ON THE second floor of the Omni Hotel in downtown Indianapolis, NFL aspirants munch on cheese sandwiches with the crusts carefully cut off. Waitresses serve made-to-order smoothies. Barbers stand by for haircuts, and a mammoth security guard protects a room stocked with free shoes.
Garrett Grayson isn't sure what to make of the Nike Hospitality Suite, a counterpoint to the NFL combine taking place a few frozen blocks away, at Lucas Oil Stadium. He's told that this is where prospects who spend all day being prodded come to get pampered. That, and to score a kale-spinach-banana-blueberry shake.
Grayson, 23, is projected as the third- to fifth-best quarterback in the draft, but he's still adjusting to the life of an NFL hopeful. Five years ago he had just three college scholarship offers; three years ago he suffered a depression so dark that he spent weeks in bed. Back then the Nike suite would have seemed like a football Mars.
Thus, once inside, he poses an innocent question. "The shoes?" Grayson sheepishly asks his agents. "They're, um, free?"
Indeed. The free kicks are but one perk of what will be a glamorous new job, NFL quarterback. And Grayson is perhaps the most intriguing one in the draft. At the combine he had formal interviews with the Rams, Eagles and Raiders, and he had informal discussions with most other teams. (He didn't participate in drills until last week, at his pro day, due to a hamstring injury in Indy.) He's intriguing to teams for what he is: athletic, strong-armed, accurate, tough. He's also intriguing for what he's not.
Grayson is not a spread guy. At Colorado State he played in a pro-style system. In a position group defined by a pair of potential No. 1 selections (Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota) but not much depth, that's a major distinction.
Grayson is not Bryce Petty, the Baylor star who at the Senior Bowl called a play for the first time in his life. "That's unbelievable," says Grayson, echoing NFL executives and coaches. Quarterbacks like Petty—guys who never call plays, use snap counts or change protections—arrive in the NFL "light-years behind," says Cardinals coach Bruce Arians. Grayson did all that and passed for more than 4,000 yards last season, earning the Mountain West's offensive player of the year award.
Grayson is not Mariota, the Heisman winner from spread-savvy Oregon, whose combine news conference was broadcast live on SportsCenter while a selfie stick bobbed over his head. Nor is he Winston, the Florida State QB whose off-field indiscretions cloud his prodigious skills
Grayson is unlike any quarterback in this class.
IN RECENT MONTHS Grayson hired agents, played in the Senior Bowl, trained for the combine and asked his mother, Jody, a medical practice manager, to describe her favorite car. (Response: "Don't buy me one.") But as everything else changed, his childhood bedroom in Vancouver, Wash., did not. It's still crowded with pictures of Peyton Manning and posters of Michael Jordan; bags of footballs; helmets, trophies and certificates.
In the living room, Jody and his father, Brad, once high school sweethearts but now divorced, spread dozens of pictures across the carpet. There's Garrett—known as Bubba or G-man to family members—in a full Dallas Cowboys uniform at age four, the helmet twice the size of his head. There's Bubba on his grandfather's farm, riding a tractor and feeding the 200 or so cows. There's G in high school, an avid fisherman (mostly salmon) and hunter (elk, deer, pheasant) with surprisingly poor aim for a quarterback. "G was always off," says Brad. "He would wound them, and they would run. Or he would just plain miss."
"His accuracy developed," Jody deadpans.
So did his profile. The NFL Network plays on the flat screen that dominates the living room. Network analysts debate Mariota and Winston nonstop, but they often mention Grayson, too. Brad yawns and stretches his coconut-sized biceps. He's a longshoreman who looks like an NFL linebacker—all veins and thick muscles, no neck. "He's pretty jacked," Garrett says of his dad. "I'll be scared of him until he's in a wheelchair."
Brad nudged his children toward specific sports and positions. His daughter, Ashley, wanted to be a dancer but instead played volleyball at the University of Portland. Garrett hoped to be a running back but moved to quarterback. "Gotta consider the ladies," Brad says with a smile.
Under Brad's guidance Garrett was always moving, throwing, training. He tossed one football against the fireplace so many times that he wore the leather off. He did wall-sits until he cried. He ran hills and rode bikes. He tattooed one of his father's favorite sayings over his heart: don't ever leave somewhere saying you could have done more.
At Heritage High he started as a sophomore after the No. 1 QB broke his leg in the opener. In his debut as a starter he led the Timberwolves to 61 points, with 376 passing yards and three TDs. Over the next three seasons he accumulated more than 10,000 total yards of offense. In his final year, playing against rival Kelso in thick mud, he engineered a mesmerizing 15-point second-half comeback. His TD, with 34 seconds left, and tying two-point conversion set up overtime—where he did the same thing again for the win. "I was like, 'Garrett, figure it out,' " says his high school coach, Nate Becksted. "And he did. Every game we won was like that."
Still, Washington State wanted Grayson to play safety. Washington wanted him to walk on. Louisville liked him but had offered too many quarterbacks, so Cardinals coach Steve Kragthorpe recommended Grayson to a friend, Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild—which is how Grayson ended up playing QB at a school he'd never heard of.
Though not immediately. Grayson arrived in Fort Collins the summer of 2010 to find his position overcrowded. The Rams asked him to grayshirt and report back the next January, so he relocated and moved in with his sister, who was teaching high school English in Austin. He volunteered at St. Andrew's Episcopal, a tiny private school whose football coach happened to be Ty Detmer, a Heisman winner with eight NFL seasons under his belt. Grayson ran the scout team and worked with the quarterbacks; in return Detmer tutored him in footwork drills and film study. "I was a little shocked [CSU] hadn't played him right away," Detmer says. "It made me wonder who they had."
When Grayson returned, in 2011, he jumped atop Colorado State's depth chart due to a teammate's knee injury late in the season and started the last three games. Then he fell off it early the next year because of an injury of his own: He broke his collarbone in late September 2012 against Air Force and broke it again in his first game back, in early November against Wyoming. Grayson had never been injured like that. "I went into a funk and just disappeared, basically," he says. "I was sleeping all day, every day. Dark rooms. Ramen noodles.
"You could say I was depressed."
WHEN THE FOG finally lifted, in the spring of 2013, Grayson sought out teammates and apologized for his absence. He met with his coach, Jim McElwain (who'd replaced Fairchild in '12), and offensive coordinator, Dave Baldwin, for extra film study. "He was a highly competitive guy who tried to hit a home run on every play," says McElwain, now at Florida. "He had to learn to take what was there."
That season started with two defeats. After the second, Grayson texted his father, I don't know what I'm doing wrong. Brad told him to enjoy the game. Jody urged him to continue meeting with the coaches.
The odds were stacked against any progress in Week 4—at No. 1 Alabama—but that's where Grayson turned a corner. Although the Rams lost 31--6, he completed 24 of 38 passes for 228 yards and no interceptions against a defense stacked with future pros. Afterward, McElwain, a former Alabama offensive coordinator, passed Grayson's phone number to former Crimson Tide QB Greg McElroy, who texted him, If you had Alabama's team, imagine what you could do.
From there, growth: six wins in the final eight games, completing the Rams' first winning season since 2008; a school-record 3,696 passing yards; and, in the New Mexico Bowl, an improbable comeback against Washington State in which Grayson helped turn a 45--30 deficit into a 48--45 triumph over the final three minutes.
In both high school and college Grayson made average teams better. At Heritage he was athletic enough to win district titles in both high and low hurdles, and run a 4.63-second 40. But because of his importance, and because of the issues with his collarbone, his CSU coaches often kept him in the pocket. That should make him a better pro. Before his senior season in Fort Collins he nabbed a coveted counselor invitation to the Manning Passing Academy from Archie Manning. Grayson reported back to Baldwin, "Coach, I'm as good as anybody here."
In that final college campaign (after yet another collarbone break, during the spring, while he was moving furniture) Grayson led Colorado State to a 10--1 start and a No. 21 national ranking. Baldwin says his QB "probably shouldn't" have stayed in a game against Boston College after he separated his throwing shoulder, but his 12-yard TD in the final minute gave the Rams their first lead in a 24--21 victory. Five weeks later Grayson injured his groin against San Jose State, but again he played through pain, limping to a 38--31 win. "One of the toughest guys I've been around," says Baldwin, now at Oregon State.
The way Grayson developed—in a pro-style offense, with his athletic ability protected—made him both a better college quarterback and a better pro prospect. "He has one of those bodies that's going to grow and get stronger," says Brett Fischer of the Fischer Institute, where Grayson trained before the combine. "I had Jake Plummer for 10 years; he reminds me of Jake in a lot of ways. He's very athletic. Big wrists, big hands."
Grayson is also, in some ways, the antispread prospect. At CSU he shifted protections and read defenses. His numbers aren't inflated; if anything, elite talent at receiver will only help him grow. The NFL's scrutiny season is about producing, sure. But it's about projecting, too—projecting something unlike RG3, Colin Kaepernick, Geno Smith, Johnny Manziel or any of the other spread guys who have struggled with aspects of the pro game.
"He came along at the right time," says Detmer.
AT HOME in Vancouver, Jody dials up an NFL Network segment. Path to the Draft, it's called, and halfway through the analysts debate the third-best available QB, behind Winston and Mariota. "Somebody's gotta go three," says one talking head.
"Here's another name: Garrett Grayson."
"It's so weird to hear that," Jody says.
"He's coming, guys," the analyst continues.
"Weird," she says again.
Jody flashes back to her son's childhood, to when his friends stayed over and sat around the fire pit and she cooked massive piles of pancakes and bacon the next morning; back further, to when she wore out her arm throwing footballs to Garrett in the backyard; even further, to the first time he told her he wanted to play professional football. He was five, maybe six.
"Don't you want to be a fireman or something?" she asked him.
No. "NFL," he said.
Overlooked out of high school, underappreciated early on at Colorado State, tutored in Austin by Detmer, injured and afflicted by depression, developed and protected in the Rams' system—everything that happened to Grayson led to this point. "Everyone who could doubt this kid has doubted him," says Becksted, his high school coach. "Now he might be the third quarterback picked in the NFL draft. He worked for it. He learned that nothing is free."
Except the shoes.
GRAYSON MAY BE THE ANTISPREAD PROSPECT: HE SHIFTED PROTECTIONS AND READ DEFENSES; HIS NUMBERS AREN'T INFLATED.
Photograph by Todd Rosenberg For Sports Illustrated
RON CHENOY/USA TODAY SPORTS
RAM TOUGH One could get a big head from the stats racked up by Grayson, who overcame injury and depression to lead the Mountain West in nearly every QB category in 2014.
DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES
[See caption above]
DAN BYERS/CSU ATHLETICS
LATE RISER Scouts from 12 NFL teams last week watched Grayson complete 70 of 74 passes and show off his 34-inch vertical.