I Was the Worst High School Quarterback Ever

The stadium scene.
Aug. 26 2014 11:54 PM

I Was the Worst High School Quarterback Ever

Lessons from a winless career.

Josh Keefe
The agony of 23 consecutive defeats.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo courtesy of Josh Keefe.

I’ve spent more than a decade stewing over it, rolling the memories around in my head, wondering if it could’ve really been that bad. Now, I’m ready to accept my place in history. Of the thousands of American boys who have played quarterback for their high school football teams, I was the worst.

I went 0–23 as the starting quarterback for John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor, Maine, a perfectly imperfect record that came during a longer schoolwide run of 41 consecutive losses. The Bapst losing streak began in 1998, when I was an eighth-grader playing quarterback for a middle school team that won one game. It ended in 2003, in the second game of the first season after I graduated. As the guy under center for nearly three full seasons, that streak feels like mine more than anyone else’s.

That’s not to say it was all my fault. Losing was a total team effort. We were the John Bapst Crusaders, and we never came close to the Holy Land. During my three years of varsity football, we did not once have a lead. Our closest defeat was a 6–0 shutout. My sophomore season, the year I arrived at John Bapst and took over at quarterback, we scored 20 points total. During my junior year, we had something of an offensive explosion, averaging more than 9 points a game. We followed that up by scoring 21 points my whole senior year. This was against teams from the smallest schools in eastern Maine, which is about as far you can get, both geographically and athletically, from the high school football hotbeds of California, Texas, and Florida. I did not, to my knowledge, ever play against anyone who was all that good at football. And yet we lost, again and again, almost always by more than 30 points.

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker

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I won the starting quarterback job my sophomore year, despite the fact that I weighed about 150 pounds and the balls I threw looked like wounded birds fighting a stiff breeze. And yet, I replaced a bigger, stronger junior mostly thanks to two lucky—really, miraculous—plays that I pulled off while still the backup. The first was a 43-yard touchdown scramble in garbage time of a 52–6 loss. I broke a few tackles, reversed field, found a crease, and dived for the pylon to get the score. It looked great, but in reality the only reason I scored was that the other team thought I was down and had given up on the play. Two games later, I came in just a couple of minutes before halftime. We were losing of course and had the ball in our own territory. A few plays in, I threw an 8-yard out well over the intended receiver’s head. Somehow, another of my teammates caught the overthrow and scampered 70 yards for a touchdown. In just a few minutes of playing time at quarterback, I had accounted for all of our team’s scoring up to that point in the season. Nobody seemed to know or care that both plays were complete flukes. I started the next week, and we scored just one touchdown in the remaining five games.

“We thought that you were naturally more creative,” Bruce Pratt, the head coach my freshman year and an assistant my sophomore season, told me recently when I asked why the coaches had made me the starter. “The quarterback was going to be running for his life.”

That was true, at least the running-for-my-life part. I would scramble as soon as the ball was hiked, reversing field three or four times in a single play. I wouldn’t make particularly good passes on the run, nor did I rush for many yards. But I did make the plays last longer. I avoided hulking lineman, pump-faking every other step and spinning away from would-be tacklers. I played, essentially, like somebody avoiding the bulls in Pamplona. And more often than not, the bulls ran me down.

No one ever really taught me how to read a defense, and I couldn’t tell you if our opponents were playing man or zone. We ran a pro-style offense my sophomore year and found more success my junior season by running an old-style T formation, which relied on fakes and trickery to mitigate the fact that we couldn’t block anyone. Every year we had a different head coach. Every year we thought that would mean a fresh start. Every year we were quickly disappointed. In spite of all this, I worked hard. I lifted in the offseason. I practiced throwing on my own time. I wanted to be good. And yet, I was honestly, genuinely, mortifyingly bad.

“You were the perfect quarterback for an awful team,” is how my friend and former teammate Alex Rand explains it. You can’t be as bad at something as I was at football without seeing the humor in it. I created ironic distance between myself and my failure, as all of us Crusaders did. On the bus ride to our practice field (which was on the campus of a mental hospital) we cheered wildly at every red light and stop sign because each second we were delayed meant one fewer spent at practice. The bus driver eventually started rolling through stop signs just to mess with us and disrupt the timing of our applause.

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Illustration by Robert Neubecker

Despite all the comedy, both intentional and unintentional, I still feel a kind of low-grade, stomach-knotting despair when I think back on my high school football career. Those losses don’t sting as much as they once did, but I can still feel those failures—and the feeling that I, personally, was a failure.

I’ve never known how to process my high school football experience. We all lost, but as the supposed leader on the field I always felt like the avatar of our ineptitude. Only recently have I realized that there must be others out there like me, schoolboy quarterbacks who couldn’t tell you what it feels like to score more points than the other team. And so I tracked down some other winless high school quarterbacks to see if they felt how I felt, and if they could help me understand the point of all that losing. If nothing else, they helped me understand just how bad I really was. It turns out, yeah, I’m the worst.

* * *

The quarterback position was invented in 1880 when Walter Camp put forward a rule change at the fourth intercollegiate football convention. Camp’s proposal allowed a player on the line of scrimmage to kick the ball backward to initiate the offensive action, creating the possibility of set plays and strategy in a game that had previously been a rugby-style free-for-all. The player that received the ball, the one responsible for making order out of chaos, was called the “quarter-back.”

With the later advent of the forward pass, and the innovations and complexities that came along with it, the quarterback became the play caller and unquestioned leader on the gridiron. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, by the early 1930s the term “quarterback” was being used figuratively to describe a person in a leadership position. With the explosion of the passing game and the increasing cultural valorization of scholastic sports in the post-war era, the quarterback became more important than ever, both as an athletic hero and a sort of apex predator of the high school ecosystem. You don’t have to know a thing about football to understand that the high school quarterback is an enduring American archetype. He leads his team, the school, and the community. He is strong, graceful, and charismatic. He dates the prettiest girl.

A quarterback who never wins a game is an inversion of everything the position represents. He is an illiterate valedictorian, a superhero who lets the bad guys destroy the universe. I was never cool, and I never dated the beautiful girls. Putting on my helmet every day was excruciating on account of the acne minefield dotting my forehead. I was much more likely to get sent to detention for my untucked shirt (a dress code violation) than to win any kind of acclaim from my classmates.

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