The NFLPA Rookie Premiere is easy money.
Draft picks fly to Los Angeles, sign trading cards, take pictures in their new uniforms, pocket roughly $10,000 and perhaps strike a few marketing deals.
Jeff Driskel was one of the 40 or so invited for the four-day event, which begins next week. The 49ers’ newest quarterback turned down the offer.
After all, he reasoned, it would mean less time in Santa Clara to learn the offense.
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That anecdote won’t surprise anyone who knows or has played alongside Driskel, whom the 49ers drafted late in the sixth round last month. He’s always been focused. The oldest son of military parents, he’s always been responsible and duty-bound.
But a year and a half ago, he honed those attributes to laser-beam levels. The quarterback had come to a crossroads. He had just finished his fourth year at Florida. And it was awful. A season that began with huge expectations, that was supposed to catapult him to the top of the draft, instead ended early with Driskel completing just over half of his passes and losing his starting job to a freshman.
He arrived at Florida, a two-hour drive from his Oviedo, Fla., home, as a favorite son, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound quarterback who drew comparisons to former Gators great Tim Tebow. Nearly four years later, he trudged off the field to hisses, boos and a barrage of foul-mouthed insults on social media.
Driskel had his degree. He could forget football, go on with his life and start a career selling medical supplies. Or he could use his remaining year of eligibility – his third year at Florida was wiped out by a broken leg – play elsewhere and make one final push to the NFL.
Driskel went with option No. 2. The decision landed him at Louisiana Tech, where he would be mentored by quarterbacks coach Tim Rattay, a former Tech passer who played six seasons with the 49ers.
“He came in and understood that this was kind of his last shot,” Rattay said. “If he wanted to play professionally, he had to have a good year. And he brought that mindset when he first got here. He’s, in my experience being around guys, as prepared as anyone I’ve seen. His maturity is different from a lot of kids.”
Driskel has been that way since he was a little boy. His mother, Mary, played volleyball at the Coast Guard Academy. His father, Jerry, played shortstop and pitcher on his high school team before joining the Navy. Not only was their first-born child athletic, Driskel always was a full head taller than the other kids his age.
“I think people project responsibility on bigger kids,” Mary said. “When he was 4, he probably looked 6 or 7. So people treated him like that.”
When Driskel was in second grade, his family was stationed in Sasebo, a port town in southwestern Japan where they signed him up for Little League. The coaches did not speak English. Practices were held Saturdays and Sundays and were intense, eight-hour affairs. Driskel not only adapted, he flourished.
“He was playing with the fourth-graders and hitting home runs,” Mary said. “They nicknamed him ‘Godzilla’ over there.”
Godzilla crushed the competition three years later in Florida, too.
Fast and strong-armed, Driskel became such a good center fielder that, despite his insistence he didn’t intend to play professional baseball, the Boston Red Sox drafted him with the 863rd pick in 2013. He was an even better quarterback, reaching his current size before he got his driver’s license and becoming the top quarterback recruit in the country in 2010.
He decided to play at Florida for then coach Urban Meyer. But before Driskel arrived in Gainesville, Meyer left the school because of health concerns, the first pothole in what would become a stop-and-start college career.
The Gators went through three offensive coordinators over the next four seasons. In 2012, Driskel led Florida to an 11-2 record and a No. 9 final ranking. The following year began ominously with an emergency appendectomy during fall camp. Three games into the schedule, he broke his right leg, ending his season.
He was healthy for 2014, but Driskel and the Gators’ offense floundered. The low point came during a 42-13 home loss to Missouri in which Driskel, splitting time with freshman Treon Harris, completed just 7 of 19 passes for 50 yards with two fumbles, two interceptions and four sacks.
The fans howled and raged.
“I think down at Florida, it got very toxic for him. He became the scapegoat,” Louisiana Tech coach Skip Holtz said on his radio show early last season. “He became the guy that was tied to losing at (a school with a) fan base that does not take very well to losing.”
Rattay, meanwhile, was excited about his new protégé’s potential but nervous about his pedigree. Would Driskel, a five-star recruit who had played for a powerhouse college program, be accepted on a team with far more lightly regarded players?
“Sometimes you worry when you get a kid from a Florida-type school, especially a kid that’s as highly recruited as he was,” said Rattay, who was drafted in the seventh round by the 49ers in 2000. “You worry about that dynamic.”
The misgivings didn’t last long. Driskel arrived in time for spring practices, quickly learned the offense and won over his teammates.
“He really did it by working,” Rattay said. “They saw the way he worked in the weight room and the way he worked in the film room. Immediately our team started respecting him.”
The momentum carried into the season. Driskel responded to his Florida critics by throwing for 4,033 yards and 27 touchdowns and leading Louisiana Tech to a 9-4 record. The one-year rebound meant that what was doubtful a year earlier – being drafted – now was a strong possibility.
The Kansas City Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys seemed like his strongest suitors and indicated they were thinking about Driskel in the fourth round. Both, however, took different quarterbacks: Dallas opted for Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott in the fourth; Kansas City drafted Stanford’s Kevin Hogan in the fifth.
Driskel dropped to the end of the sixth round to the 49ers, who showed little interest in him before the draft. Still, there’s a sense among Driskel’s family and supporters that he ended up in the right spot.
He is expected to apprentice behind Blaine Gabbert and Colin Kaepernick this season. But neither veteran quarterback is a lock to be on the roster beyond 2016. Coach Chip Kelly, meanwhile, has not had a chance to develop a quarterback with anything close to Driskel’s athleticism.
“He’s got first-round (draft-pick) ability. He does,” Rattay said. “You’re going to see that in practice. He’s got first-round ability and he’s got a chance to be a very good pro.”