About to turn 35 and with his eighth NFL team, Josh McCown finally is getting a real chance to blossom as a professional quarterback.
It's been a long time coming for a player whose career path has been pockmarked by potholes and detours. But McCown, whose NFL career has been left for dead time and again, is all too familiar with having to wait for opportunity to present itself.
Finally, all those twists and turns -- and McCown's patience -- are paying off. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed McCown to a two-year, $10 million deal in the offseason and promptly handed him the starting job.
"I'm a super late bloomer," McCown said. "My first driver's license said 5-foot-4. At 16, I was 5-4. Physically, I was a late bloomer. I've always been a late bloomer. Maybe that's just my destiny."
McCown didn't start in high school until his senior year, and he had to transfer for his final college season to get noticed. He's been cut and traded and once toiled in the ill-fated United Football League, desperate to stay on the NFL radar. He even coached high school football for two seasons while waiting for a team to call.
Clearly, McCown never has done anything the easy way.
"It's really the story of his life," said Matt Turner, who served as quarterbacks coach for McCown and his two brothers, Randy and Luke, at Jacksonville (Texas) High School. "He bloomed late then, and he's blooming late now."
There have been times over the years when it looked as though McCown's career was over. Back in high school, it seemed his career might never get started. Jacksonville is a big school and plays in a competitive district, one in which 5-foot-4 quarterbacks don't get on the field.
"He was small. Man, was he small," Turner said of McCown, who now stands 6-foot-4. "We knew Josh was going to be a good football player if he ever grew. But it sure took awhile. He really started shooting up in the second half of his junior year."
As a senior, McCown finally earned the starting job. He completed 66 percent of his passes with 30 touchdowns, led Jacksonville to the playoffs and earned a scholarship to SMU.
In three seasons with the Mustangs (1998-2000), McCown threw for 4,022 yards and 27 touchdowns. But he also threw 34 interceptions and completed just 51.2 percent of his attempts. In 2001, he transferred to Sam Houston State, opting to finish his college career in a program that passed more frequently. He completed 60.3 percent of his passes for 3,481 yards and 32 touchdowns, with 12 interceptions, establishing himself as a legitimate NFL prospect.
After a strong showing at the scouting combine, McCown was drafted in the third round by the Arizona Cardinals. That pretty much was the last time McCown was handed anything. He sat on the bench for a couple of years behind Jake Plummer and Jeff Blake before becoming the starter in 2004. But that was short-lived. McCown put up pedestrian numbers, connecting on 57.1 percent of his passes for 2,511 yards with 11 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while going 6-7 as a starter. He returned to a backup role the next season when the Cardinals brought in Kurt Warner.
From 2006 to '09, there were stops in Detroit, Oakland, Miami and Carolina. Then it looked like McCown's career was over. In hindsight, however, he had reached a turning point that would lead to a fortuitous series of events.
"I finished '09 on injured reserve in Carolina," McCown said. "Going through that offseason, the phone didn't ring. I didn't play a snap in '08 [not counting four kneel-downs], so I hadn't played in a couple years. I understood what was happening. It got to the summer, and still no calls. I decided I wanted to go play and put some tape out."
That meant stepping away from the NFL and into the second-year United Football League. McCown signed with the Hartford Colonials for the 2010 season to play for former Cleveland Browns coach Chris Palmer. Soon after he joined the Colonials, the Chicago Bears called with an offer.
In a move that said a lot about his character, McCown turned it down.
"It just didn't sit well with me," McCown said. "I had done a ton of press releases and appearances and stuff like that for the UFL. I know it sounds silly to turn the Bears down, but something in my stomach just didn't sit well. I felt like it would be a bad example to my kids to say, 'Give your word to somebody until something better comes along and then break that.'"
McCown played the whole season with Hartford, throwing for 1,463 yards with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions in eight games. Then, he returned home to his wife, Natalie, and four children in suburban Charlotte, North Carolina, and waited for the phone to ring. Unsure about his future, he decided to try his hand at coaching high school football.
"He just walked into my office one day and asked if he could help out," said Scott Chadwick, who at the time was head coach at Marvin Ridge High School in Waxhaw.
McCown began working with quarterback Tyler Chadwick, the coach's son, during the offseason. But McCown hadn't totally given up on playing in the NFL.
"I'd stayed in shape and stayed ready and said I'd give it one more year coming out of the lockout because there might be a bigger market for veterans," McCown said. "Sure enough, San Francisco had drafted Colin Kaepernick, but he was still an unknown at that point. I went to camp with them and had a great time."
But the opportunity didn't last, as the 49ers cut McCown in August 2011 at the end of training camp. He returned to Marvin Ridge just as the team was starting its regular season and threw himself into coaching.
"I've had other NFL guys work with me before," Scott Chadwick said. "They showed up when practice started and left as soon as it was over. They acted like they were doing us a favor.
"Josh got as much out of it as the kids did. He was 100 percent invested in what we were doing. He was at every coaches meeting. He watched as much film as anybody. Heck, he even cooked the pancakes for our [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] breakfasts on Fridays."
Along the way, McCown found a way to keep his football skills sharp, just in case the NFL called.
"He ran our scout team," Tyler Chadwick said. "I don't think anybody in the country had a better scout-team quarterback."
Marvin Ridge had been to the playoffs the year before but lost 18 starters. The 2011 team had to rely largely on unproven players, and McCown's history proved inspirational. As the season started, he told the team a story about a quarterback who didn't start until his senior year of high school and still made it to the NFL.
"That was a pretty powerful message to our seniors," Scott Chadwick said. "We ended up going 10-2 and making the playoffs."
Nine days after Marvin Ridge was bounced from the playoffs, Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler was injured, and the Bears came calling again. McCown replaced ineffective backup Caleb Hanie in Week 15 and started the final two games of the season.
The Bears re-signed McCown in 2012 but also brought in veteran Jason Campbell. McCown felt he had a good camp, but he ended up getting cut and rejoined the Marvin Ridge coaching staff.
"My wife met me with my coaching shirt at the airport, and we went straight out to the football field and I met the team at halftime of a Friday night game and coached the second half of the game," McCown said.
McCown stayed with Marvin Ridge all the way through another season. But just like the year before, Cutler got hurt nine days after Marvin Ridge was knocked out of the playoffs, and the Bears called.
McCown signed but didn't play in 2012. He returned to Chicago in 2013, and that's when the classic late bloomer finally blossomed.
Cutler's injury woes continued, and McCown played in eight games, starting five. He played the best football of his career by far, completing 66.5 percent of his passes with 13 touchdowns and only one interception. He threw for 1,829 yards and produced a sparkling 109.0 passer rating.
Lovie Smith coached the Bears during McCown's first two seasons in Chicago. Smith was out of football last season, but he watched McCown closely. Soon after Smith became the head coach in Tampa Bay, the Bucs signed McCown. Smith wanted a starting quarterback for the present. But he also wanted more. He wanted a leader who would help groom second-year pro Mike Glennon.
"I do have a history with him, and it was a combination of both," Smith said. "You saw what he did on the field last year. To me, that quarterback leader that you have, you need to trust him completely on and off the football field. That's definitely the case with Josh."
The Bucs have made it clear that McCown is the immediate starter, and Glennon, who started 13 games as a rookie last year, is the team's quarterback of the future.
"I have so much respect for Lovie's character and integrity," McCown said. "As we talked, I said, 'Let's lay out what the expectations are and move forward from there.' We were open in those communications. He understands that, regardless of starter or not, it's about helping our team be good at the quarterback position. ... If I'm the starter, I go and play as hard as I can. But, at the same time, I try to help whoever is in that room get better."
That's where the coaching experience at Marvin Ridge will come in handy. Just ask McCown's last pupil.
"He helped me fine-tune my mechanics and things like that," said Tyler Chadwick. "But the biggest thing he taught me was from a leadership standpoint. He taught me to lead by example. Be the first one there and the last one to leave."
Chadwick, who had a record-setting senior season under McCown's guidance, is now a baseball player at Coastal Carolina and remains close to his former mentor.
"He's so down-to-earth," Chadwick said. "I formed a friendship with him. To most people, he's an NFL quarterback. To me, he's just Coach McCown."
No one knows when Glennon will take over and McCown will become the Bucs' quarterback of the past. But don't be surprised if this late bloomer turns in a few good seasons, fueled by lessons learned while traveling an extraordinary career path.
"It was worth it for me because of what it taught me," McCown said. "I trust that journey I was on was for a purpose and a reason, and I learned so much from that. It helped me with things bigger than football. It helped me as a husband, as a father and as a man. Those things are priceless."