Is the Era of the Orange County Quarterback Over?

USC’s Sam Darnold: Let’s hope he’s not another Barkley
USC’s Sam Darnold: Let’s hope he’s not another Barkley
Courtesy of USC Athletics

Despite all the crap we've hurled at them over the years, there's one part of the Orange County Register that the Weekly has consistently praised: the sports pages. It's no surprise that current Reg head honcho Todd Harmonson came from the section: Sports coverage has historically been the strongest part of the daily, with a mix of veterans (investigative reporter Scott Reid, funny columnist Jeff Miller) and newbies who drill deep and write sharp. I've enjoyed its stable of reporters since stealing copies from driveways on the way to Sycamore Junior High in the early 1990s. And the undisputed star of Register sports has always been OC Varsity, devoted to detailing high-school sports in one of the most fertile areas for young athletes in America.

I had to laugh over the summer, however, when I read something by Register reporter Dan Albano that I've heard all my life but that's just not true anymore. It was on Aug. 17, when ranking OC's top 10 prep QBs, that Albano wrote the following: "But whichever explanation one picks, there is no doubt Orange County produces blue-chip high-school quarterbacks seemingly every year. The county has built a reputation for success at football's glamour position by turning out future Heisman Trophy winners and top NFL picks."

Man, that truism has been floating around ever since I was a fifth-grader swiping old copies of Sports Illustrated from the Orange Drive-In swap meet and found a mid-1980s college-football issue that declared OC "quarterback heaven." And it was true for a good 50 years, ever since John Huarte parlayed a Mater Dei High career into the Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame in 1964. From Steve Beuerlein to the Johnson family (brothers Rob and Brett, as well as their father, über-coach Bob), from Mark Sanchez and Todd Marinovich to current NFL players Carson Palmer and Matt Barkley, we manufactured quarterbacks the way San Pedro once did canned tuna. The legend of the big, tall, OC dropback passer is such that in the 2000 Disney gridiron classic Remember the Titans, the protagonist South Carolina squad doesn't start gelling in earnest until they get a guy from Huntington Beach (Ronnie "Sunshine" Bass, who actually attended Marina High).

That era is done; the Orange County quarterback is dead—and never amounts to much once he leaves our friendly confines. I don't follow high-school sports as much anymore, but I know the college game enough to recognize that the reputation of our gunslingers has taken a severe beating ever since Barkley flamed out at USC and Sanchez caused a fumble with his butt while with the New York Jets.

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Albano's story reminded me of my thesis, so I tried to convince former Weekly staffer Steve Lowery—who started as a sportswriter at the Los Angeles Times, part of a rookie crop that included future columnist legends Scott Ostler and Rick Reilly—to weigh in with a cover story on the subject.

Lowery took a pass on my idea because Lowery is Lowery. So I was all schaudenfreude on Sept. 29, when Lowery wrote me an email with the subject "Damn!"—as in, "Damn! I should've paid attention to your tip!"

That was after, on the ESPN Radio show Russillo and Kanell, network NFL analyst Antonio Pierce said exactly what I had argued to Lowery, except far more ruthlessly. The ostensible topic was Blake Barnett, a former star at Santiago High in Corona who recently announced he was transferring from the University of Alabama to USC. The Southern press had ridiculed the redshirt freshman for not being able to hang with the defending national champions, even getting accused by Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban of "quitting." Pierce felt the same—but in talking to show hosts Ryen Russillo and Danny Kanell, he attributed Barnett's softness not as an individual matter, but as something endemic to Orange County QBs once they face "adversity."

"These golden quarterbacks of Carson Palmer, Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley, Matt Leinert—these guys have been silver-spooned," Pierce said. "They've gone through a robotic system of how to play quarterback. . . . Mom and Dad get the best trainers." He went on to ridicule such athletes—whom he said had "all the tools, playing with some of the best athletes in the world"—for wilting under real competition, joking they "need . . . to stay along that coastline . . . [because] when the bright lights came on, you get out of Dodge. And that's what you saw in high school; you see that now in the NFL."

Pierce is no yapping contrarian à la Skip Bayless. He played at Paramount High during the mid-1990s, at a time when Orange County quarterbacks ruled Southern California, before embarking on a nine-year NFL career. He has been an ESPN analyst since retiring in 2010, and he's also the head coach at Long Beach Poly, where his Jackrabbits perennially get to face off against OC teams come California Interscholastic Federation playoff time. Pierce didn't specifically target Orange County by name, saying instead "Southern California," but he didn't have to: All the examples he gave were OC boys, and the coddled environment he mocked sounds akin to a training camp in Mission Viejo come summertime.

There's always hope, of course, for Orange County. Sam Darnold (San Clemente High) just took over the reigns at USC and led the Trojans to a 41-20 smackdown of the previously undefeated Arizona State Sun Devils. Devon Modster (Tesoro High) and KJ Costello (Santa Margarita High) ride the bench at UCLA and Stanford, respectively, waiting for a shot. But then you have someone like Oregon quarterback Travis Jonsen, who lit up opponents at Servite High when he went by Travis Waller. A redshirt freshman, Oregon media thought he'd be a contender for the Ducks opening-day position—but now, he's the fourth-stringer, reduced to running the squad team for a weaker-than-usual squad. Another Orange County juggernaught, tamed by the real world.

The Orange County quarterback hero will never fade from our landscape, of course: Prep football is too big of an industry here. But as with the orange groves of the past that civic leaders still evoke to sell a paradise that never really existed, our gridiron giants been more hype that reality. Really, the best one of them all, Palmer, has only won one playoff game and probably won't make it into the NFL Hall of Fame. Saying we're quarterback central despite their eventual flops is like saying Arte Moreno is a great owner—boosterism at its most delusional.

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