When Jordan Steffy was an undistinguished teenager, before students made scrapbooks of his newspaper clippings and admiring fans wrote from the Midwest, the 14-year-old enrolled in a public speaking class. As starting quarterback for Conestoga Valley High, Steffy and reporters often conducted telephone interviews, some of which his teacher listened in on or recorded to critique the player's performance.
"It was tough," Steffy said, "but it helped so much just in being composed."
The course, in which Steffy was the lone freshman among seniors, provided his first formal instruction for the world he was about to enter. In time, colleges would covet him, fans would adore him and some students here at his former high school would dismiss him as a product of football-crazed hype.
Today, poised and confident at 18, Steffy is a fast-rising Maryland freshman vying for the backup quarterback position and, equally impressively, exceeding particularly high expectations. More than with his arm strength or mobility, he has impressed Maryland coaches with a quick learning curve, sometimes absorbing eight new plays a day.
He is skilled whether he is gripping a football, basketball, javelin, pool stick or bowling ball. But those closest to Steffy say sports only begin to paint the portrait of the 6-foot-1, 210-pounder.
Steffy has given motivational speeches at elementary schools near his home town and assisted with the Special Olympics. On one occasion in high school, Steffy learned that a deaf student suffering from seizures needed an operation. At halftime of a critical basketball game, he organized a collection, assigning boys to sections of the stands to accept money. They raised nearly $1,200 for the student's family.
His leadership was equally apparent in football, where he acted almost as a quasi-coach. If a teammate had a question on the field, Steffy, not the coach, needed to find the answer. Even as a freshman, if Steffy came to the line of scrimmage and saw a different defense than expected, he was permitted to change certain running plays.
In the offseason, he would scribble schemes on paper and say, "Coach, what do you think?" If a teammate called a play, say "Ringo White 42," Steffy could recite assignments for all 11 players on offense. If he threw a pass that was dropped, he would not chastise the receiver but rather say the pass should have been thrown two inches higher or lower.
"In his own mind," said his mother, Shari, "there isn't room for error."
Conestoga didn't run a bland system; its playbook is two inches thick. But Maryland employs one of the most complicated offensive systems in college football, which is why Steffy received a four-inch playbook soon after signing with the Terps. He studied it during track season, while preparing for multiple all-star football games, while instant messaging friends.
Joked his former coach, Gerald Novak, "I didn't know I was going to turn him into the monster that he is."
Steffy was as meticulous with off-the-field details. He would watch a replay of a television interview he had conducted with a reporter and tell his mother, "Wow, I think I used that same word over and over." Newspapers and Internet recruiting sites wrote scores of articles, most of which he wouldn't read until after the season -- too much hype.
Not all students bought into the Steffy lore. Ask those on Conestoga's campus about Steffy and some non-football players will say he was only "among" the school's better athletes, despite throwing for 5,587 yards and 51 touchdowns in football, scoring more than 1,000 points in basketball and breaking the school record in the javelin -- one of 23 school marks he broke.
"A lot of people didn't give him the credit that he deserves," former teammate Alec Fassnacht said. "The people who play football understand. But some kids here don't see athletics as a big thing."
Added former teammate Stephen Smalls, "Some students want to cause a little drama."
Attention crescendoed before Steffy committed to Maryland. One night he turned on his cell phone and saw 32 voice messages. He already had received 20 pieces of mail a day from colleges, including some overnight letters that read nothing more than, "We want you, Jordan." Finally the mailman attached a note that read: "Please make a decision soon. I'm tired of all the mail."
Coaches continued to flock to the southeast Pennsylvania town of cows, farmers markets and eight-foot high corn stalks. After finishing meeting a coach one night, Steffy's mother was exasperated. "Okay," she said, "we have 15 minutes to get a Christmas tree before we have to come back."
The whirlwind didn't slow the day of Steffy's December news conference when he announced his choice. At the high school was a Michigan State jersey dropped off by the mother of Jeff Smoker, the former area quarterback standout whom Steffy had admired for years. In an apparent countermove, though, a Maryland cheerleader dropped off a Terps jersey.
That morning, Steffy's mom asked if he reached a decision. "No," he said, "but I will."
"Finally around lunchtime," Steffy said, "it felt good. I thought Maryland was the place. And I felt strong on it."