Klee: Peyton Manning's backup made right call to quit basketball

By: Paul Klee
August 7, 2013 Updated: August 8, 2013 at 12:26 pm
photo - Denver Broncos backup quarterback Brock Osweiler catches pass as he tries his hand at receiving at NFL football training Englewood, Colo., on Friday, Aug. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Denver Broncos backup quarterback Brock Osweiler catches pass as he tries his hand at receiving at NFL football training Englewood, Colo., on Friday, Aug. 2, 2013. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) 

The fascinating story of Brock Osweiler starts in western Montana, a landscape so breathtaking gorgeous, it might be where God spent the eighth day.

It's half Seahawks country, half Broncos country. "Probably more Broncos, since they have a longer history of winning," Osweiler said of his hometown, Kalispell.

The trophy trout in nearby Flathead Lake don't care either way.

The Gonzaga basketball staff didn't care if Osweiler was from the moon.

"We liked him right away," then-Gonzaga assistant coach Leon Rice told me Tuesday.

Gonzaga liked Osweiler enough to offer him a scholarship - after his freshman year of high school. At 6-foot-8, he committed to play basketball for the perennial NCAA power.

On Thursday, Osweiler is expected to play the majority of the snaps as the backup quarterback for the Broncos in their preseason opener against the 49ers at Candlestick Park.

How does this happen?

Here goes.

Back in 2006, Gonzaga had nailed down another big-time basketball prospect. It's what the Zags do. With five guys currently on NBA rosters, the Gonzaga staff can tell the difference between a good player and a bad player.

Rice was their lead recruiter on Osweiler.

"Mark (Few) and I flew over and watched him. Big kid, played hard," said Rice, who is now the coach at Boise State. "That's why we offered him so early. He was tough. We like tough kids."

At the time, Osweiler's decision to pursue a career at Gonzaga came easy.

"That family environment really sucked me in," he told me. "It would have been a perfect place to play college basketball."

In a roundabout way, Osweiler's transition from basketball to football got a jump-start from Jim McElwain. Yes, the football coach at Colorado State.

Back then, McElwain was the offensive coordinator at mighty Alabama. And the Crimson Tide was mighty interested in the rumors of a Montana quarterback with a Montana-sized right arm.

The Alabama football staff was friendly with the Gonzaga basketball staff. So McElwain made the phone call: How serious is this kid with hoops? We hear he digs football.

Don't waste your time, Rice told football recruiters. He's committed to basketball.

Then another football coach inquired about Osweiler. And another one. And another one.

The hype machine surged when Osweiler released a DVD of his football highlights from his junior season. The Zags sent a copy to Greg Olson, then the offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to get a pro's opinion on Osweiler's pro prospects as a quarterback.

Olson, who is now the offensive coordinator for the Raiders, told them: The kid doesn't look like a 16-year-old. And the problem with tall quarterbacks usually is a lack of mobility.

Mobility is actually one of Osweiler's strengths. On Monday at Broncos training camp, when a play collapsed, the NFL's tallest quarterback juked a linebacker to earn a first down.

Then he slid to the turf, and that's one long slide.

"When we saw that DVD of his football highlights, it was like, 'Wow. This is not normal,'" Rice recalled. "We pretty much knew he was gone (to football). And that's where his future was."

"I was probably more fundamentally sound at basketball," Osweiler added. "But my passion was in football."

If college football wasn't Osweiler's plan in the beginning, it was then. He chose Arizona State, whose coach, Dennis Erickson, played college football in Montana.

"I would be lying if I said 'I've never thought about what could have been with basketball, what might have happened,'" Osweiler told me. "There's a reason I'm here now."

Watching Osweiler in a practice setting, it's not hard to see why the Broncos committed a second-round pick on a quarterback - five weeks after committing the franchise, and potentially $96 million, to Manning.

His athletic gifts - including an arm the Broncos might use to launch a Hail Mary, instead of Manning's, if they ever need one - are NFL-ready.

Can he think the game?

Osweiler figures to get a bigger opportunity in preseason games like Thursday's.

"Last year (as a rookie) it was all coming at me so fast," he said. "This year I had time to study, had OTAs and things have really slowed down. I feel so much more comfortable. "

He added with a laugh, "Last year I didn't even know why we'd call this play or that play."

In a perfectly orange world, Osweiler wouldn't be the Broncos starting quarterback for another three or four seasons. That means Manning, 37, is playing into his 40s.

Osweiler was born in the '90s. He doesn't turn 23 until Week 12 of this NFL season.

"To be honest with you, I'm having so much fun this year," he said. "Last year I was thinking so much. At times I couldn't really be the player that I feel like I am.

"Now I'm able to go out there and just make plays. Am I where I need to be as an end product? Definitely not. But I'm moving in the right direction."

The direction of his athletic career took a detour, once or twice.

"Obviously he made the right decision to play football," Rice said. "We're excited to watch him play like everybody else."

All from a kid from western Montana, where the trout grow as long as your leg.

And the quarterbacks as tall as a power forward.


Twitter: @Klee_Gazette

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