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Friday, August 16, 2013
A unique journey to the top

By Mitch Sherman
ESPN.com

Four days ago, David Cornwell and his Norman (Okla.) North teammates opened football practice in search of the Oklahoma large-school title that has eluded every program but two Tulsa-area powers since 1995.

Cornwell, a strong-armed quarterback, sits 32nd in the ESPN 300. He's a cornerstone in Alabama's top-rated class of 2014 recruits. At 6-foot-5, 241 pounds and as the No. 2-rated pocket passer nationally, he is difficult to overlook -- an imposing figure on the football landscape.

Two years ago, he was a kid without a team or a school, at the bedside of his mother and yet to take a varsity snap, save for a couple in 2010 doing mop-up duty at Omaha (Neb.) Millard South.

Cornwell has the look of an overnight success.

"A lot of people think that," said David's mom, Debbie.

A lot of people are wrong.

No one in this age of advanced scouting, specialized training and warp-speed communication can emerge entirely from the dark. Everyone has a story. Every prospect endures a journey. Cornwell's journey, from Nebraska to Florida, through a fight for his eligibility in Oklahoma and a commitment to Alabama, rates about as unorthodox as any.

"I've been so many places," he said, "but I always take the positive memories. And I've always had that focus. Even when nobody else thought it could happen, I always knew I could play college football."

*   *   *

Cornwell was born in Omaha on Oct. 20, 1994, in the midst of Nebraska's run to the first of three national titles in four years.

Early on, doctors and teachers told Debbie and her husband, Ron, to get David into sports. He was strong and athletic and landed in the 95 percentile or above on the growth charts. Ron obliged. He took David, then a middle-schooler, to the Manning Passing Academy. He hired coaches to train him.

When his son wanted to collapse on the couch at night and watch TV, Ron suggested he first jump rope 1,000 times.

"I saw the commitment and ability when he was little," Ron Cornwell said. "Sometimes, those things materialize when you get older. Sometimes, they don't."

David frequented Nebraska's Memorial Stadium and idolized Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Eric Crouch. But soon, he wore a Texas cap around home as Ron, born and raised in Stromsburg, Neb., cheered for the Huskers.

A rebellious side didn't slow Cornwell's drive. At Millard South, he quarterbacked the freshman team to a strong season in 2009. Meanwhile, the varsity squad, led by senior quarterback Bronson Marsh, finished 13-0 and won the large-school state title at Memorial Stadium.

Cornwell tried to model himself after Marsh, a physical QB who broke Scott Frost's state passing-yardage records and went to Nebraska as a grayshirt safety.

The spread-option game didn't fit Cornwell's strengths, though.

"He was a good kid, a smart kid," said former Millard South offensive coordinator Trevor Longe, "but you wouldn't have said as a freshman, 'Now, that kid's going to get to the Division-I level.'"

Cornwell, still only about 6-1, played primarily on the junior varsity as a sophomore. Then, in January 2011, the family moved to Florida, uprooted by Ron's job as a corporate healthcare consultant, and David's journey began to twist.

In Florida, Cornwell never played a game. He attended Ponte Vedra High School in the spring of 2011. It was an adjustment, but he loved the southern culture.

"You've got the beach, pretty girls, football, Chick-fil-A," he said.

And then his mom got sick.

*   *   *

It started in the summer of 2011. Debbie Cornwell had long received treatment for hypothyroidism, a condition in which her thyroid does not produce enough hormone. In Florida, Debbie's doctors mismanaged the ailment, she said, throwing her into a thyroid storm, similar to Graves disease; her thyroid was making too much hormone.

She felt tired but couldn't sleep. She had no appetite and lost 25 pounds in three weeks. Doctors struggled to find an answer.

The low point came when David's brother, Dan, left home to attend college at Furman.

"I was so sick that I didn't even know," Debbie said. "It was really by the grace of God that I didn't die."

With an uncertain future in Florida, the Cornwells considered their next steps. Debbie's health put all of it, including football, on hold, as David stayed home that fall to care for his mother while Ron tried to nurture a delicate situation at work.

Ultimately, Debbie stabilized with the proper medication. And after a year, they moved to Oklahoma City, primarily to accommodate Ron's business.

David enrolled at Jones High School and resumed his bid to gain the attention of college recruiters.

Only now, he stood 6-foot-4.

*   *   *

The first scholarship offer came from Indiana early in the summer that followed his first semester at Jones. Cornwell visited Bloomington for a camp after IU offensive coordinator Seth Littrell learned of Cornwell through Oklahoma-based quarterback coach Joe Dickinson, with whom Cornwell had worked for several years.

"Looking back on it," Cornwell said, "I didn't take it as well as I should have. That's a scholarship offer. A lot of kids would love to have that. I was just like, 'OK, that's part of the plan.'"

David Cornwell
A long high school journey will wind up this fall for David Cornwell at Norman (Okla.) North, where he hopes to lead the TimberWolves to a state title.
More quickly followed. Cornwell nearly fell for Auburn and Michigan during visits last year. He grew to 6-5. His body filled out and he blossomed equally as a quarterback, throwing for 2,742 yards and 27 touchdowns last fall at Jones, which plays in Oklahoma's fourth-largest classification.

Back in Nebraska, Millard South coach Andy Means swallowed hard upon learning of Cornwell's new status.

"Wow," said Means, a former Nebraska defensive back under Tom Osborne. "It was impressive. I kind of had to see it to believe it. I don't know if any of us thought he'd be this good."

Few at Millard South thought Cornwell could match the success of Marsh, the title-winning QB from Cornwell's freshman year.

But as Marsh transferred this year from Nebraska to Division II Nebraska-Kearney to play quarterback, Cornwell earned the first invite among 18 nationally last spring to the Elite 11 finals.

Still, another storm brewed. The Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association denied his request for a fifth season of eligibility. The Cornwells detailed David's obligations as the family struggled in 2011 with Debbie's health. In June, Cornwell won his appeal. A week later, he committed to Alabama.

*   *   *

Cornwell fought to find consistency at the Elite 11 finals in July. As with every stop, he focused on the positive aspects, taking advice from the likes of college quarterbacks Tajh Boyd and Teddy Bridgewater.

Alabama QB AJ McCarron has also served as a mentor. Cornwell talks regularly with Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier, who kept Cornwell informed about the Crimson Tide's activity this month. In particular, Cornwell enjoyed watching on video the speaking appearances at Crimson Tide camp of Joe Girardi, Ray Lewis and Herm Edwards.

He counts the days until January, when he'll enroll early at Alabama.

First, he's got work to complete at Norman North. The Cornwells relocated to Norman last winter, because, well, it wouldn't be a normal year for the family without a move.

"David has great physical ability," Norman North coach Wade Stanley said. "But a lot of people don't realize that he's a great young man and an exceptional leader.

"When you walk on the field and see a player, there are some who just have it. I've not sure what it is or how to define it, but I know he's got it."

Stanley's TimberWolves lost to Jenks High School in the 6A final last December. Maybe Cornwell can put them over the top.

"He's been through a lot of fires," Stanley said, "and I think he's developed a lot of maturity through that."