Max Wittek has come a long way

Max Wittek's college decision was not earth-shattering, given that USC is not far from Santa Ana, Calif., and that two of his quarterbacking predecessors previously made the same jump from Mater Dei High.

Ever heard of Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley? They too went from prep Monarchs to college Trojans, and work(ed) with Wittek's famed quarterback tutor, Steve Clarkson of Pasadena, Calif.

Yet it might rank as an upset that Wittek -- ESPNU's No. 9-ranked quarterback prospect and the No. 145 overall recruit -- and his mother would go anywhere near California. Once upon a time, they fled the Golden State as if on fire because, well, the earth did shatter beneath their feet.

A native of Connecticut, Karen Kurensky was once a stranger to all things California.

That includes earthquakes. So after the earth beneath northwest Los Angeles began doing the rhumba in the infamous "Northridge Earthquake" on Jan. 17, 1994, Kurensky didn't take long to stack one life-changing decision atop another.

Having just separated from her long-time partner, Max's father, Kurt Wittek, in a decision so fresh that she had not yet unpacked after driving from San Francisco to L.A., she was ready to go again.

"It was the day Max, the dog and I packed up the car," Kurensky said. "We arrived at about 7:30. We were at my girlfriend's apartment, we went to bed and the earthquake hit at about 4:30 in the morning. That's why we were on a plane five days later. That really shook me up."

A quake that registered 6.7 on the Richter scale with some of the greatest ground acceleration recorded in North American history sent Kurensky and six-month-old Max to join her family in Connecticut.

They lived back East until a few years ago, when Max's physical gifts came under Clarkson's tutelage, grew and prompted another cross-country move … back to Cali.

Kurt Wittek, a high-profile real estate developer on both coasts, rarely missed one of his son's sporting events even though the New York native's primary residence has for decades been the Bay Area.

Over time, the father began to think he was seeing something special in his son.

"He had a big arm, and … it became clear that he could do more than throw the ball," Kurt Wittek said. "He started to show that it was very hard to rattle him in any sport. It didn't matter what happened five minutes ago … he just dialed in on the moment. It started to point to where maybe we should give him some more training, or have some people render their opinion."

Seeking a tutor for his middle-schooler, Kurt chose Clarkson on a suggestion from one of his Bay Area business partners. Maybe you've heard of him? Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, who had sent two sons to work with Clarkson.

Clarkson played for John Elway's father, Jack, at San Jose State in the early '80s, and has worked over the years with former USC backup and current Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel, Josh Freeman, Ben Roethlisberger, Jimmy Clausen and Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta, and the sons of Snoop Dogg and Wayne Gretzky, among many notable prospects.

"[Max] was a very introverted kid," Clarkson said. "It took a while for him to open up and see that he could really play. In the area where he lived [Connecticut], football just really wasn't that big. It was hard for him to gauge himself."

Max's confidence grew during multiple workouts with Clarkson, for many of which he would travel to California or Clarkson would travel to Connecticut, in addition to Clarkson's offseason camps.

"I wanted to work on the mental aspect of the game in terms of getting into the film room and learning more about football in general," Max said. "It was eighth-grade year. We split it half-and-half. Every time I would come out here, he would come visit me. It was kind of a month-to-month basis."

On the road again

Soon, another big decision loomed. Max's private school, Fairfield Country Day, went only through ninth grade.

Mom, Dad and mostly Clarkson searched for a high school as Max tracked quickly upward. "He absolutely has a bazooka for an arm," Clarkson said. "He's a lot more athletic than what I first saw. He's gifted with his feet, and very sharp mentally."

Kurt Wittek said: "I wanted to be closer to Max for sure. That was part of it. Steve was out West; that was part of it. Getting into a good school was important, as was the level of competition."

Several California schools, north and south, were considered. Clarkson's relationship with Mater Dei was a factor.

Mater Dei has had a history of success at the QB position: Heisman winner Matt Leinart was followed by another Clarkson pupil in Colt Brennan. He set 58 NCAA passing records, including most touchdown passes thrown in a season with 58, at Hawaii. And Matt Barkley was the Gatorade National Player of the Year in 2008.

Still, "After consulting with the parents, it wasn't an easy decision because it was two households, and getting Karen to come back out [to California] wasn't easy," Clarkson said. "Max went to a program that would appreciate his skill set, and nurture him, and give him guidance … Mater Dei. I've obviously had a long history there."

Monarchs coach Bruce Rollison, offensive coordinator Dave Money and the Mater Dei staff have not in recent years matched the success they had under Rollison from 1991 to '99, when Mater Dei was a combined 109-11-2 with mythical national titles in '94 and '96, yet talent still flows from there.

"It boiled down to football," said Wittek's mother, a massage therapist. "You can't erase the fact that it was a great school and educational opportunity, but it's a different level of football than Connecticut. It's all about what's best for Max."

Stiff competition in California

Make that a very different level of football.

Mater Dei lost 21-14 on Oct. 29 in Angels Stadium to archrival Servite, the No. 1-ranked team in the nation. Wittek completed 16 of 30 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown and rushed for a score, but he threw four interceptions. One was returned by Servite for a touchdown as the Monarchs fell to 5-3.

Wittek has completed 113 of 199 passes this season for 1,654 yards, 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He's also rushed for 120 yards and four scores. As a junior, he completed 136 of 220 passes for 2,126 yards, 15 touchdowns and nine interceptions while rushing for 189 yards and two touchdowns as Mater Dei went 6-5.

Wittek and Barkley -- who started when Wittek was a sophomore at Mater Dei and then became USC's starter as a freshman -- are close.

"I didn't feel any pressure necessarily following in the footsteps of great quarterbacks," Max said. "I got very excited about it. I've gone to work with them a few times, more so with Matt Barkley … he would give me a ride up to see Steve. They give me a lot of tips."

When the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Wittek committed last spring to USC, it seemed natural.

"To me, it was just the best fit, because they have such a great legacy at the quarterback position and you don't have that much success without doing something right," Max said. "I talk to Matt Barkley all the time. He comes to our games when he can, and I go to pretty much all their home games and I go in the locker room and tell him what I think he should do."
Here, Max Wittek chuckled.

His mother can yuk it up now, too. Kurensky said she misses Connecticut "terribly," but she sounds like she's on solid ground even though the earth has rattled beneath her feet a few times in the three years since she and Max returned to California.

"I'll never forget leaving [in '94]; it was a red-eye and most turbulent flight ever," she said. "I can laugh now. Yeah, since we moved here it's happened again, but nothing like [the Northridge quake], just tiny little things. I've come a long way."

So has Max Wittek, whom Clarkson said has yet to move like he really can.

"Unlike other [USC] quarterbacks, he's really going to give them a dimension that they haven't had in some time," Clarkson said. "I think he's going to really turn that program into a different direction with his ability to make plays with his feet."

Matt Winkeljohn left the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after spending 21 years there. He can be reached at mattwinkeljohn@yahoo.com.