As the morning fog started to rise from the practice fields outside Mission Viejo High School, Blaine Gabbert began his own ascension.
The scene was foreign for the high school sophomore from just outside St. Louis, and for his father. Chuck Gabbert knew his son had talent, but wasn’t sure of much beyond that. Missouri is a long way from Mission Viejo, and further still from the culture of elite quarterback camps and national recruiting showcases that the school’s head coach and renowned quarterback guru, Bob Johnson, helped organize. The trip to California for a couple sessions with Johnson was just supposed to be a unique Christmas gift.
Missouri vs. Illinois
WHEN: 2:40 p.m.
WHERE: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM, KBXR/102.3 FM
But standing across the field from where his son fired passes to the receivers the Gabberts had brought along, Chuck Gabbert had the conversation that changed everything.
“How tall is he?” Johnson asked as he surveyed each throw.
Johnson nodded, his estimation confirmed.
“And how big is he?”
“And how old?”
Johnson explained to Chuck Gabbert what exactly it is that Johnson does. He told him that he sees some of the best quarterbacks from all around the country. But there was something special about this one. He told Chuck Gabbert that his son possessed traits that he couldn't begin to teach. He told him that he was a Division I football player.
A flurry of dominant recruiting camp performances and a successful junior season meant that by his senior year, Blaine Gabbert had become one of the most highly sought after high school football players in the country.
Nearly four years after Bob Johnson’s declaration, Missouri's biggest recruiting prize in recent memory is stepping into the spotlight left by a Heisman Trophy finalist and the most prolific passer in the history of Missouri football.
It’s nothing new.
After dealing with recruiting nightmares, commitments, coach firings, abuse from opposing fans, injuries, unreal expectations and everything else that comes with being the best high school quarterback in the country, following a legend isn't much different.
For Blaine Gabbert, it's never been about accolades, rankings or acclaim.
For Blaine Gabbert, it's been about the things he can control.
For Blaine Gabbert, it's just been about being a quarterback, and completely devoting himself to being the best.
Near his parents' home in Ballwin, through a few adjacent backyards, is the pond where Blaine Gabbert has spent so much of his summers.
There were times where fishing was a relaxing escape. With no one else around, Gabbert would grab the tackle box and make his way to the pond where he could spend hours.
But more often than not, fishing isn’t leisure among the Gabbert family. It’s just another instance where the simplest activity becomes something to be won.
It doesn’t matter who’s involved. It could be Gabbert’s best friend and University of Missouri baseball player Conner Mach. It could be his brothers, Brett and Tyler Gabbert. Whoever makes the first catch, or the biggest, gets bragging rights. And they use them.
“It’s in everything we do,” Chuck Gabbert said. “I kid you not. It could be fishing. It could be hoops. It could be whatever. Sometimes we have to just be like, ‘Guys, give it a rest.’”
More than the unreal set of physical tools, it’s his need to be the best that people cite when explaining how Blaine Gabbert has gotten to where he is.
His parents claim that they’ve never had to push him in anything he’s done. He hired a personal quarterback coach and trainer to ensure his constant improvement. His high school coach says that he’s the hardest working player he’s ever coached. MU teammate Will Ebner says that from fishing to video games, Gabbert just won’t lose.
And never was that more evident than when Gabbert made the trip back to southern California, a year and a half after his initial visit to Mission Viejo, for the Elite 11 Quarterback Camp.
As one of the top quarterback prospects in the country the summer before his senior season, Gabbert was invited to the four-day event, where some of the nation’s best college quarterbacks serve as counselors.
Parkway West isn’t exactly a football powerhouse. The 8-3 record the Longhorns enjoyed during Gabbert’s junior year was a respectable one, but he was the exception among the high school football royalty populating the camp.
Jacory Harris was the rule.
A product of Miami Northwestern High School in Miami, Fla., Harris had guided his team to two straight undefeated seasons, both ending in state championships.
Many of the participants simply took their rightful place as the elite of high school quarterbacks. Gabbert came into the weekend determined to prove that he deserved his.
And he did just that.
At the conclusion of the camp Gabbert was awarded MVP honors from the star-studded cast of counselors. The trip to southern California and the right to participate was just one of the goals that Gabbert wrote down before his sophomore year of high school.
“I set my goals pretty lofty,” Gabbert said. “I pride myself on not ever missing one of those goals. The goals I write down, I work my tail off to get.”
And what were the others?
“Play in the (U.S.) Army (All-American) game.”
“And be the No. 1 quarterback coming out of high school.”
When asked about the goals he’s written down for the upcoming season, a smile comes across his face.
“I can’t tell you,” Gabbert said with a grin.
It may not take long to find out.
The stress of recruitment
When that first phone bill came, Chuck Gabbert knew it was going to be bad.
Getting 4,500 text messages in one month on top of hundreds of phone calls for a grand total of $600? They weren’t ready for this.
“You think you know what it’s like, and you think you can anticipate it,” Chuck Gabbert said. “But until you go through the recruiting process, you have no idea.”
Initially, the plan was to make a decision on a school before Gabbert’s senior year. The family would use the summer to go and make visits. They figured that they had plenty of time. But eventually the pressure to make a decision began to mount.
“Everyone said, ‘I need to know now,’” Bev Gabbert said. “But he wasn’t ready to make a decision.”
There were weeks where Gabbert didn’t speak to his family. This wasn't football. There was no competition or challenge. This was just one of the many things that Gabbert had done his best to set aside in favor of what he could control. But no matter what he did, it was always there.
“There’s a lot for a 17-year-old kid to digest,” Missouri offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator David Yost said. “You’re going all over the country going to different schools. You’re meeting with all these different coaches you see on TV. They’re telling you how much they want you. It can make you change as a person.”
Missouri was in the mix to acquire Gabbert before he made his decision. But in the middle of May Gabbert gave a verbal commitment to the University of Nebraska to play for coach Bill Callahan. The pressure had lifted. But not for long.
A few months later, the Nebraska program began to unravel. The school's athletic director was fired, and the Gabberts knew that Callahan wouldn't be too far behind. In the fall, Gabbert continued speaking to Yost, who had been Gabbert's primary recruiter from Missouri. Gabbert expressed his concern about the turmoil in Lincoln, and Yost reassured him that he still had a spot at Missouri if he wanted it.
"We wouldn't even talk about football," Gabbert said. "The fact that he cared about my personal life and everything else really sold me on this school and the coaching staff. There are schools I know that wouldn't do that."
Yost even attended the game against Parkway Central during Gabbert's senior season, charting each throw in order to discuss them with Gabbert later on that week.
After Callahan's departure, Gabbert changed his mind about Nebraska, and cited Yost's efforts as a major reason he chose the Tigers.
"We built a whole relationship through recruiting," Gabbert said. "We always kept in contact, especially later on in my senior season when we started calling each other every week. He just really took everything to heart."
A new face in Missouri football
It takes only a few moments for the media to converge on the new face of Missouri football.
Immediately after pouring out into the lobby the men and women with the cluster of cameras and recorders surround the young quarterback.
A dozen or so reporters begin tossing questions Gabbert’s way. The answers are concise and calculated, with enough cliché to be brief while still addressing each inquiry.
He says all the right things while not saying much at all. Blaine Gabbert learned a while ago that people are going to say what they want. There's no sense in helping them out.
Gabbert will be the first one to say it. He isn't Chase Daniel. And he never will be. He isn't filling reporter's notebooks. He didn't play on the best high school team in the country. He isn't in constant leadership mode, sending inspirational text messages and strategically positioning himself next to certain teammates in the ice tub.
He's just Blaine Gabbert from Missouri, and playing quarterback is what he's always done.
From his first trip to Mission Viejo until today, his life has been about becoming a great one.
After a high school career of unbelievable promise. And a year of waiting. Whatever people are expecting from Blaine Gabbert, he is expecting more.