Stafford stays cool under pressure
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the October 2005 Dallas-Fort Worth issue, 3 1/2 years before the Detroit Lions took Stafford with the No. 1 pick of the 2009 NFL Draft
Some quarterbacks just have "it" -- the poise and composure to lead their teams to victory, no matter what the situation. Sure, a strong arm and speed are nice, but having "it" puts you on a whole other level.
Joe Montana, John Elway and Tom Brady can all be placed in that category. And these days, on the high school level, so can Highland Park (Dallas, Texas) senior quarterback Matthew Stafford, whose favorite player is, fittingly, Elway.
Stafford's ability to lead under pressure, along with his considerable physical talents, are the main reasons why the 6-foot-3, 220-pounder is rated the nation's No. 1 signal caller and No. 10 overall recruit.
Highland Park head coach Randy Allen first got a glimpse of those skills back during Stafford's freshman season. Allen, who is in his seventh year coaching the Scots and 32nd year of coaching overall, put Stafford in the game late during a blowout first-round playoff victory over Sulphur Springs.
During his tenure at Highland Park, Allen usually had a junior quarterback waiting in the wings to take over the following season. But this time, Stafford, who started for the freshman team, was going to be the varsity starter his sophomore year. And that playoff game was Allen's chance to see if Stafford had the goods.
"We only got him in for three plays against Sulphur Springs," says Allen. "He threw it very hard, and you could tell he had some talent. We knew he was going to be the quarterback for the next year, so we wanted to get him some game experience."
Although it was only three plays, that little bit of playing time -- along with some practice experience with the varsity -- did wonders for his confidence.
"It was awesome," says Stafford, who has committed to play his college football at Georgia, where his sister, Page, is currently a freshman. "It was just a good experience. Just going through practice made me feel comfortable for the next year. Even just that little playing time helped me understand the speed of the game, and it slowed things down."
Heading into his sophomore campaign, Stafford felt like he was comfortable running the show for the varsity and was ready to have a big year. But describing his sophomore season as simply "big" would be like saying Terrell Owens sometimes likes to talk.
Exploding onto the scene, Stafford put up monster numbers that even Peyton Manning would be proud of. The sophomore gunslinger completed 173-of-307 passes (56.4 percent) for 3,182 yards, 38 touchdowns and just five interceptions while leading Highland Park to a 13-2 record and the District 12-4A title.
The stats were incredible, but it was the poise and leadership he showed in the pocket that opened many people's eyes. Those traits were especially evident in the Class 4A regional semifinals against Ennis, which was led by quarterback Graham Harrell.
Harrell, who's now at Texas Tech, wasn't any ordinary high school signal caller. He broke the state record for career touchdown passes with 167 and earned a reputation for being a big-game quarterback. With Harrell's impressive resume, no one would have faulted Stafford if he wilted under the pressure.
But Stafford was unfazed and even outplayed Harrell, passing for 403 yards and three touchdowns to lead the Scots to a 38-28 win.
"He had played good in other games," says Allen. "But this was just a game where he made good decisions and showed a strong arm in a real pressure situation."
"We had a good game plan and a really good team around me," adds Stafford. "I tried not to lose the game. For some reason, I really don't get nervous in those situations."
That isn't the only time Stafford has come up big in the clutch. After defeating Ennis in the regional semifinals, Stafford led Highland Park on a two-minute drive toward the end of the game for the winning score against Kilgore in the regional finals, sending the Scots to the state semifinals, where they ultimately lost to Denton Ryan.
Then last season, Highland Park was staring at 4th-and-goal from the 10-yard line and trailing Wylie, 34-28, in a game for the district title. Only 45 seconds remained on the clock, and failure to score would end the game.
Stafford took the snap and was flushed out to the left by the oncoming pass rush. He kept his composure, however, and threw a perfect pass across the field, finding Holt Martin in the back of the end zone to tie the game. The ensuing extra point then gave the Scots a 35-34 victory and the district crown.
"The play didn't work as it was designed," says Allen. "He had to create something, and he made a throw that I think no other high school quarterback could make. I haven't seen anyone make those throws."
The game proved once again that Stafford has ice water in his veins, but it ended up being a bright spot in a tough season. Stafford still put up good numbers (1,748 yards and 18 touchdown passes in 10 games), but the Scots were bounced by Texarkana in the first round of the playoffs.
"My junior year was pretty frustrating," says Stafford. "Teams were using three-man lines and dropping eight back into coverage. We had a good enough team to go further, but we lost in the first round."
Since then, Stafford has been an animal in the weight room to make sure his senior season ends on a high note. He worked four days a week with a personal trainer over the summer, and he also eliminated any recruiting distractions in May when he committed to Georgia over Florida State, Michigan, Oklahoma and Texas.
Stafford's hard work this past summer has paid off in the eyes of Allen, who believes Stafford looks even better this fall. "The strength of his arm is what sets him apart," says Allen. "He's very strong and has a quick release. He's really developing as a quarterback right now in terms of not just relying on his arm."
Add that to his unwavering confidence in pressure situations and you're looking at one scary quarterback for opponents to deal with.
"He's got a background of enjoying clutch situations and having the confidence that he can bring his team to victory," says Allen. Something Stafford hopes to do even more of this season.
Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.
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