Jimmy Swagger

A robust man is across the street from Touchdown Jesus, going door-to-door. He wants to buy a house, wants it close to the Golden Dome and, preferably, wants it this autumn afternoon. He rings 16 doorbells, but half the home owners don't answer and the other half won't sell. He keeps plugging. At the 17th home, an older woman in curlers invites him in, offers lemonade. He tells her no thanks, he'd rather have her house. She says sorry and urges him to head three doors down. The man goes straight there and finds the door slightly ajar. He knocks, and a gravelly voice says, "We don't want any." He knocks again. "We don't want any!" He doesn't budge, instead pressing his business card against the screen door.

"Oh, we thought you were a Jehovah's Witness," says an elderly woman, waving him inside. "We watched you work the entire neighborhood."

"No, I'm Jim Clausen," says the man. "My son's coming to school here, and I want to buy your house."

And from the next room comes the gravelly voice again: "Sonny, this is your lucky day."

BACK IN Thousand Oaks, Calif., high school prodigy Jimmy Clausen is reciting Notre Dame pass plays into a tape recorder. He listens to them, memorizes them, repeats them. It's only November, but in a few months he'll have to regurgitate these calls in the Irish huddle, with authority, and if Charlie Weis is listening, Clausen can't stutter. He writes on flash cards and quizzes himself. At night, from his bed, he watches Notre Dame game tapes, turning up the volume to better make out Brady Quinn's audibles.

He does it for one reason: He wants to go to Notre Dame's spring practice and leave as the starting quarterback. Quinn is gone, the job is open, the fans are drooling, the minicams are rolling, so he'd better know what "middle field closed" means. But it's not going to be easy. It's not easy hearing you're arrogant, that you've never been hit. It's not easy being mocked on the Internet. It's not easy dealing with hype and hate. But he's been waiting his whole life for this, or at least since he was 4'11".

We're going back seven years now. Jimmy is in fifth grade, and under the Friday night lights, he asks to warm up his oldest brother, Casey, before a high school game. His dad says, "Only if you don't cry." He promises not to, and Casey promptly starts to throw darts at his little brother's head. The kid falls backward as he catches them, but each time he gets up and whips the ball back. First the throws are 10 yards, then 20, 30 and 40. The crowd gasps. A local reporter sees it and prints: "Keep an eye out for the youngest Clausen." The hype begins.

And he lives up to it. He throws 58 TDs as a sophomore. But he has a mouth to go with his arm. His Oaks Christian team trails rival Oak Park at halftime of the title game that season, and with talented tailback Marc Tyler injured, the team is panicked. So Jimmy tells his head coach, Bill Redell, "I got this." He shouts, "We're going to play like we've been coached, and win by two touchdowns." They win by three touchdowns. On the key play, Jimmy avoids a sack and throws a 60-yard strike. He sprints to the end zone to celebrate and, according to a bitter Oak Park coach, stops in front of him to say, "What do you think about that?" The hate begins.

We're going back three years now. Big brother Casey has just finished a reputable career at Tennessee, starting 44 games and earning a Citrus Bowl MVP honor. But draft weekend is the worst 48 hours of the Clausens' lives. Jim Clausen—who took red-eyes to every one of his son's games, all 47 of them, for four years—watches each pick on TV. Casey isn't one of them. The dream is over. Jim fumes, inconsolable. Jimmy sees the hurt in his dad and in Casey and vows that he will never feel what they do. It's why he begins to work so feverishly, and it's why, the next winter, none of his buddies can find him on the most blustery day of the year.

We're going back 13 months now. Jimmy is on Zuma Beach, during a windstorm. Sand is in his eyes and ears. After sprinting from one lifeguard station to another, he tells his strength coach, "Feels like needles are in my legs." The coach, Joey Masiello, hired by Jimmy's dad, figures the kid is about to quit or puke, so he tells him he can go inside to hit the treadmill. But Jimmy, wearing Notre Dame shorts, says, "Nah, let's do this." He's 185 pounds and wants to get to 210. He eventually insists they do three-a-days, and when Jim asks how his son is doing, Joey says, "I've had top NFL draft picks who don't have his work ethic." But what pushes Jimmy is that kid who wasn't picked. "What happened to Casey drives me," Jimmy says. "Drives me to be the best quarterback who's ever played."

By now, Jimmy's taking extra classes so he can graduate high school early and get a head start at the football factory of his choice. He'll go to spring ball, maybe start as a freshman, the way Casey did at Tennessee and his middle brother, Rick, tried to do at LSU (before transferring to Knoxville). His dad always said, "You can't earn a job in the summer; you've gotta get there in the spring." So Jimmy—a second-semester junior—takes a second Bible class and a second English class and plans on summer school. It's all mapped out. All he has to do is pick a college, a place where there's a coach who can deliver him to the NFL.

Maybe a coach who knows Tom Brady.

THE STRETCH Hummer rolls up to the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, and out steps Jimmy, fashionably late. He's wearing a suit, a No. 7 medallion and three championship rings. The gathered crowd cheers when he announces his choice: Notre Dame. The decision is all about Weis, the perfect coach to help Jimmy right Casey's wrong. Jimmy's call boiled down to this: Do I want to play with the freaky athletes at Southern Cal or play for the genius who mentored Tom Brady? He chooses Brady's mentor. With Quinn graduating in a year, it's a no-brainer. Jimmy stands at the podium and talks of winning four national titles. The Irish faithful love it. But the rest of college football is already going, "Hmmmph."

The Hummer, the Hall of Fame, the rings, the medallion … the gall of him, reporters write. Jimmy is blistered from coast to coast, but the critics know nothing. Jimmy had actually told Weis he wanted to offer his commitment in South Bend on Junior Day, surrounded by all those other high school All-Americas. He figured he could start a domino effect. But where would the press conference be? It's against NCAA rules to announce on campus. The family liked the idea of the nearby Hall of Fame, never expecting a backlash. Casey and Rick flew in to surprise Jimmy and were joined by their sister, Katie, two of Jimmy's teammates, three of his teammates' parents, Jimmy's uncle, and Casey's agent, Gary Wichard, a family friend. Add a TV crew from ESPN, and that made 16 people. They almost rented a squadron of cars, but Jimmy's mom, Cathy, wanted everyone together, so they splurged for the Hummer. Certainly Jim can afford it. He runs a commercial insurance company and dabbles in real estate. So he went for it and called an LA publicist to arrange the press conference. At least one person liked the pomp. "I thought it was cool," Weis says.

Others read it differently. To them Jimmy is another pretentious athlete, and the criticism ignited a public trashing, a free-for-all. He goes to Internet chat rooms and sees the vitriol:

—I hate him and the whole Clausen clan. You can tell JC has an inflated sense of self-importance by the way he promised ND 4 NCs. Not to mention the stretch Hummer. I hope he falls flat on his face.

—Has anyone else seen that picture of him with his hand out and that stupid grin on his face? I wish someone would have stolen his rings …

—Just hope Clausen doesn't flop like his big brothers did. And thank god he will be wearing a helmet, because if I have to look at that flaming, metrosexual haircut one more time, I will puke!

It's always the hair, the brothers, the rings, the silver, studded No. 7 dog tag. They think Jimmy's too bling, but they don't know that on the backside of that medallion is an inscription: "Love, Mom." She gave it to him for Valentine's Day.

THE MAELSTROM only has Jimmy working harder. Every day, he watches film with Oaks Christian's new quarterbacks coach, Casey. But the offense they watch is Notre Dame's.

Casey teaches Jimmy to call out the Mike linebacker before every snap. If there are five in the box, he tells Jimmy to hand off; if there are more than five, he wants him audibling to a pass. He says that's the way Tom Brady does it.

Casey puts Jimmy in touch with his childhood friend Matt Cassel, who happens to be Brady's backup in New England. Cassel spends hours with the kid, gives Jimmy a dose of Weis' plays, formations and protection schemes. He tells Jimmy that making the correct line calls will endear him to his coach; most young QBs, he says, get mauled because they don't know how to protect themselves.

Casey, who tried to make the Chiefs in 2004, also lays out every secret he's learned. "Cornerbacks lie," he says, "but safeties tell the truth," meaning it's the safeties who give away coverages. He tells Jimmy "middle field closed" means there's a single deep safety playing the middle of the field. Jimmy's a sponge. It's the start of his senior year, but he's already thinking Notre Dame, Notre Dame.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame is thinking Jimmy, Jimmy. Every Wednesday, Weis sends his top recruiter, Brian Polian, to Jimmy's school, just to nod at the kid and make sure USC isn't pulling a heist. Jimmy's dad tells Polian, "Brian, we're coming. Go recruit an offensive lineman or a linebacker." Still, every week, Polian shows up.

Clearly Notre Dame is obsessed with Jimmy—and Jimmy with it. When 60 Minutes airs a segment on Weis in October, Jimmy is glued to his TV. He hears Weis call himself obnoxious and Quinn say that Weis can be profane. Will that turn Jimmy away? This makes his dad laugh: "Are you kidding? He's heard it all in this house. We're pretty dysfunctional."

Jimmy is unswayed even when USC routs Notre Dame 44-24 at the Coliseum on Thanksgiving weekend. Afterward, Jimmy's best friend, Tyler, who's already verbaled to USC, cackles, "Decommit, Jimmy. Decommit." And the next day, guess who knocks on Jimmy's door? Weis and Polian. Both are in suits and seem serious. "Take off your ties," says Jim. "We're still coming. Let's throw some steaks on the grill. We won't even talk about yesterday's debacle." Weis laughs and they talk football for the rest of the day. Jimmy—supposedly jaded Jimmy—has to pinch himself. Charlie Weis is in my living room. He ain't decommitting.

They're locked in, and that's why the Clausens are struck in the ensuing weeks by a rumor out of New York that the Giants might pursue Weis to replace Tom Coughlin. Never mind that Weis denies it; the story spreads. Jimmy is now comfortable enough to shoot this text message: Coach, am I going to have to skip college and go to the Giants with you, or are we doing this at Notre Dame? LOL.

First, though, Jimmy has to get to South Bend in one piece. He has a season to finish, and that means playing against angry schools that are sick of being routed by him. Oaks Christian suits up 11 D1 commits, and rival coaches like Oak Park's Dick Billingsley feel their only chance is to try to confuse its QB. In their first meeting of the season, Oak Park flashes its safeties everywhere, and Jimmy, who knows safeties never lie, keeps audibling, checking off and audibling again. He draws several delay-of-game penalties, and Billingsley later claims that Jimmy is "rattled." He also calls the kid "arrogant" and says the proof is that he yells at his receivers. Oaks Christian still wins, 55-7.

When the two schools meet again, in the playoffs, it's an obvious grudge match. Oaks Christian is leading 25-0 when Jimmy scrambles to the sideline. Suddenly, a linebacker whose helmet has fallen off slams Jimmy deep into the bench. As the refs call unnecessary roughness, Jimmy raises his palms to the crowd as if to say, "That's all you got?" But across the field, the tackler, Sean Westgate, is an instant cult hero. Oak Park coaches and fans feel Jimmy has never been hit; now Westgate has hit him, hard. As the refs enforce the penalty, the Oak Park crowd chants, "That was worth it. That was worth it." The hate continues.

The next week is Jimmy's final game as a prep, against Cardinal Newman, from up north in Santa Rosa. On a wet day, with Notre Dame fans littered throughout the stands, Jimmy throws three ugly interceptions. Because Tyler is out with a broken leg, Newman deploys eight defensive backs, but for some reason, Jimmy's sideline is still calling for passes. Behind 17-13 on his own 10 with nine minutes left—the first fourth-quarter deficit of his career—Jimmy starts to audible to sweeps and quarterback draws. He scrambles on a fourth-down play. He takes a hit but moves the chains. On second and goal, the call is a double slant. But two safeties are crowding that side of the field. Jimmy knows it's suicide to force the pass. He audibles to a sweep, and Tyler's backup, Marshall Jones, scores.

After Oaks Christian escapes in overtime, a fan is heard to say, "I bet Charlie Weis is saying, 'Oh no, what did I do?' " But Casey and Rick have never been prouder. They say this is what Notre Dame will be like. They say Jimmy is ready.

Two weeks later, high school is almost done. Jimmy travels to San Antonio for the U.S. Army All-American game—at which he is named national player of the year—and on his hotel TV, he watches Notre Dame get waxed by LSU in the Sugar Bowl. The next day, he receives a curious text message from the 213 area code.

Are you sure you want to do this? You can still say yes.—Pete Carroll

Jimmy's response: "I'm already packed."

HE ARRIVES in South Bend on a Sunday in January, wearing his Christmas present: a winter coat. It's 10°; he's the coldest he's ever been. But he doesn't complain. Jimmy once heard some recruits tell Weis they hated frigid weather, and Weis said, "So you can't play in Buffalo? Green Bay?" Jimmy isn't about to harp on the cold. In fact, a few days before leaving LA, he says, "I'm ready to be on my own. I've lived in a bubble my entire life."

A text message comes from Nick Saban, who has just taken the Alabama job, but Saban is too late: Jimmy's enrolled now. He has no regrets. Unfortunately, one of his first acts on campus is to tell the trainers his arm is sore. He'd been throwing every day to get used to the fatter NCAA footballs. Maybe he pushed too hard, but Jimmy knew his new teammates would be watching him.

The first team workout is scheduled for 6 a.m. the second week in January. Jimmy shows up at 5:45. That opens some eyes. He wants to take part

in 7-on-7, but Weis shuts him down. Rumors of bone spurs in Jimmy's elbow cause a stir in chat rooms. But the elbow can't be too serious: Jimmy is spotted hurling snowballs at his roommate, cornerback Gary Gray. At the end of February, he finally throws for the first time, and he mesmerizes players with his accuracy. Nothing hits the ground.

Already he's a campus celebrity, signing autographs on his way to class and in the student section at Irish basketball games. Talk about a bubble: He's just entered one. As time wears on, he figures it will be nice to have a place to hide, a place near the dorms, a place where he can decompress.

And that's what the house is for, the one across the street from Touchdown Jesus. Why do you think Jim Clausen went door-to-door? He ended up negotiating a deal with the gravelly voice, an elderly gentleman who was moving into assisted living. They were in escrow within 24 hours.

Contractors gutted the place and turned it into a tricked-out five-bedroom hangout. The basement is now a game room with a big-screen TV, and Jimmy has already brought over teammates to watch NFL games. But mostly, the house will be a sanctuary after tough days, because if the Clausens have learned anything, it's that hype and hate are on the way. "The first time Jimmy throws three picks, someone's going to stick a "For Sale" sign in the front yard," says Jim Clausen, chuckling.

The family will be at the house every football weekend. And the robust dad already knows how they'll arrive at Jimmy's games, including that first one, the spring game on April 21.

No, not in a Hummer.

In a golf cart.