONALD MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: AMY SANCETTA/AP [See caption above]TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH SOMETHING TO WRITE HOME ABOUT Meeting Heisman winner Flutie was almost as big a kick for the gang as witnessing a fellow camper toss a football into a trash can from 35 yards away.
"We're concerned anytime student-athletes are associating with
agents," says the NCAA's Saum.