Long, boring bus trips crisscrossing Florida. Too many late-night meals at Wendy’s.
Whiplash from turning to watch rockets leave the ballpark. The inevitable yet painful moment when a dream dies.
A return to school. A new dream. A redshirt season – at age 24.
Brandon Weeden’s journey to become the rookie starting quarterback of the Cleveland Browns covered thousands of miles, 12 years and two sports.
It started with a fire extinguisher.
Weeden was a baseball player early in high school. He had been too small to play tackle football before a growth spurt, but had continued to develop as a stud pitcher.
Then came the throw.
“It was P.E. one day,” Weeden started. “I was always pretty blessed throwing the football. Since I was a little kid, I could throw it real well.
“There was a fire extinguisher across the gym without the extinguisher in it. I threw a perfect spiral and smoked the extinguisher.”
An interested observer had challenged Weeden to make the throw.
“The football coach pulled me into his office. ‘I’d love for you to come out and give football a shot,’” Weeden said. “I went out for a day, and obviously loved it. It went from there.”
If Weeden can stabilize the Browns’ long unsettled quarterback situation – he will be the 17th starting quarterback since 1999 and 11th to start an opener — they should send former Santa Fe High School coach Brian Kelly a muffin basket.
Weeden isn’t a one-trick pony. The perfect pass in gym class just reinforced what he already knew.
“I was always a natural thrower,” he said. “I was one of those kids, I was never inside, wasn’t a videogame guy. I was always outside. My brother was pushing me.”
Weeden’s No. 1 talent is obvious to even the most casual observer. His motion is easy, his release high and the ball comes out in a tight spiral. It’s usually on target and always has plenty of zip.
“Not many people walking on the face of the Earth throw a football like him,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy said.
Rookie receiver Josh Cooper, who made the Browns’ practice squad, spent four years with Weeden at Oklahoma State. They’re close friends, even after a Weeden toss dislocated two of his fingers in practice as sophomore.
“It’s a tight spiral and it’s coming fast,” Cooper said. “And it’s usually right on the money. He can either fire it in there or he can put some touch on it. He’s that kind of quarterback. He knows what to do with the ball.”
The right arm is the biggest separator between Weeden and backup Colt McCoy, who lost his job when Weeden was drafted No. 22 in April. McCoy’s ball flutters even on short and medium throws, and the routes that require the most arm strength aren’t in his repertoire.
There’s no throw Weeden can’t make. The only evidence needed to convince the jury was a 12-yard completion to receiver Mohamed Massaquoi in the preseason game against the Eagles.
Weeden got a little pressure and moved up in the pocket. The timing of the route was compromised, but he still threw a dart from the left hash to the right sideline. Three defenders looked like they had a chance for an interception, but the ball was past them before they could react.
“I can make that throw every time,” Weeden said. “I let it go confidently. I threw that thing about as hard as I can throw a football. I just knew I couldn’t throw it 95. I had to throw it about 100.
“You’ve got to have a little something attached to your body to be able to throw it. I’m blessed with a pretty strong right arm and I’m not afraid to use it.”
Weeden isn’t cocky when he discusses his arm. He simply oozes with the confidence of a guy who threw his fastball close to 100 mph.
Before the NFL, he had professional baseball. Before the Browns, he belonged to the Yankees.
“When I was young, baseball was always my passion,” Weeden said. “When I grew, football became my passion.”
A disappointing five-year stint in the minor leagues played a starring role in the conversion.
Weeden was a second-round pick of the Yankees out of high school in the 2002 draft. He signed and was shipped to Tampa, Fla.
The 18-year-old who mimicked Ken Griffey Jr.’s batting stance and appreciated Roger Clemens’ attitude on the mound was suddenly traveling around Florida by bus.
“I went in blind. I learned the ropes along the way,” he said. “It was a lot different than I expected. There was so much to it. The bus trips, the lifestyle.”
The worst part? Eating dinner at 11 p.m. after the game.
“Nothing’s open, so you eat a lot of Wendy’s,” he said. “You’re up late, wake up late. It’s not a healthy lifestyle.
“There’s nothing too glamorous about it.”
He loved the camaraderie of the locker room and has lots of good stories about homers surrendered and future major leaguers faced. He played with Matt Kemp and Chad Billingsley of the Dodgers and pitched against Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez – Weeden owned him – and New York’s Robinson Cano.
Weeden spent five years in the minors without a sniff of the majors, never making it past high-Class A. The 97 mph fastball was too straight and the curveball not good enough.
“As a competitor, you don’t want to ever be told you’re not good enough,” he said. “But you just know. Your gut tells you either you will make it to the big leagues or not. I didn’t want to fight anymore, didn’t want to be a journeyman on that level.
“It was a hard pill to swallow.”
If it weren’t for football, Weeden still might be doing his best Crash Davis imitation — riding the buses and clinging to his major league dream.
“I couldn’t imagine going back to school and not playing a sport,” he said. “Since I was 3, I had played a sport.”
What if he had never hit the fire extinguisher and football wasn’t an option after baseball?
“I have a lot of ties to oil and natural gas, big-time corporations,” he said, endearing himself to soon-to-be owner Jimmy Haslam. “There are a lot of opportunities in Oklahoma.”
Weeden’s life as J.R. Ewing can wait.
He had football to fall back on and made a soft landing in Stillwater, Okla. He redshirted, then played in one and three games the next two years.
The clock was ticking on his second career and he hadn’t started a game. He was stuck behind highly recruited Bobby Reid.
“I knew eventually I’d get a chance to play,” Weeden said.
He took advantage of the practice time and called his first year on the scout team the “biggest year of any of them.” He had limited high school experience and had been out of the game for five years.
“Getting full-speed reps against a defense that was hitting me, even though they weren’t supposed to, seeing coverages, it was huge for me,” he said.
His chance to play came as a junior and he burst on the scene with 4,277 yards and 34 touchdowns. He was 27 years old but chose to skip the draft and return for another year.
“I knew the age thing was going to be an issue, people were gonna talk about it, blow it out of proportion,” he said. “I said, ‘Screw it. What’s another year?’
“I think I made the right decision.”
He was second in the nation as a senior with 4,727 passing yards and added 37 touchdowns. He beat Stanford’s Andrew Luck, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III and Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill in head-to-head matchups as the Cowboys went 12-1 and won a BCS bowl game.
“I never second-guessed anything,” Weeden said. “I came back to win the Big 12, beat Oklahoma, play in a BCS game. We did all three. We accomplished every team goal we had.”
Weeden’s talent was on full display and earned him a lot of love from scouts. It also brought a lot of scrutiny because of his age.
“People would say if I was 23, I’d be a top-five pick,” he said. “I’m not 23. I can’t change it.
“It all worked out. I didn’t lose sleep over it.”
Browns general manager Tom Heckert and president Mike Holmgren weren’t deterred. They jumped at Weeden at No. 22 and fast-tracked him into the starting lineup.
“It’s a huge factor,” Heckert said of Weeden’s age. “In our opinion, he’s a little more ready to play than some rookies. We knew it was going to be OK for him. It’s not too big for him.
“A lot of positives come out of him being 28.”
He’s settled down – he’s married, has a house in the suburbs and likes to golf – and is an easy target for his teammates’ jokes.
Receiver Greg Little said Weeden’s too old to keep up with his sense of humor. Cooper said he’s athletic “for how old he is.”
“When he introduced himself, he said ‘I’m Brandon Weeden, I’m a 28-year-old rookie,’” tight end Benjamin Watson said. “We’re definitely going to rib him about it as the years go on, especially when he’s 30.”
Circle Oct. 14, 2013, on the calendar.
Weeden is more assertive than the average rookie. He is open with quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple, coordinator Brad Childress and play caller Shurmur about the plays he doesn’t like, particularly in the red zone. He commands the huddle easily and knows how to handle a news conference.
Shurmur thinks the maturity will translate to Sundays.
“There’s a veteran presence there even though he’s a rookie, which you need, because sooner or later you’re standing out there in the middle of the field, and it’s the crowd and the opponent and you have to make a play,” he said. “There’s just got to be something in you down deep that’s just going to help you do that. I think I see that.”
Weeden has plenty to see in his rear-view mirror, and as the opener nears, he has an even greater appreciation for the journey that’s taken him from minor league pitcher to NFL starting quarterback.
“My dream was to play in big leagues. To have the opportunity to do that at the age of 18, I felt real lucky back then,” he said. “Fortunately I’m extremely blessed to be in this position now.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.