|ESPN.com: NFL Draft 2011||[Print without images]|
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Two men whose lives are about to dramatically change met a couple of weeks ago. One wears a fading red T-shirt that says MULES, and marvels at the concept of an indoor practice facility; the other will soon make enough money to buy his own stadium. Jamorris Warren is making a prediction. He says Blaine Gabbert will be the No. 1 overall pick next month in the NFL draft.
Warren, mind you, is no talent evaluator. He was a self-described slacker in high school who wound up catching footballs at Division II Central Missouri. There are more than 300 draft-eligible wide receivers, and Warren is buried somewhere in the 80s. Two weeks ago, his phone rang, and it was a representative from an agency that seeks only the elite athletes. A representative calling on Gabbert's behalf. See, Gabbert was in a pinch. His school, Missouri, had no senior receivers, and the NFL lockout prevented former teammates who are current NFL players from helping Gabbert on his pro day. The QB needed some targets and quick connections, so for five days, Warren and three other wideouts met with Gabbert at Missouri's Dan Devine Indoor Pavilion -- four no-name receivers and one multimillion-dollar arm.
|Blaine Gabbert throws for NFL scouts earlier this month in Columbia, Mo.|
Gabbert and Warren became fast friends. Warren likes to call him "B." Blaine would do anything for him, Warren says, and that makes a receiver want to do everything for a quarterback.
His long blond locks are boy-bandish, but Gabbert's words come straight from a coach's mouth. "Be perfect," Gabbert would say in the huddle after every workout. "We're going to come out here and light it up and have fun!" And last week, in front of 125 NFL personnel types and roughly a dozen curious onlookers who had their faces pressed against the glass outside, Warren made Gabbert look very good. He made a couple of spectacular catches, including a one-handed sideline grab near a wall that Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was leaning against. Four scouts pulled Warren aside for interviews.
"You know how most guys would be bigheaded?" Warren said. "They really wouldn't talk to small-school guys. I mean, he's totally the opposite. He's a great dude. I can't say enough about him. Five days It seems like we've been knowing each other for longer than that."
So here's what we know about one of the most unknown commodities of this year's draft: He improvises. He's methodical. Gabbert wore a baseball cap pulled backward for his entire workout. He wiped himself with a towel, though it didn't seem like he sweated much.
He's been rehearsing for this for nearly half of his life.
The quintessential Blaine Gabbert story hasn't really been written, and that's seemingly the way he wants it. He is the anti-Cam Newton, with no known father scandals and no "entertainer and icon" quotes uttered to magazine writers. His answers are short and carefully thought out. His Twitter account is littered with not-so-revealing tweets about grilling out, working out and hanging out at fishing ponds.
He has dated the same girl, a point guard on the Mizzou women's basketball team, for roughly two years; his life revolves around football preparation.
Sometimes, when he's mobbed by reporters seeking sound bites, Gabbert has been known to repeat a question back to them.
Hey Blaine, what sets you apart from other quarterbacks?
"What does?" Gabbert says. "Do you know what does?"
He's not revealing, and isn't afraid to admit it. People close to Gabbert say it's probably a product of being in the spotlight for years, of being the blue-chip prospect in high school and spending his teenage years with microphones crammed in his face. Maybe his idyllic childhood in suburban St. Louis doesn't make for great copy. Gabbert doesn't care.
"I definitely wouldn't say I'm perfect in any way, shape or form," Gabbert said. "I was raised by two great parents. I really just try to show my true personality. I'm not going to put on a facade for anybody. I'm not going to pretend I'm somebody else.
"I just say what's on my mind, and I guess if that comes off as politically correct 'perfect,' so it may be. But I just really try to bring my true personality, because at the end of the day, that's going to get you the farthest."
|Blaine Gabbert led Missouri's fourth-quarter run against Oklahoma last fall.|
He's been working on these answers, really, since the eighth grade. That's when he started to grow big and tall and his dad, Chuck, asked if he was serious about football and wanted some help. "Absolutely," Blaine said. So the Gabberts invested in a personal trainer for their oldest boy. Two years later, Gabbert and his brother Tyler started doing individual work with a quarterback specialist named Skip Stitzell.
Stitzell stood near the doorway at Gabbert's pro day last week, right next to Chuck Gabbert and the rest of the village that it took to build this first-round specimen. Stitzell lives in the small rural town of Fayette, Mo., and drove 200 miles every other week to spend two hours with Gabbert. Stitzell never played college football. But he trained and traveled to hone his craft, and has tutored 23 Division I quarterbacks.
"He was probably 6-foot-3 [at 15]," Stitzell said. "I went to the Ohio State Nike camp, and I can remember a couple of coaches asking me, 'Who's the big kid from Ballwin, Mo.?' Because at the time, nobody knew who he was.
"You're not going to outwork him, and he's just been God blessed by having that size and athleticism and speed."
Quarterback, it seems, was always in Blaine's blood. He was a toddler when Chuck would take him to see Blaine's uncle Scott play quarterback for Southern Illinois. Chuck also played quarterback in high school before blowing out his knee. Tyler is now competing to replace Blaine as the starter at Mizzou.
All of them yearned to have the physical tools that Blaine possesses. He's 6-5 and 235 pounds with a strong arm and speed. He was raised in a nurturing family and says he never felt pressured to play any sport.
"We've always said you have to work and create your own good luck," Chuck Gabbert said. "And hard work and discipline create good luck."
He was planning for this at 18. It was summertime, and his freshman year at Missouri hadn't even started. Gabbert asked if he could room with Chase Daniel, because Daniel was the starting quarterback and town superstar. Daniel taught him how to manage the position, how to watch game film, how to prepare himself for the highest level.
Gabbert always had a plan, and in 2008 it was to secure the team's No. 2 quarterback job as a true freshman. Oh, Gabbert still showed occasional signs of being a kid. He was, in fact, human.
"It's funny," Tigers offensive coordinator David Yost said. "There's not, like, one story with Blaine. Everybody had a Brad Smith story and a Chase Daniel story.
|Gabbert is considered the top quarterback prospect by some scouting analysts.|
"When Blaine was younger, some of the unfiltered things he'd say in meetings he said what he thought. Chase Daniel would sit there and shake his head and go, 'He has no filter. What he thinks, he says it.' But he steadily figured it out. He's grown up a lot. He's a man now. When he got here, he was a young kid."
Gabbert did rise up the depth chart as a freshman, and eventually earned spot playing time. In 2009, with Daniel gone, Gabbert won the starting job and completed 262 of 445 passes for 3,593 yards, 24 touchdowns and nine interceptions. It was the third-highest single passing total in school history. And Gabbert followed it up with 3,186 yards and 16 touchdowns (and nine more interceptions) in 2010.
There would be knocks on the junior's NFL readiness, the most notable one pointing at Mizzou's system. The Tigers run a spread offense, with Gabbert operating out of the shotgun formation. But he had experience in a pro-style offense in high school and has been tutored by Stitzell on five-step drops and playing under center.
And Gabbert, 21, spent this winter with another coach who knows a little about NFL quarterbacks. He trained for 10 weeks with former Chiefs assistant Terry Shea, who mentored Josh Freeman and Matthew Stafford before the 2009 draft. Both quarterbacks are NFL starters. Last year, Shea worked with eventual No. 1 pick Sam Bradford, who was a major success in his rookie season with the St. Louis Rams.
Shea spent roughly 75 hours in the classroom with Gabbert and said the quarterback has tremendous recall. He scoffs at the notion that Gabbert, to some, might come across as a bit too polished.
"He's been trained some," Shea said. "I know his father had him work on certain features of being a quarterback, but he also played baseball. It wasn't like he was programmed to become this robot and you just feed him the info. Blaine's been pretty balanced, but he's pretty fluid.
"He carries himself with confidence, and Sam Bradford had a real air about him, as well. Sam was he obviously was his own guy. Blaine carries himself well too, and I think that's what is going to win over the NFL huddle. When he steps into that huddle for the first week of preparations, he's going to win those guys over."
In a slightly revealing moment, Gabbert said he does think about being the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. It's the competitive side of him that wants it. His quarterback side keeps him from saying very much more.
Because he has prepared for this moment since middle school, Gabbert has thought a lot about what it takes to be a quarterback. It takes poise and restraint and some occasional bland answers. It's not about being an entertainer, he says.
"You're the face of the football team," Gabbert said, "and it doesn't matter if it's fifth-grade football or Division I college football or in the National Football League. You have to carry yourself differently than the other players because you are responsible for them."
But it's about more than that. Scott Gabbert talked to his nephew last fall about the future, and Blaine told him if he was projected to go in the first round of the 2011 draft, he'd probably forgo his senior season. It was somewhat of a bold move. The lockout was looming, and Stanford superstar Andrew Luck was mulling leaving early too. (Luck later decided to stay.) But Gabbert, as always, was stone-faced confident. "You know why?" Blaine told his uncle about why he'd do it. "Because I'm better than everybody else."
He didn't say it to slight anyone, Scott says. He said it because he believes it. Gabbert will put his skills up against anyone else. Has anyone prepared like he has?
On Tuesday night, Gabbert had 10 minutes to talk on the phone before he headed to a late-night meeting. His testing is over, but the work is just beginning. He has met with the Vikings and Panthers, who hold the No. 1 pick. He had a private workout with a large contingent from Arizona on Wednesday. Gabbert wouldn't dare wax on about how he thinks it all will go.
How do you think it will go?
"I consider myself pretty low-key. That's how you want to be," Gabbert said. "The less you're talked about, the better it is."Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.