For his entire life, Jimmy Clausen has aimed himself like an arrow at this moment.
Clausen has based his existence around football for most of his 22 years, and his family has nurtured that dream at every turn. Now here he is - a rookie quarterback with the Carolina Panthers, taking snaps every day in training camp with a legitimate shot to be this team's quarterback of the future.
This is Clausen's chance, and he fully intends to grab it. Clausen told the Panthers the day they picked him in April with the No.48 overall choice that they had just made the "best pick in the draft."
Whether you think that statement speaks of confidence or cockiness might indicate what you think of Clausen, who some think will be the savior of the franchise and who others believe is over-hyped and arrogant.
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As Notre Dame's quarterback last season, he threw 28 touchdown passes and only four interceptions despite playing most of the season with torn ligaments in his right toe. The toe hurt so badly that Clausen took two pain-killing injections before each game. The Fighting Irish never reached the goals Clausen set, however, when he committed to Notre Dame in 2006 in what became an infamous news conference.
Clausen has many fans. "He's got a very good arm, he sees the field beautifully and I think he's incredibly tough," said former Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden, who is now an ESPN analyst and spent eight hours with Clausen this year for an informal quarterback camp. "He's going to be a fine pro quarterback. The upside is very high."
Not all share that assessment. Terry Bradshaw recently told Indiana TV station WNDU he didn't think Clausen was a "difference-maker" and was "just another guy as far as I'm concerned."
"I didn't like him in college and I don't like him now," said Bradshaw, who led the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl championships and is now a Fox Sports analyst. "I hear great things about him, but he's not my kind of guy."
Clausen has been both heavily scrutinized and groomed for the NFL for most of his life.
His parents started him in kindergarten late, at age 6, and then had him repeat the sixth grade although his academic progress was fine (they did the same for the other three Clausen children).
"It was just for maturity," Clausen said. "A lot of people think it was just for football, but my sister did that as well."
Clausen's high school career was so dominant and his abilities so advanced that he was many times compared to LeBron James. Sports Illustrated wrote a long feature story about Clausen when he was a high school junior in California. It was entitled "The Kid with the Golden Arm."
Clausen's older brothers - Casey and Rick - both started at quarterback at Tennessee. Jimmy followed them around whenever he visited Knoxville, going from team meetings to film sessions to the practice sideline.
"Jimmy is a gym rat almost to a fault - such a driven kid," said Rick Clausen, who now lives in California and works with Casey in the family insurance business begun by his father. "He really doesn't allow himself much down time. Even now I'll be like, 'Hey, let's go to the beach or play a round of golf,' and Jimmy will say, 'Maybe - after I get my workout and all my throws in.' Casey and I always worked at it. But we never worked as hard as Jimmy does."
As the first few days of Panthers' training camp have unwound, Clausen has done his best to keep his head down. Said Panthers Pro Bowl tackle Jordan Gross: "He's keeping his mouth shut and has just been working hard, and I think that's the right way to do it."
Clausen officially is third on the depth chart for the Panthers, who sport perhaps the most fascinating group of quarterbacks they have ever had. All four are 25 years old or younger.
Matt Moore - he of the calm demeanor and 6-2 record as an NFL starter - is the clear No.1. The job will be Moore's in 2010 unless he gets hurt or has a horrible start. But Moore has only one year remaining on his contract.
The other quarterbacks have zero NFL starts between them - rocket-armed but unknown Hunter Cantwell at No.2, Clausen at No.3 and fellow rookie Tony Pike at No.4, who just finished a superb senior season at Cincinnati.
Clausen admits to being somewhat motivated by the fact that instead of being selected during the draft's first round as many had expected he lasted until midway through the second round.
The Panthers certainly were ecstatic he was still there at No.48. Clausen's second-round selection marked the first time Carolina had used a pick during the draft's first three rounds to take a quarterback since Kerry Collins had been selected No.5 overall in 1995.
Carolina tried to trade up to select him much earlier - as early as No.32, Clausen later said. General manager Marty Hurney beamed in a way he rarely does when he first talked to the media once Clausen fell to Carolina.
The monetary difference was enormous for Clausen, however. He had fantasized at times of being the No.1 overall pick in the draft. Sam Bradford, the former Oklahoma quarterback, instead earned that spot and received $50million of guaranteed money in his contract with the St. Louis Rams. Clausen got $2.53million guaranteed in his four-year deal, which goes through 2013.
"I really don't think about it too often," Clausen said last week of the draft-day snub. "But I'm sure it'll be in the back of my head. That's one of the things that makes me strive to be the best quarterback I can be."
42-0 in high school
The youngest of Jim and Cathy Clausen's four children, Jimmy had a private quarterback coach by the time he was in seventh grade.
His father was a football coach at the high school and college level - including a stint as an assistant at Cal State Northridge - for much of the time while Jimmy was growing up until he got into selling commercial insurance. His mother was mostly a stay-at-home mom who was responsible for driving the kids to football practices and wherever else they needed to go.
"We're a football family," said Rick Clausen, now 28 and the second-oldest of the kids. "We were all constantly around it. When Jimmy was 7 or 8 years old, he would always warm Casey or me up on the sidelines when we were getting ready for our games."
Casey and Rick Clausen were only a year apart in school - far closer in age to each other than to Jimmy. They were the ones who began working with private quarterback coach Steve Clarkson and his staff first.
Clarkson has tutored NFL players like Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Leinart, and recognized the youngest Clausen's potential immediately. Casey would go 34-10 as a starter at Tennessee and Rick would have a good career as a part-time starter at Tennessee after transferring from Louisiana State.
But it was Jimmy who everyone thought had the most potential. Neither Casey nor Rick were NFL draft picks, and so Jimmy is the family's last and best hope for NFL stardom.
One of the coaches on Clarkson's staff was Angelo Gasca, who also is a high-school coach in California and later would coach against Clausen.
"I love the kid," said Gasca, who also coached NFL quarterback J.P. Losman when Losman was a prep star. "I worked with all three brothers, and they were all talented, but Jimmy was both the most talented and the most driven. You have never seen a high school quarterback more in control of a game than Jimmy. He was a chess master."
Jimmy Clausen played four years at Oaks Christian, a private school not far from Los Angeles. He started the last three years and went 42-0, winning three state titles and setting a California record for career touchdown passes (146).
Bill Redell was Clausen's high school coach and tailored his offense to fit Clausen's strengths. That's saying something, given that Oaks Christian is something of a Notre Dame among private California high schools and that Clausen's senior-year team had 10 other Division I-A recruits.
"Jimmy was well-respected, well-liked and a very competitive kid," Redell said. "Now if you were a guy who didn't work hard, he would get on you a little bit. If he had any issues with teammates, it was because of that, but they were few and far between. He's a confident kid. It can be construed as cocky, but he's really just very confident."
Jim Clausen Sr. - who did not return phone messages for this story - was very active in guiding his youngest son's career, Redell said.
There are cautionary tales about this sort of behavior. Todd Marinovich might be the most well-known. Marinovich also was a California quarterback prodigy groomed from an early age by his family and selected before Brett Favre in the 1991 NFL draft. But Marinovich's NFL career soured quickly after several drug-related arrests.
"The father was never a problem," Redell said. "Jim offered me some suggestions, and sometimes I used them. Was everything perfect all the time while Jimmy was here? No. But Carolina will love Jimmy. He's a quality kid."
Riding in the Hummer
Those who wish to paint Clausen as the picture of arrogant entitlement often point to April 22, 2006. That was the day Clausen - then a handsome, blond high school junior with spiky hair - said he was going to play football for Notre Dame.
Not only that, he held a news conference at the College Football Hall of Fame - located in South Bend, Ind., just like Notre Dame - to announce his commitment.
Not only that, Clausen showed off the three high-school championship rings he wore to the news conference and brazenly proclaimed: "That's what I'm here for, to try to get four national championship rings on our fingers."
Not only that, he arrived 45 minutes late to his news conference in a white stretch Hummer limo.
The Hummer was the detail everyone latched onto. Although high school kids routinely take limousines to the prom, taking one to announce where you were going to college was widely viewed as unseemly and egotistical.
The Clausen family says it only rented the Hummer because it was traveling with a group of about a dozen people. Two of Clausen's close friends from high school also were being recruited by Notre Dame and were on the trip as well with their families. Gary Wichard - a longtime family friend and sports agent who now represents Clausen - also was present.
"This always comes up," Clausen said Friday when asked to explain the Hummer decision. "There were three other families with us. I wanted everyone to be together. It was a special day for me. So we decided to get a limo - one big enough to fit everybody - instead of taking four separate cars. We just jumped into it and took off."
Clausen's high school coach, for one, was surprised by the Hollywood style of the commitment. "I thought it was a little over the top," Redell said.
Said brother Rick Clausen: "Hindsight is 20-20, but we wouldn't do the Hummer again. We never anticipated that sort of backlash. It wasn't some premeditated 'Let's show everybody up by going in a limo' sort of thing. But it snowballed."
Largely because of the Hummer incident, Wichard said, Clausen has become "the most mis-perceived person I've ever been around in the sports world."
That's his agent talking, of course, but Clausen did impress his teammates with the work ethic and talent he brought with him to Notre Dame.
"I didn't care if he announced his commitment on top of an elephant and rode it around campus," said Golden Tate, Clausen's favorite receiver for much of his time at Notre Dame and now a rookie with the Seattle Seahawks. "The media and the fans passed judgment on him because of the Hummer, but I didn't have a problem with it as long as he worked hard and we tried to help each other get better. That's exactly what he did for three years. People don't understand how great a leader he was for our team."
Maturation at Notre Dame
Clausen went to Notre Dame largely because of coach Charlie Weis, who had done wondrous work with Tom Brady as the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots.
Clausen graduated from high school a semester early, went to spring practices at Notre Dame to get a jump on his freshman year and had proven himself as the best quarterback on the roster entering his freshman season.
It was around then that the last Fighting Irish quarterback to make a Pro Bowl - former Carolina Panther Steve Beuerlein, who like Clausen wore No.7 at Notre Dame - met Clausen for the first time at the spring game. Beuerlein wasn't impressed.
"I ran into him after the game and introduced myself," Beuerlein said. "Now I didn't want him to bow down and pay homage or anything. But if I introduced myself to 95percent of college quarterbacks and said I played quarterback at Notre Dame and had a long career in the NFL, they would be respectful and interested. It didn't mean anything to him. He looked like he really didn't care. He said, 'Nice to meet you,' then turned and walked away."
But Beuerlein changed his mind about Clausen after seeing him later in his career, when Clausen seemed more mature and a better leader.
"I think between his sophomore and junior years the light bulb went on," Beuerlein said. "Everything seemed different. I'm really positive about him now. I think he's got a bright future and can be a really good NFL quarterback."
At Notre Dame, though, Clausen's individual statistics shone while his team faltered. During his three years as starter, Notre Dame went 3-9, 7-6 and 6-6.
Clausen finished his career ranked first or second in 32 passing categories for the Irish. He once threw what Weis called "a perfect game" in college - a 22-for-26, 401-yard, five-touchdown effort in a bowl win against Hawaii. And Notre Dame's 6-6 record would have been far worse in 2009 except for the fact Clausen led four fourth-quarter comebacks.
But instead of four national championship rings, Clausen never came close to winning one. Notre Dame started 6-2 in 2009 and finished 6-6. Weis was fired at the end of the 2009 season, which heavily influenced Clausen's decision to turn pro a year early.
A 'tremendous passion'
Before the 2010 draft, Clausen spent about eight hours with Gruden for a quarterback camp that was filmed by ESPN. At one point, in a clip later played by the network, Gruden asked Clausen what happened when he threw a bad-looking interception against North Carolina.
Clausen said he had given the receiver a hand signal to change a route and that the receiver had seen it but had ultimately run the wrong route anyway.
This was perceived by some as Clausen blaming his receiver without taking any responsibility. Gruden, however, didn't see it that way.
"I asked a guy a question, I wanted the answer," Gruden said during an interview last week. "I don't believe he sold anybody out saying that. He didn't strike me as a spoiled-rotten kid at all. I think he's a great kid. He's smart. You can tell he loves football. There's this tremendous passion for it - you can see it in his eyes. When you start judging people without meeting them, you're making a terrible mistake. I'm pulling for him."
Clausen recently gas made a friend in Rich Gannon, the former NFL quarterback who now is a TV and radio analyst. "I think the guy is competitive - a gamer," Gannon said. "I don't think he's elitist. That deal with Jon Gruden and the receiver - hey, what do you want? Should Jimmy have lied or told the truth? I'd go with the truth."
How good will Clausen be? That's the big question. He dropped to No.48 in part because of toe surgery that interfered with workouts, as well as Notre Dame's mediocre record the past three years and nagging questions about his attitude.
Clausen has some distinct advantages. They include his genes, his work ethic and the fact that Panthers offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson once worked for Weis in New England and runs a very similar offense to the one Clausen directed at Notre Dame.
But when you see the four Panthers quarterbacks walk into the lunch room at training camp, Clausen looks like the little brother. He's officially 6-foot-2 and 222 pounds, but he looks smaller. He doesn't throw quite as well on the move as Moore. His arm isn't as strong as Cantwell's. He's 4 inches shorter than Pike.
Bradshaw, for one, doesn't like Clausen's mechanics. "I don't like his motion," Bradshaw told the Indiana TV station. "I think he's too slow ... way too slow with his delivery, way too much shoulder action."
The Panthers don't have the same concerns. Clausen has looked fine during the early practices. His throws generally have been precise, although he is prone to missing high like Jake Delhomme used to do.
It does seem there is an undercurrent of occasional irritation among the Panthers' star players at the number of questions they get about Clausen.
Said running back DeAngelo Williams on Friday when asked his impressions of Clausen: "He's a good quarterback. My impression. That's the most frequently-asked question: 'How's Jimmy Clausen?' Not how's Matt Moore, how's the defense, not how you look without Julius Peppers. It's 'How's Jimmy Clausen?'"
Clausen obviously feels that undercurrent. He is keeping his head down and his quotes bland. And you better believe he won't ever get into a Hummer again.
Wichard, Clausen's agent, had called a car service and asked for an SUV to pick Wichard up in February at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. Clausen was there, too. Wichard offered to give him a ride back to his hotel once the car arrived.
The car service didn't have an SUV available, however. So it sent a limo.
"And it was a monster," Wichard said with a laugh. "Jimmy takes one look at it and says, 'I'm outta here.' He literally wouldn't get in the car. He got a ride with someone else. It's like he gets hives when he sees stretch limos now."
Head down. Fight the "misperceptions." Learn the offense. This is Clausen's current game plan.
One day, though, Clausen will lift his head again when it matters. It will be at a crucial time during a Panthers game - maybe as early as this season if Moore falters, maybe not until 2011. He will bark signals and try to read the safeties to decipher the coverage.
Then he will take the snap. Drop back.
Then Jimmy Clausen will spiral a throw with the golden arm that has taken him cross-country from California to Notre Dame to Charlotte.
And only then will we really know if his aim is true.