SPENCER RATTLER IS not done yet. He’s closing in on an hour for this afternoon’s throwing session, but he’s just sniffed out a challenge. The road to the NFL draft is a slog — the self-seriousness of the combine, the forensic analysis of testing numbers, the sheer quantity of questions asked and answered, then asked and answered again. (The Patriots grilled him, he says in between passing drills.) But for this one moment in late March, one month before some team in the NFL calls his name early in the draft — or not; he’s one of the draft’s most intriguing riddles — Rattler’s just a kid with a ball and the chance to one-up his buddy. He tells Mike Giovando, his longtime personal coach and the man at the helm of today’s training, he’s not ready to call it quits right now.

“I think my arm’s got one more,” he yells out.

He and Jalen Daniels, who spent time at South Carolina and is one of his training partners for the day, have been heaving long balls down the sideline, trying — and so far failing — to overthrow the speedy wide receiver Giovando has enlisted for today’s prep work. “He’s like Flash Gordon!” Giovando raves.

Daniels has just given it his best, but the receiver screams out a taunt from far downfield: “I had to slow down to catch it!”

Rattler, as he often does, has thoughts: “Watch this,” he says jokingly to Daniels. “Let me show you how to throw it to a fast guy.”

On cue, Shawn Charles, said fast guy, streaks down the right sideline. He’s a blur, like when the road, from a distance, goes wavy on a hot day. Rattler plants his right foot square on the 20-yard line, dances for a few steps, then launches one last moon shot.

The throw is hardly out of his hands before Giovando hollers his approval. “That’s it, right there!” The rest of the group — Daniels; an old teammate of Rattler’s from his high school days in Phoenix; and a hotshot quarterback in the Phoenix prep scene — lets out a collective gasp. This particular moon shot is easily 65 yards (70? 75? It all seems plausible) and Charles catches it over his shoulder, in the nick of time.

“He had to accelerate,” Giovando says, laughing, giddy from Rattler’s arm strength. The preposterousness of it. “He had to accelerate to it!”

Rattler is 23 years old, and it feels like he’s been a part of the public discourse for just as long. In that time, he’s been: the prodigy; the punk; the Heisman favorite; the flameout; the presumptive No. 1 NFL draft pick; the draft’s dead-man-walking; the comeback hero. But it’s this, right here — sublime, tantalizing arm talent — that keeps people coming back for more. It is tough to quit Spencer Rattler, even when it’s not quite clear who Spencer Rattler is. Or who he’ll be next.

IN THE SHADOW of some rolling Arizona mountains, Rattler ponders the climb before him.

He’s worked out with teams (Falcons, Broncos) and interviewed with teams (Seahawks, Patriots) and trotted out his best sales pitch for why all these prospective employers ought to hire him. But here, miles away on a high school football field in Scottsdale, it’s Denver that gnaws at him. He’s tossing a football to himself, waiting for the day’s throwing session to get in full swing, daydreaming aloud.

If Caleb Williams, Jayden Daniels and Drake Maye are this draft’s holy triumvirate of passers, with J.J. McCarthy right on their heels, Bo Nix and Michael Penix Jr. are the quarterbacks most often coupled with Rattler. The next-best tier. The could-be-a-starter-one-day tier.

“They’re not getting you in the third,” Giovando says.

The Broncos, who are in the quarterback market this draft, have the 12th overall pick but none in the second round, so they’re all dabbling in a bit of NFL draft game theory at the moment.

“Hope not,” Rattler says.

Three years ago, a conversation like this would’ve been unfathomable. The notion of Spencer Rattler trying to separate himself from the pack? At odds with logic. He was the pack. Lincoln Riley had assembled a revolving door of Heisman quarterbacks at Oklahoma — Baker Mayfield (winner), Kyler Murray (winner), Jalen Hurts (finalist). Rattler was the next man up, except he’d be homegrown in Norman, not a transfer finishing out his college football string there, like his three predecessors. In the early days of Rattler’s recruitment, when Giovando first got on the phone with Riley, he told the Oklahoma coach at the time: “This guy is going to be like those guys.”

“This kid’s special,” Riley concurred. “I see it.”

He was both technician and showman, practically from the moment his father, Mike, realized his 2-year-old could skillfully throw and catch a Nerf football. “I would just look and go, ‘Wow, that’s not normal,'” he says. “And so then I knew, ‘OK, we got something going on here.'”

Rattler, the technician, perfected his back shoulder throw as an eighth-grader, according to his high school coach, Dana Zupke, which is hard enough to do as an NFL quarterback, let alone a middle-schooler still clumsy in a growing body. Rattler the showman could park himself at the 50-yard line, and sitting on the field cross-legged, throw the ball 60 yards and straight through the goalposts.

The technician: In ninth grade, he’d go to his high school field to throw alongside NFL hopefuls prepping for the combine; a nearby training facility would often have their college kids use Pinnacle High’s field. One time a college coach came over to marvel to Zupke: “Well, the best quarterback out here is your freshman.”

The showman: A few years later, he stood at the top of Tempe Butte — a literal mountain — on Arizona State’s campus, then fired footballs toward a trash can some 1,500 feet away and below, just because he thought he could. He nailed it on his eighth try.

Those who witnessed his feats say he’d preface them with a verbal wink. Watch this.

And we have. We were glued to the Spencer Rattler Experience, first for the come-up, and then when everything suddenly cratered. The only thing the masses love more than a conquering hero is to watch that hero’s downfall.

FOR A SPELL, Rattler’s story unfolded exactly as designed.

By the time he played his redshirt freshman season at Oklahoma — a COVID-shortened one in 2020 — he earned a 92.6 grade from Pro Football Focus. Only Mac Jones, Zach Wilson and Justin Fields, all top 15 quarterbacks in the 2021 draft, bested him, and the talk (and betting odds) turned loftier, inevitable. Rattler was at once the face of college football and the sport’s most formidable marketing power. The Heisman favorite. The presumptive No. 1 draft pick.

Then, in less than one year, he was not.

He was decidedly tolerable to start the 2021 season — a decent haul for touchdowns (10), probably a few too many turnovers (five interceptions) — but the offense looked disjointed and the team was winning tight games that didn’t need to be tight at all. Rattler wasn’t lighting the world on fire, but there was a quarterback waiting just behind him who might. Midseason and still undefeated, he was cast aside just before halftime of the Texas game for Williams, who’d go on to capture everything that once seemed preordained for Rattler. A Heisman (at USC, where Williams followed Riley after the 2021 season). The top overall draft pick, too (barring some sort of shift in the tectonic plates, Williams will be called first next week).

In short order, he faded to college football afterthought, relegated to national punching-bag status (Oklahoma fans once chanted midgame for Williams to take Rattler’s job), the transfer portal and the long, chastening road to starting over.

It was a dizzying paradigm shift. But for all that cratering going on around him, Rattler, himself, did not.

Just before the Texas game and the benching that ensued, his mother, Susan, was diagnosed with cancer. She underwent chemotherapy and was declared cancer-free, and when Rattler thinks about that time, he is clear on which battles were real. “That’s real-life adversity,” he says. “Having to push through that.”

He kept pushing through in football because Susan wanted him to, but he did so with a new kind of clarity. His father wanted to yank him out of OU the second he was benched; Rattler chose instead to ride out the year as a second-stringer before seeking a new homebase. The narrative imploded — Spencer Rattler, QB1 since the time he first held a football — but the story Rattler told himself did not. He was still a starter. Still a star. He was just someplace else’s starter; someone else’s star. It was simply a question of finding where, and for whom, he could “kill it.”

“I’m built different,” he says, explaining how he could lose his job but not his sure-footing. “I truly feel like that.”

He thinks of his bottoming out as something of a résumé-padder, instead. He had to learn three offenses (two of which were pro-style) at his two stops, and that counts for something. He was demoted and humbled in excruciatingly public ways. But he survived. Thrived, he’d tell you.

“I wouldn’t change a thing,” he says. “I wouldn’t change a thing because I’m more ready than ever because of the things I’ve had to go through.”

It helps, of course, that he started over — and started games again — for two years at South Carolina, where he, by and large, helped to revive the Spencer Rattler brand. He reestablished his credentials — by 2023, he was ninth among FBS quarterbacks with a 79.4% adjusted completion rate, per PFF. And at times, as he foretold, he flashed an undeniable ability to kill it. See: the November 2022 game against Tennessee, when he threw for six touchdowns and dispatched the Volunteers who, at the time, were ranked fifth in the country and generally looked like world-beaters.

South Carolina had never had a former No. 1 quarterback recruit — even a bruised and battered one — to call its own. Rattler had had masses fawning over him before, but he had lost them too, and it was a relief to feel valued again. To feel liked again, at all. At his throwing session, he pulls up to the parking lot next to the field in his G-Wagon that showcases a decal of the South Carolina emblem — a palmetto tree beneath a crescent moon. He steps out wearing a black T-shirt with the faces of Gamecocks legends — Jadeveon Clowney, Marcus Lattimore, Stephon Gilmore. Beneath that tee, he sports a Block C tattoo on his left arm, for the university that reclaimed him and that let him reclaim his place in the football world order. A different place, maybe a less exalted one than he once envisioned. But a place all the same.

“I’ve had a lot of NFL people tell me this. That’s one of the reasons they’re buying stock in Spencer Rattler,” says Jim Nagy, who oversees the Reese’s Senior Bowl, college football’s de facto all-star game and unofficial kickoff to the draft process.

“He has come out the other side.”

RATTLER’S YOUTH COACH loves to tell this one story.

Matt Frazier was unnerved, paralyzed over what play to call with six seconds left in the state championship game and his team, the Firebirds, down by five points. He called a timeout, visited the huddle — coaches were allowed in the huddle for kids that age; 9- and 10-year-olds — and looked at his quarterback. “Spence,” he said. “I want to run quarterback counter.”

They’d never run the play before, but Rattler looked at Frazier — Frazier swears this part is true — and promised him: “I got this, Coach.”

He did, in fact, have it. Rattler scored; the Firebirds won by a point.

The long span of Rattler’s career is littered with intoxicating anecdotes where he’s got this. Gauzy memories of telling his coaches, or his teammates, or strangers on the street to watch this. Take eighth grade: He’d regularly throw a pass and before the ball even got to its intended target, he’d throw up his hands. “Touchdown,” he’d say. And it would be.

“That was really the time that I got to see firsthand the moxie,” Zupke says. “OK, this kid knows he’s good. He lets everybody know he’s good. But he backs it up every time.”

Rattler is filled to bursting with moxie, Zupke will tell you. Or swagger, his friends will say. Or confidence, his father will offer. And because we’ve been exposed to him for so long, the perception of that moxie (or swagger, or confidence) has soured into something more distasteful. Arrogance. Worse, maybe. Entitlement.

He keeps a tight circle, but those inside it offer their theory of the case, and a culprit: “QB1: Beyond the Lights,” Season 3. Rattler spent his senior year of high school at Pinnacle trailed by cameras in service of the Netflix show; he was cast as the villain, and so the villain he became, to legions of people he didn’t know but who thought they knew him.

He had big dreams and was loud about them — “two Heismans,” he crowed in one episode. In another, he pointed fingers at his No. 2 quarterback, but never himself, according to that quarterback. Was he being deliberately over the top? Was it just two quarterbacks and friends bickering? It was simpler, more satisfying, to not ask those questions.

“Eyes were always on him,” Zupke says. And they weren’t just watching, he goes on. They were searching for proof of his divahood or his dearth of team spirit or some sin not yet dreamt up.

“I was like everybody else,” says Marcus Satterfield, Rattler’s offensive coordinator for his first year in Columbia. “All I could envision was the Netflix documentary, and when I met him, he was totally the opposite. Not an a–hole. He was grateful. Considerate.”

Austin Stogner started his college career at Oklahoma, transferred to South Carolina alongside Rattler, then repeatedly found himself on the receiving end of this conversation with their new teammates: He’s … awesome? I … didn’t think he would be like that?

Rattler has a mop of tightly coiled blond hair and a pair of diamond studs in both ears on any given day. A lot about him flashes, but his personality is best described quietly. He’s kind, according to most everyone around him. Thoughtful, even, which is why he does things like beeline for a South Carolina freshman running back who picked up a blitz, just to pay his respects. “It’s a little thing, but it’s a big thing too,” says Shane Beamer, his head coach at South Carolina. “We were 4-6 at that point. It’s Game 11 and a hotshot NFL quarterback is going out of his way to lift that freshman up.”

It is hard to hold two things at once sometimes. Rattler can be decent, and he can have outsized confidence. He can show love for an unheralded freshman running back and be a showman.

Back in his “QB1” days, the cameras settled on Rattler in the middle of a game. As he often did back then, he was hearing it extra from his opponents.

“I don’t even know your name, bro,” he told one such opponent. “You know mine.”

That was a person who knew who he was. Knew you did too. And if you hated him for it, all the better because that hate gave him the chance to do what he loved.

“He likes to hush the crowd,” his father says.

When he replays the tape of that moment, hears his own words all these years later, he doesn’t grimace. That was a young version of himself, he says. He probably wouldn’t say it again, but he’s not ashamed of it, either.

Because he still knows who he is. And if the rest of us have forgotten or disagree or don’t even register him at all, well, that’s fine too. It’s just another crowd he can hush; one more chance to make everyone tune in.

In the days before his pro day in Columbia, Rattler was at home in Phoenix and bumped into his old high school coach. “I got pro day coming up,” Rattler told Zupke. “Man, I’m so fired up for it. I’m going to kill it.”

SPENCER RATTLER HAS spent the months leading up to Thursday’s draft proving why he has been impossible to quit.

At South Carolina’s pro day, he zipped 65-yard moon shots again, this time for contingents from the Falcons and Broncos, the Panthers and Raiders. At the combine, he atoned for his 4.95 40-yard dash with a throwing exhibition where he showed his command of velocity and touch. And at the Senior Bowl, he spent the week racking up plaudits as the best quarterback of the week (Williams, Daniels, Maye and McCarthy were not in attendance; Nix, Penix, Sam Hartman and Michael Pratt were) and, eventually, the MVP.

“If he continues on this trajectory, I think you’re going to really like what you get,” says one NFL scout.

The question, of course, is who will get him, and when.

Nagy thinks there’s a case to be made that some eight or nine quarterbacks from this class project to be starters in the NFL. Rattler sits squarely in those ranks, but he’ll almost assuredly hear four of those quarterbacks’ names called before his own. Maybe five. Perhaps six, or — gasp — seven. His highs are so high: Flashes of excellent pocket movement, a knack for making throws from any conceivable angle, that lightning-quick release and effortless delivery. But his lows can be so low: A tendency to take bad sacks, a propensity for interceptions, the uncanny ability, as Mel Kiper Jr. has said, to look like a first-rounder one game and a late-rounder the next. He can make teams at once squeamish and starry-eyed, all which makes his draft projection as clear as mud.

That’s far from those dreamy days filled with top-draft-pick prognostications, but he is no draft afterthought, even after a fall from grace. That’s not nothing.

For one: “It seems like every couple years, there’s a guy that comes outside of the first round and ends up being a really good starter,” Nagy says. “And I think Spencer’s got a chance to be that guy.”

For two: Rattler, as ever, is sure of what lies ahead for himself, even if — especially if, if he’s being honest — not everyone else is too. Where would he draft himself?

“Shoot,” he says, then smiles just a little. “First round.”

He is settled in a lounge chair in the courtyard of his apartment building in Scottsdale. It’s a sprawling complex that looks like it deserves its own zip code, but in his small patch of shade, he gets a brief respite. There has been so much noise these past few months. NFL teams asking questions and scouts projecting and talking heads talking. But for now, there is also quiet. Rattler takes a moment to consider all that distance, from where he started to where he thinks he’ll go next..

“Sleep on me,” he says. “For now.”

He doesn’t say it in this moment, but the idea is there, looming, ever present. Watch this.


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