HE KEPT HIS helmet on and his mouth shut, which led the players at Midway High School in Waco, Texas, to wonder who he was and what he was doing on their practice field. He'd pull up in his pickup, walk onto the football field, fire lasers from sideline to sideline and then hop back in his pickup and head back to wherever it was he came from.
The whispers started immediately. The coach was new, so maybe this big dude came along with him. It seemed strange that a 6-foot-3, 215-pound quarterback with footwork this good and an arm this quick could just appear on campus with nobody knowing anything, but big-time Texas high school football being what it is -- who knows? The dude -- they use the term dude a lot in Texas high school football -- didn't introduce himself, and the coach treated him as if he'd been there all along. Nobody felt comfortable asking -- the dude was really good at the mysterious-stranger bit -- but they wondered among themselves, sometimes allowing a thought to creep in: The Panthers might be pretty damned good in 2016.
A week went by, and then school started. The dude didn't show up for any classes, but the pickup truck still pulled up at practice time and left immediately afterward. The passes kept hissing through the air. The players were on to it now, though, and any attempt to prolong the secrecy would bridge the gap between the curious and the weird.
"He didn't want anyone to know who he was, just wanted to stay in the background and get some work in," says the coach, Jeff Hulme. "I honored that, but after school started, we had to let everybody know what was going on."
The dude was Jarrett Stidham, the quarterback who had just left the toxic Baylor program after throwing for more than 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns in part-time work as a freshman. His plan before transferring to Auburn in the fall of '17 was to enroll in a local junior college without a football program, and so he asked Hulme, whom he knew through his high school program, if it would be all right if he got some live practice work to stay sharp.
"Come and go as you please," Hulme told him. "If you can't make it, don't worry about it." Day after day, the truck pulled up right before practice and left right after.
"Never missed a day," Hulme says. "Best scout-team quarterback I've ever had."
THE STORY OF Stidham's scout-team days at Midway High is a small one, maybe even an insignificant one, but the search for hints of a person's future starts with scouring the past. And those who have coached the New England Patriots quarterback, from high school through Midway scout team through Auburn, roll out different variations on the same theme. They tell stories of hard work and humility and hypertrophic athleticism with knowing excitement, as if he's some obscure garage band they're convinced is thisclose to a break.
For roughly 13 weeks, Stidham was the favorite to be the Patriots' starting quarterback in 2020. In the period between Tom Brady's departure to Tampa Bay and Cam Newton's arrival in Foxborough (on an incentive-laden, one-year contract), speculation centered on one question: Is it possible the Patriots could turn to a second-year, fourth-round draft pick to replace the most successful quarterback of all time?
Technically, they still could. Chances are they won't, but they could. Patriots coach Bill Belichick, in his typically laconic fashion, said Friday that it's not automatic that Newton will be the starter and that he's interested in seeing the competition play out. Recently retired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said, "I think [Newton] has a huge edge, because of what he's done in the league" -- a Super Bowl appearance, an MVP award and almost 29,000 yards in his first eight seasons in Carolina. But of Stidham, Scarnecchia said, "I don't think he's to Cam's skill set, but this guy is a pretty good player. He also has a tremendous work ethic, and he's a smart guy."
Here's another story: As a sophomore at Stephenville (Texas) High School, Stidham played wide receiver even though he already had four or five Division I offers to play quarterback. That should tell you two things: (A) Stephenville is the rare high school football program that has to make a decision on where to play a Division I quarterback, and (B) Stidham wasn't a diva.
Joseph Gillespie, the coach at Stephenville then and defensive coordinator at Tulsa now, describes his senior starter that year as "a quarterback who knew he was a quarterback" and Stidham as "a stud who knew he was a stud," which is saying a hell of a lot in just a few words. Gillespie's decision -- one he understands sounds hard to believe -- made more sense when Stephenville won the state championship. "You know what made it easy?" Gillespie asks. "Jarrett never complained once. He handled it with grace, and that's hard to do at that age."
Quarterbacks who show aptitude at a young age, especially in a place such as Stephenville, are steered toward private coaches and expensive summer camps, where the gifted isolate themselves in a world of reverberating praise. Stidham, according to no fewer than four high school and college coaches, grew up in a household where sports were more of an outlet than a means to an end.
"You put a ball in his hand, he's going to be the dude," Gillespie says. "Dude on the diamond, dude on the court, dude on the football field. And I probably love the kid even more because his home dynamics were so rough." A Stephenville couple, Matt and Katie Copeland, took Stidham into their home during his senior year. "If it weren't for them," Gillespie says, "it would have been a rougher road.
In the second-to-last regular-season game of Stidham's senior year, he broke the ring finger on his throwing hand so thoroughly it needed surgery and three pins to put it back in place. He had the cast and pins removed the day before his team's third playoff game, and he told Gillespie -- with a doctor's blessing -- that he wanted to play. He didn't need to play; he had his scholarship to Baylor, where ex-Stephenville coach Art Briles had yet to implode. Besides, Stidham hadn't taken a snap in a month, hadn't thrown a ball in practice, hadn't taken a hit. Gillespie hesitated.
"I'll make a deal with you," Stidham said. "Can I just suit up and do pregame to see how it feels?"
"Yes," Gillespie said, "but I'm not going to play you. Or at least I'm going to try not to play you."
Stidham didn't start, and the backup threw a pick on the first series, and the opponent scored right away, and you can probably guess where this is going. Gillespie could feel his resolve leaving his body as he watched his season drift away. He looked at Stidham, who nodded his head, and Gillespie said, "OK, get in there. I don't want this to get away from us."
Stidham, of course, threw six touchdown passes, and Stephenville won going away.
As Gillespie stood on the sideline in the fourth quarter, he thought to himself: I may never get to coach another dude like this at that position.
THERE IS A level of reflected credibility that comes with being drafted by Belichick. Everyone I spoke with about Stidham came up with some version of the same sentence: Well, if that guy up there likes him, that's good enough for me. It's a fine sentiment, but it sidesteps the fact that quarterback is the one position Belichick has been free to mostly ignore for the past 20 years.
Whoever starts for the Patriots will be considered The Replacement. Every analyst will assess the toll replacing Tom Brady is taking on the new quarterback, and the fixation on Brady -- his success, his legacy, his spirit -- will be measured by every frown and incompletion.
But an athlete's view of the world is different from the world's view of the athlete, which is why the man who starts at quarterback for the New England Patriots the next time they play will not, in his mind, be replacing Tom Brady. He will be playing quarterback for the New England Patriots, and no part of Brady -- not his body, not his legacy, not his spirit -- will be anywhere near the huddle.
"Jarrett's wired the right way," says Chip Lindsey, who was Stidham's offensive coordinator at Auburn before becoming head coach at Troy. "No matter how big the game was, he never flinched. He ran the gauntlet in the SEC, and he handled things well every day. That will help him deal with the fire he's fixing to be in if he wins that job."
As a redshirt sophomore at Auburn in 2017, Stidham won the starting job and then the SEC West. He beat Georgia and Alabama, both ranked No. 1 at the time, along the way, finishing the season with 18 touchdowns and 3,158 yards.
Lindsey's story is this one: Auburn leading Alabama by less than a touchdown late in the 2017 Iron Bowl, Auburn with the ball on the Alabama 12-yard line. On a read-option left, Stidham faked a handoff to Kerryon Johnson, rolled out to his left looking to throw, at one point waving a receiver toward the back of the end zone before tucking the ball and starting to run. He broke one tackle at his feet around the 10, cut back to avoid another defender and ran through a third as he fell into the end zone.
Before he knew Stidham and Newton would become teammates, Lindsey described the play as "a real Cam Newton type of deal."
Stidham was considered a lock to be a first-rounder after his first year at Auburn, but NFL scouts detected slippage his final year. His completion percentage dropped six points, and there were questions about his confidence level. But even then, "Stidham's interesting," Mel Kiper Jr. said before the draft. "You go back a couple years ago and he's putting up some big numbers; you thought it would carry over. Things didn't come together this year ... but he's got the arm talent, and from the pocket he can move well enough.
"At one point, I thought he could be a first- or second-round pick, so he's got talent. I don't think he gets out of the third round."
(The easiest way to rile an Auburn coach, if you're into that sort of thing, is to ask why Stidham fell to the fourth. "You're just trying to find something wrong with somebody if you look at that," Lindsey says. And Auburn coach Gus Malzahn says, "When he was drafted, I immediately tweeted that New England got the steal of the draft.")
If Stidham doesn't take over for Brady this season (assuming there is one), there's a good chance he will in 2021. At just 31, Newton is looking to put together a season that creates one more big contract, which means if he's good he'll be too expensive and if he's bad he'll be on his own. Which will, one more time, direct the focus back to Stidham.
"How does Jarrett see this?" Malzahn muses. "This is what he's been wanting. He's been looking forward to the moment. It's really not any deeper than that. If you'd given Jarrett a choice in the matter, I bet he would have picked New England and hoped to follow Tom Brady."