GAINESVILLE, Ga. -- When Alabama senior Blake Sims reported to the Mastrole Passing Academy in South Florida this past spring, quarterback guru Ken Mastrole saw an unpolished passer with a lot of natural ability but little refinement.
"He was kind of raw," said Mastrole, a former Maryland quarterback who played in NFL Europe and the Arena Football League and recently tutored NFL quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Teddy Bridgewater. "It was about like taking a raw piece of clay and trying to mold him physically and mentally."
It doesn't take very long to figure out that many people had a hand in molding Sims, who will lead No. 3 Alabama into Saturday's SEC West showdown against No. 11 Ole Miss at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Mississippi.
Along the way, he was told he wouldn't make the grades to be a college football player, was told during recruiting by a rival coach, Tennessee's Lane Kiffin, that he'd have a better shot at starting for the Volunteers. Then, after arriving in Tuscaloosa, he patiently waited his turn for a shot at the starting job.
But he always leaned on his network of support. At his parents' house in Gainesville earlier this week, there were 11 people waiting to share their stories about him.
There is Sonny Sims, his jovial father, who worked the graveyard shift at a steel plant and slept on gym mats between taxiing his son to football workouts and basketball practices. There is Toni Sims, his stepmother, who seems to have documented every one of her son's accomplishments in scrapbooks and photographs, going all the way back to the first time he struck the Heisman Trophy pose in the driveway of their suburban Atlanta home when he was only 5 or 6 years old. Sims is still very close to his biological mother, Bernice Dorsey, as well.
There is Joyce Richardson, his 69-year-old paternal grandmother, who still gets a phone call from her grandson nearly every morning and then has to restrain herself from calling into ESPN personality Paul Finebaum's radio show while listening every day (she isn't among Pawwwl's biggest fans). There are Deanna and Will Carter, who became Sims' godparents after his family moved to Gainesville, and their 12-year-old son Joe, who is perhaps his biggest fan and one of the first people he calls after every Alabama game.
Sitting among the people closest to Sims are a few of the coaches who molded him into a quarterback in youth football, middle school and high school. The large group of people in his parents' home doesn't even include Tonya Aiken and Allison Worley, two of his former Gainesville High School teachers, who spent more than a year and a half helping Sims become academically eligible, after one of his former high school coaches told him he'd never become anything "but a juco quarterback."
If Mastrole provided the finishing touches to what has become one of the most unlikely early success stories of the college football season, Sims' family, former coaches, teachers and friends helped shape him over more than two decades, molding him with patience, discipline and encouragement while others doubted him.
Indeed, if it truly takes a village to raise a child, it took a large extended family to fashion the Crimson Tide's quarterback into who he is today.
"That's what Blake had -- a village," Sonny Sims said. "From his coaches to his friends, everybody has been good to him and he's been good to us. It took all of us to get him to where he is today. God just kept sending people into his life. I'm probably the richest poor man you'll ever meet."
Sims, who spent the previous two seasons as former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron's backup, wasn't supposed to be his successor. For a long while, Alabama's coaches didn't even know what to do with him. After signing with the Crimson Tide, Sims spent his first couple of seasons bouncing between safety, slot receiver, running back and then finally quarterback.
After McCarron exhausted his college eligibility last season, Sims was the Crimson Tide's only returning quarterback with game experience. But Alabama's coaches were so unsure of his ability to lead the Crimson Tide that they brought in Florida State transfer Jake Coker, who backed up reigning Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston last season, to compete with Sims for the vacant starting job.
Since Coker had already earned an undergraduate degree from FSU, he was eligible to play for the Tide immediately this season. Coker was considered the favorite to win the starting position before he ever stepped foot on the Alabama campus. Sims, who completed 18 of 29 passes for 167 yards with two touchdowns in eight games last season, was widely considered as nothing more than an insurance policy.
"I was really worried for him," said Bruce Miller, Sims' coach at Gainesville High School. "I was worried he'd stuck around for five years and the big break wouldn't happen."
It was nothing new for Sims, who has faced doubts throughout his football career. After Sims started at quarterback as a freshman and sophomore at Cass High School in Cartersville, Georgia, college recruiters began noticing him. When Sims asked one of his coaches for the recruiting letters, according to his father, the coach told him that the colleges were wasting their time because he was "nothing more than a juco quarterback."
After Sims told his father about the incident, the family moved to Gainesville, about 55 miles northeast of Atlanta, so he could run a spread offense at Gainesville High.
"It was like slapping a kid in the face," Miller said.
After transferring to Gainesville High, Sims passed for 2,785 yards and ran for 822 with 49 total touchdowns as a junior in 2008. The next season, he passed for 2,288 yards with 28 touchdowns and ran for 863 yards, leading the Red Elephants to the Class AAA state championship game. Trailing Peach County High 13-6 in the final seconds of the championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, Sims threw a 25-yard touchdown on the last play of regulation. The Red Elephants went for a two-point conversion and victory, but Sims' pass was tipped and they lost, 13-12.
"I felt like I left something unfinished," Sims said. "I felt like I owed something to the people back in Gainesville."
By then, Sims had been committed to play football at Alabama for more than a year. But their impending nuptials had one hiccup along the way. A couple of days after the Crimson Tide defeated Texas 37-21 at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 7, 2010, to win the first of their three national championships under coach Nick Saban, Sims backed off his verbal commitment to Alabama. Kiffin, then the Tennessee coach, had worked his recruiting magic, convincing Sims that he was a perfect fit to run his offense and would be given an opportunity to start under center.
About a week after Sims reopened his commitment, Kiffin and Tennessee assistant Ed Orgeron made an in-home recruiting visit to seal the deal.
"Kiffin was in our house for like seven hours," Sonny Sims said. "He never left our couch. He even ate fried chicken with us."
The next day, Kiffin announced he was leaving Tennessee to become USC's coach. He called Sonny and asked if Blake would go to Los Angeles with him.
"What?" Sonny asked him. "No, Coach, he's not going that far away from home."
When Sonny broke the news to his son, Blake said, "Daddy, call Coach Saban."
"I was glad it happened because Blake was depressed," Sonny said. "He grew up knowing that his word was his bond. He told Coach Saban that he made a mistake. There were schools where he could have started right away, but he made a commitment to Alabama. Blake bought into the whole Alabama thing."
Still, Saban had to convince Joe Carter that Alabama was the right place for Blake. As Blake sat in Saban's office with his parents and the Carter family during a recruiting visit, Joe, who was only 7 years old at the time, made his way toward Saban as the grown-ups were preparing to leave. Joe's mother is a South Florida native and his uncle is a big Miami Dolphins fan. When Deanna Carter heard her young son ask Saban about leaving the Dolphins after he said he wouldn't, she screamed, "No, Joe!"
"Joe is like the kid on the movie 'The Blind Side,'" said Hunter Sims, Blake's younger brother, who is a highly recruited quarterback at Riverside Military Academy in Gainesville. "Joe is always looking out for Blake."
Joe wasn't the only one looking out for Blake's best interests. When Sims arrived at Gainesville High, he was behind the eight ball in meeting the NCAA's minimum academic standards to play FBS football. Aiken and Worley, two of his teachers, prepared an ambitious plan to help him become eligible, which required him to retake many of the courses that he'd already completed at Cass High School.
"He was very capable, but nobody ever made him do the work," Miller said. "They were only worried about keeping him eligible so he could play."
Aiken and Worley met with Sims every morning and after school during his last two years of high school.
"We were like his second mothers," Aiken said. "We held his nose to the grindstone. He never once said he didn't want to do it and never asked, 'Do we have to do this today?' He really respected the time adults were investing in him. There was no student on this campus taking the workload he was taking."
Worley said Sims failed to show up only once for his academic appointments.
"We had to call his dad," Worley said. "Blake showed up the next day and broke down and cried. It was as if he'd just failed a class. It wasn't that he was getting special treatment. He had a goal and wanted to go to college. It was what he wanted and we were there to support him. It was easy to help him and support him because he wanted it so badly."
After Sims signed a national letter of intent with Alabama on Feb. 3, 2010, it was widely reported that he was in danger of being an academic casualty. Three days later, when Gainesville High's basketball team played an important region game at Flowery Branch High, some of the rival school's students were wearing T-shirts that read: "Sims=JUCO." He scored 24 points in the Red Elephants' 57-47 victory.
"It took everything I had not to go across that floor," said Worley, who was coaching Gainesville High's cheerleaders at the time. "I think I was more upset than Blake. People had no idea how much work he was doing."
Sims earned a bachelor's degree in human environmental sciences from Alabama in May.
"[Aiken and Worley] are very important to me," Blake said. "They're very special ladies in my life, who will always be in my life. There's nothing I can give back to them to thank them for what they did for me. Whenever I got down, they kept me up. They always kept positive things in my mind. They prayed with me. Whenever I was falling off right, they moved me back to the left. They were my motivational speakers."
But the most special lady in Sims' life is his 5-year-old daughter, Kyla. Sims' first girlfriend became pregnant during his senior year at Gainesville High. Sonny Sims said he'd always told his son that he couldn't bring a grandchild into the family unless he was married. So Blake married his girlfriend, Rafaela Souza, before leaving for Alabama. The couple was married for four years, but their long-distance relationship didn't work and they divorced last year. Blake is able to see his daughter on most football weekends and returns to Gainesville whenever he can.
"Her mother and I have a very good relationship," Blake said. "Her mother lets her come see me every chance she gets. She's in good hands with her mother."
After four games, it's clear the Crimson Tide's offense is in good hands, albeit with the quarterback who few expected to win the job. A few weeks after the Crimson Tide's offseason weight program ended, Sims spent his spring break working out at the Mastrole Passing Academy. After tutoring college quarterbacks such as South Carolina's Dylan Thompson, Iowa's Jake Rudock, NC State's Jacoby Brissett and Houston's John O'Korn, Matrole realized Sims was a different kind of student.
After largely sitting for four seasons, Sims had one last chance to win the starting job.
"For a college guy like Blake, who's going into his last year, you can only make tweaks and slight adjustments," Mastrole said. "He had the natural throwing path, but we had to synch everything up on alignment to where he could do it on a consistent basis and do it smooth."
Over spring break and two more weeks during the summer, Sims spent as much time with Mastrole working in the film room as he did on the practice field. Mastrole worked with Sims to polish his footwork, balance and throwing motion. Mastrole taught Sims how to open his hips and face his receiving targets to create lag in his throwing motion, kind of like how a golfer swings a club to compress a golf ball.
"He was kind of tucked away as a backup quarterback playing behind AJ McCarron," Mastrole said. "People kind of looked at him as a skilled athlete, and we tried to help him tighten it up to where he could become a quarterback."
Mastrole also spent a lot of time working on Sims' pocket presence, so he wouldn't become stressed when defenders pressured him.
"I told him he had to be like the guy in a burning building," Mastrole said. "A lot of people are panicking, and you can't panic. You have to know where the exits are to get them out of there."
When Alabama's preseason camp opened in early August, the Crimson Tide's coaches saw a completely different quarterback.
"I knew my team didn't doubt me," Sims said. "That was the main thing. I wanted to show them that I was capable of being their leader and could lead them to victories. I knew once I got on the field, I was going to be a positive leader and fulfill my role."
As Sims battled Coker for the starting job throughout preseason camp, it was pretty clear who was winning, at least to their teammates.
"I think from the spring game until now, Blake has been a competitor," Alabama center Ryan Kelly said. "He's been a competitor ever since I've known him. He's been in the film room learning the offense and knows it from a variety of positions. He's a lot like AJ. They're both great leaders in the huddle and know the other guys in the huddle are more important than them. They're both selfless leaders."
And Sims has turned out to be a pretty good quarterback, too. After completing better than 70 percent of his passes in Alabama's first three games, Sims completed 23 of 33 passes for 445 yards with four touchdowns and one interception in the Crimson Tide's 42-21 victory over Florida on Sept. 20. It was only the second 400-yard passing game in Alabama's storied history; Scott Hunter threw for 484 yards against Auburn in 1969.
"It's like the light went on for him," Sonny Sims said.
Part of that could be the tutelage of Kiffin, who took over this year as Alabama's offensive coordinator. Sims has a comfort level with Kiffin, the coach who assured him he could be a college quarterback -- for Tennessee, ironically enough.
"I'm glad he's here," Sims said. "He's a great coach and I already had a relationship with him."
A few hours after the Florida game, Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart, who recruited Sims for Alabama, sent a text message to former Gainesville High offensive coordinator Todd Wofford, who is now the head coach at Central Gwinnett High in Lawrenceville, Georgia.
"Did you ever think your boy would set a passing record here?" Smart asked him.
"No, I thought he'd probably set a rushing record," Wofford replied.
Even Mastrole was surprised.
"I thought he would do well," Mastrole said. "I thought he had it all together to where he could win the job if he was given a fair opportunity, which is what Alabama has always done. But I'd be lying if I said I thought I'd see the performance I saw against Florida. He has exceeded my expectations."
Sonny Sims, who has always been his son's biggest supporter, can't help but smile about his success, even if it was a long time in the making. Alabama was one more set of hands in the process of molding Sims.
"He's taken a little bit from all of us," Sonny said. "He knows the only way he's going to thank us is to have a successful life. I sent a boy to Alabama and they sent me back a man. I know if my son doesn't play another down of football, he is set for life."