From Montana to Denver: The rise of Brock Osweiler

KALISPELL, Mont. -- When Brock Osweiler was 17 years old, Russell McCarvel, his football coach at Flathead High School in Kalispell, Montana, invited him over to his house to watch a few hours of game tape. The coach wanted to chat with his quarterback before his senior year picked up steam, but he wasn't planning to make some grand speech. Just bringing it up seemed borderline unnecessary.

Osweiler, an honor roll student who occasionally babysat McCarvel's two sons, was a coach's dream. He was well-liked by his teammates, confident but not arrogant. He never coasted in the weight room or in practice, and he studied film with a quiet intensity that most teenagers simply don't have the patience for.

But in Kalispell -- a middle-class town of 20,000 in the heart of the Flathead Valley that's surrounded by the soaring peaks of Glacier National Park and Flathead Lake, the largest natural freshwater lake in the West -- Osweiler had become something of a celebrity. It was already clear that he had a good chance of playing professional football. With a crossbow for a right arm, at 6-foot-7 and 220 pounds, he surely looked the part. To start the path, he was headed to Arizona State. In Montana, that made him an anomaly.

"I know you know this already," McCarvel remembers telling Osweiler that day, "but you're better than everyone on this team. We have some talented players, but you're on an entirely different level. What you need to do is make sure that someday, when some kid is watching you on TV at Applebee's when he's older, he turns to his friend and says, 'You know what? I played with that guy, I blocked for him, and he was a great guy.' Because people from Montana love cheering for their own."

What was left mostly unspoken -- yet understood -- was the creed that every Montana high school football player and coach of the past 20 years knows well: Don't make the mistakes that Ryan Leaf made.

For the majority of Americans, that might seem like fairly obvious advice. Leaf's short NFL career and the years after -- a cautionary tale of arrogance, immaturity, injuries, alcohol, prescription drugs and eventually, prison time -- have become an infamous piece of sports history. It's rare to hear Leaf's name these days unless it's atop a listicle of "Biggest Draft Busts Ever" or as a reminder that Peyton Manning's career foil was supposed to be Leaf, who was drafted behind him, at No. 2, in 1998, and not Tom Brady.

But the ghost of Leaf's meteoric rise, and his calamitous unraveling, is a specter that still haunts the Treasure State when discussing the native son's professional football ambitions. For Montanans, Leaf's fall is a complicated piece of the state's football identity, not just a story of a draft pick gone wrong. To the world beyond the Rocky Mountains, Leaf still represents Montana football in ways that JaMarcus Russell doesn't seem to represent Louisiana, or Rick Mirer with Indiana, and for good reason. Of the thousands of kids to play four years of high school football in Montana, only two have ever started an NFL game at quarterback.

Leaf was the first. Osweiler, when he filled in this season for the injured Manning, became the second. This isn't Texas or Ohio or Florida, where great quarterbacks seemingly jump off an assembly line each fall. There are literally more NFL quarterbacks in the Manning family than there are in the history of the state of Montana.

For that reason (and many more), McCarvel couldn't help but smile Sunday when Osweiler -- drafted in the second round in 2012 by Denver -- was interviewed after the Broncos beat the Patriots 30-24 in overtime, becoming the first team this season to defeat New England. Asked by NBC's Michele Tafoya what it felt like to be 2-0 as a starting quarterback, Osweiler quickly deflected the question. "I'm not 2-0," he said. "The team is 2-0." To most of the country, it sounded like a banal cliché. But in the eyes of many here, it was just the most public example of how Osweiler has always been conscious of not repeating Leaf's missteps.

WHAT'S INTERESTING ABOUT Osweiler's rise is how easily he could have ended up as a forgotten mid-major college basketball player instead.

The younger of two brothers, Osweiler was 6-4 by the time he was in seventh grade, and he dominated youth sports in Kalispell throughout his childhood. He spent his summers starring for the Yakima Elite AAU team, one of the best squads in the Pacific Northwest, and the stories of his athletic exploits spread quickly. Whether it was scoring 50 points in a middle school game or pulling off a 360 dunk as a 15-year-old, Osweiler became known as the cocky, friendly kid who drove around town in a black Dodge Durango with the license plate "LIL OZ."

"Everyone knew who he was before he got to high school," said Reed Watkins, a teacher at Flathead High School, who is two years older than Osweiler and played football for the Flathead Braves. "He was already playing basketball all over the country."

He grew to 6-7, with size 17 shoes, and he moved with a mixture of grace and power, unlike most tall high school kids.

"Growing up with him was special," says Charlie Dotson, one of Osweiler's teammates and friends in high school. "He'd do things on the court or on the field and you'd think, 'Wow, is this guy for real?' "

Gonzaga also saw something special, and by December of Osweiler's freshman year, he was invited to a game to watch Adam Morrison and the eighth-ranked Bulldogs play in Spokane against St. Joseph's. Gonzaga offered him a scholarship, and Osweiler accepted immediately. The news swept the state: At 15, Osweiler was the youngest Montana athlete to ever make a Division I basketball commitment.

Over time, however, Osweiler began to reevaluate his future, what his ceiling might be, and which sport it might be in. Grady Bennett, Osweiler's football coach at Flathead during his freshman and sophomore years and a former quarterback at the University of Montana, invited Osweiler over for dinner one night and peppered him with questions.

It would be fun to play in front of 6,000 people in Spokane. But have you thought about how much fun it would be to play in front of 80,000 to 100,000?

If you're truly being honest with yourself, do you see yourself making it to the NBA as a 6-7 white guy?

Or could you potentially see yourself playing in the NFL?

Bennett could see the wheels in Osweiler's head start to churn. Basketball was fun, but football might be a legitimate way to make a living. "I think that's when he really started thinking about it for the first time," Bennett says. "You could just tell what a leader he was. I remember right before one of our playoff games his sophomore year, he asked me if he could give a speech to the team. I thought, 'Wow, this is a sophomore? This kid is something special.' "

The trouble, initially, was getting the attention of recruiters outside Montana. There were passing camps that Osweiler wanted to attend, the kind where all the best prep quarterbacks in the country gather for a week during the summer, but most were held in California or in the South. It was too expensive to fly and too far to drive. He decided he had to market himself, so Osweiler and his dad, John, put together a DVD of highlights from his sophomore season. In one scene, there was grainy footage of Osweiler nailing the receiver on a deep out; in the next he'd uncork a skinny post. Mixed in were clips of him dunking a basketball during games. Within weeks of sending out the DVD, Osweiler started getting letters from Alabama, USC, Stanford, Florida State.

"He was such a great basketball player," says Flathead High School principal Peter Fusaro. "But things evolved with him. It was apparent that he was going to be able to take it to the highest level in football. Watching him on the football field, the way he could move and throw the ball, it was just apparent."

Just as Osweiler's football career was taking off, though, he found himself caught in the middle of a community tug of war. The city of Kalispell had grown to where it was clear the school district needed to build a second high school. When the new 229,000-foot facility, Glacier High School, was ready to open in 2007, half of Flathead's students were expected to enroll there.

"The politics of it were tough," says Charlie Doston, who was a year older than Osweiler and played running back. "My senior class, we got to vote whether we wanted to go Glacier or stay at Flathead. It was 95 percent wanted to stay at Flathead. For us, it was about tradition and pride and everything we'd been working for. We didn't want to jump ship and go to a new school just because it was brand new and had shiny technology and new uniforms."

Most of Flathead's coaching staff, including Bennett, was leaving to take teaching and coaching jobs at Glacier. And Osweiler had a choice. He lived in the new district, which meant he had the option of going to Glacier or staying at Flathead. No matter what he decided, half the town was going to feel betrayed.

"It was brutal," Bennett says. "Brock was one of the first people I told, and I just said, 'This is an opportunity I have to take professionally and for my family.' He said 'Coach, I respect that. But I'm a Brave. I grew up wearing black and orange, and my brother played here. All my friends are here. I'm staying.' It was hard, because I felt like we were just getting started. I knew I was walking away from a potential NFL quarterback, and a lot of people were ticked off. But I think Brock showed a lot of loyalty, a lot of leadership. He took over that school. Everyone rallied behind him."

Osweiler's first act was to throw his full support behind McCarvel, who was named Flathead's new coach and was just one of two coaches who didn't leave for Glacier. Soon, Osweiler began his routine of dropping by the house to watch film. He was particularly fixated, McCarvel remembers, on studying the complexities and nuances of pass protection. He wanted to know how he could do a better job recognizing where pressure might be coming from and understanding ways he could help his linemen and running backs prior to the snap. He organized offseason workouts and throwing sessions, hoping it would solidify the bond among teammates who chose to stay. If you didn't show, he was on his cell phone calling and texting, wanting to know why you were late.

"He's so athletic for being big, and obviously he throws it so well," McCarvel says. "But then you get to know him, and he's engaging, he's smart, he's driven, he's goal-oriented, and he worked very hard. Every attribute you would want in a quarterback, there it is."

McCarvel, who now teaches math and coaches in Helena, Montana, at Capital High School, says Osweiler wasn't all that interested in being wooed by a number of schools. He didn't even take a recruiting trip until after he'd committed. Arizona State assistant coaches Noel Mazzone and Matt Lubick traveled to Montana to see Osweiler, and when they arrived, they asked him if he would throw a few passes in the gym to warm up.

"After he watched Brock throw about 10 balls, [Mazzone] turned to me and said, 'I've seen enough. I'm good,' " McCarvel remembers.

When you watch highlights from Osweiler's high school career -- McCarvel held on to a few DVDs and is happy to break them out if asked -- you can see plenty of evidence of the man he would become. He threw for 2,703 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior and was named the Gatorade Player of the Year, but his mechanics and footwork stand out. They're light-years ahead of most teenage quarterbacks. The ball comes out of his hand like a slingshot, like he's barely exerting any effort. Cold weather and snow, like the conditions he played in against the Patriots, don't faze him. (Every Montana kid grows up playing in the snow.) When Osweiler fakes a handoff and rolls to his right, zipping a perfectly thrown pass into the arms of a receiver for a touchdown, McCarvel pauses the DVD on the computer in his classroom and chuckles.

"Looks a lot like what he's doing in Denver, doesn't it?" he says.

Osweiler has stayed closely connected to Flathead and its football program. A year ago he donated a large board called the Flathead Football Captains Board that hangs in the hallway near the locker room. It features a picture of Osweiler and the words "Count on Me." Every year, the names of the football team's captains are etched on the board as an honor.

This fall he kept in contact with the coaches and players and wished them well as the team enjoyed its best season since Osweiler's days.

"He's been awesome to me and our program," says Kyle Samson, Flathead's second-year coach. "He's definitely a guy who hasn't forgotten where he came from. He takes a lot of interest in our program, and he sends us letters regularly during the season. He's really helped me out with a few things. The kids look up to him tremendously."

FOR EACH OF Osweiler's starts, fans have filled local sports bars, from Moose's Saloon to Fatt Boys, to cheer on the Kalispell product. He's been the talk of the town, if not the state. Even Montana Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Senator Steve Daines couldn't resist crowing a bit after the Patriots game, tweeting notes of congratulations: "Congrats to @bosweiler17 and the @Broncos on your win over the Patriots. Keep making #Montana proud!" the governor wrote.

"Congrats to @bosweiler17 and the Broncos on their overtime win...snow can't stop a Montana boy!" Daines added.

Two days after the game, the excitement continued to grow when Osweiler was featured on the regional cover of Sports Illustrated, the first Montana athlete to make the cover since Leaf in 2000.

"There was quite the buzz going around," Fusaro says. "It's a testament to Brock and how hard he's worked to be there and how he put himself in a great position to succeed."

Dotson, now an assistant football coach for the Flathead Braves and a physical education teacher at the school, says he often thinks about Osweiler when he's talking to kids about leadership and loyalty. Dotson's senior year, he broke his collarbone midway through the Braves' homecoming game, an injury that ended his season well before Flathead began its playoff run. After the game, a few friends and teammates commiserated with him for a few minutes, but one after another, they all dashed off to the homecoming dance, eager to celebrate.

Osweiler skipped the dance entirely. He and his girlfriend drove over to Dotson's house, and the three of them sat around and watched TV, talking and cracking jokes.

"That says everything you need to know about Brock," Dotson says. "We just won the homecoming game, he's the quarterback and one of the most popular guys in school, and he's just chilling and hanging out, making sure I'm OK. That right there shows you what kind of character he has."

Freelance writer Dillon Tabish contributed to this story.