LOS ANGELES -- The genesis of Sean McVay's renowned clairvoyance dates to December 2003, near the goal line of a state quarterfinal game, on third down, his high school team trailing by five with only a couple of minutes remaining.
McVay, now the Los Angeles Rams coach, was a short, stocky triple-option quarterback for Marist School in Atlanta, which on this night continued to get stuffed by a powerful Shaw team while trying to punch it in on a power formation they called "Wham."
Timeout was called.
McVay, who had spent most of that week poring over film of his upcoming opponent, huddled the coaches together. He wanted to call a play the team had never run before -- a naked bootleg off "Wham," which involved McVay faking the handoff, hiding the ball, then rolling out and running with it all by himself, with no blockers in front of him.
"He just had this crazy ability to feel out plays," McVay's high school teammate and good friend, Chris Ashkouti, said. "He knew. I mean I’ve never seen anything like it. He walked in the end zone."
Fifteen years later, those who knew McVay then still marvel at that play. At the outside defender selling out for a running back without the football. At other defensive players celebrating what they thought was a game-clinching tackle. At a packed stadium rising to its feet as the quarterback turned the corner. At the foresight and courage McVay displayed as a teenager.
McVay never played in the NFL and didn't really stand out in college, but he was a Georgia high school football legend. He became the first player in program history to both rush and throw for 1,000 yards in back-to-back years. He led his team to a state championship during his senior year in 2003, playing second half of the title game with a broken foot.
After it was over, McVay beat out former Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson, a Hall of Famer in waiting, for Georgia 4A Offensive Player of the Year, an obscure piece of trivia many will chuckle at today. McVay calls it "more of a team award than anything else, because there's no doubt about it when you were just looking at the recruit. [Johnson] was a five-star receiver, he was special, and I was not of his caliber."
Others will tell you McVay is being humble.
Todd Holcomb, an editor at Georgia High School Football Daily who has covered high school sports for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2001, said McVay "might've been the most valuable all-around football player in a very strong football state" in 2003.
"There were much better college prospects," Holcomb wrote in an email, "but nobody had a greater impact on a high school football game than he did."
McVay didn't have the strongest arm, but he was quick and explosive, and he was tougher and smarter than everybody on the field. Longtime Marist coach Alan Chadwick remembers a particular designed run where McVay's responsibility was to read the 3-technique and decide where to go with the football. He pulled it, got into the B-gap and exploded through the hole "like he had been shot out of a cannon," then ran nearly untouched for 60 yards.
Ashkouti's favorite plays came immediately after interceptions, on nights when McVay also played defense.
"We would all stand back and watch," Ashkouti said, "because he was on a mission to crush the guy who picked him off."
McVay arrived at Marist as a standout soccer player with great football bloodlines. His grandfather, John, was the former 49ers general manager who teamed with Bill Walsh for five Super Bowls. His father, Tim, was an all-state quarterback in Ohio who played defensive back at Illinois. After starting as a cornerback his sophomore year, McVay was the starting quarterback for Marist as a junior and senior, finishing his final season with 1,128 rushing yards, 1,107 passing yards and 375 punting yards.
McVay received scholarship offers to play option quarterback at Rice, Air Force and the Naval Academy, Tim said, but instead chose to be a slot receiver for Miami of Ohio. He broke his ankle early in his redshirt freshman year and was never the same.
"It’s one of those things where you look at the doctors and they’re like, 'You can mess this up for the long term,'" McVay said. "You kind of had a realistic approach that you wanted to be involved in football, and that opportunity opened up."
McVay was hired by Jon Gruden, something of a family friend, to be a coaching assistant on his Buccaneers staff in 2008. He went on to coach tight ends in the United Football League in 2009, then spent his next seven years with the Redskins, working with tight ends and eventually becoming the offensive coordinator. Now, on the day he turns 33, he is the youngest head coach to reach a Super Bowl, the culmination of a stunning two-year stretch that saw McVay take over a downtrodden franchise and place it on the doorstep of a championship.
Many still know him best from his high school days.
Tim McVay laughs at how his son used to stay up late in the coaches' office studying opponents during the week.
Chadwick saw Sean McVay as a "vivacious, energetic, outgoing, mature-beyond-his-years type of personality" who was exceedingly comfortable in his own skin. Ashkouti called McVay "a beast" and "a stone-cold killer" on the field, but beamed at the way he inspired others.
It happened at the start of the drive that ended in the naked bootleg, which ultimately sparked a state championship.
Marist had just given up the go-ahead score and needed to put together an 82-yard drive to win the game, so McVay -- 17, his voice squeaky and his hair shaggy -- addressed his teammates on the field.
"He looks everybody in the eye and he’s got this, 'We’re going to do this, get on my freaking back, let’s go' look in his eye," Ashkouti remembered. "He was just so calm. When you had him on the team, you just knew, a hundred percent, that you were going to win with this guy. Of course, him calling the play was huge. But it was his ability to make you believe. And it was all the time."