Sun. Jun 23rd, 2024

49’ers Brock Purdy’s unlikely journey reshapes NFL expectations and takes him from an overlooked prospect to Super Bowl starter

By 37ci3 Feb10,2024

LAS VEGAS — A wealth manager, a former payroll specialist and a tractor company employee were all — not long ago — rated as superior quarterbacks to San Francisco 49ers star Brock Purdy, who’ll be on pro football’s ultimate stage this weekend.

Purdy’s meteoric rise — from dead-last draft pick to MVP finalist and Super Bowl signal caller — laid bare the nearly impossible task of predicting future skill on the gridiron in evaluations that often make or break careers.

Purdy insists that his long, under-the-radar path has been a blessing in disguise.

“It’s been the story of my life, being overlooked in high school, I wasn’t a high recruit,” Purdy told reporters Thursday. “All I needed was a shot and an opportunity, and coach [Matt] Campbell gave it to me at Iowa State and sure enough life is repeating itself. I was drafted last, went to the Niners and got an opportunity.”

Before Purdy, dubbed Mr. Irrelevant as the 262nd selection of the 2022 NFL Draft, made the Niners roster out of 2022 training camp, his odds of even playing big-time college football seemed remote.

When Purdy graduated from Perry High School in Gilbert, Arizona, in 2018, he was ranked the No. 39 pocket passer of that class by respected evaluators at ESPN. He was lightly recruited before landing at Iowa State, a middle-of-the-road program in the powerful Big 12 Conference.

And of those 38 QBs ranked ahead of Purdy, only three donned NFL uniforms in 2023: No. 1 Trevor Lawrence of the Jacksonville Jaguars, No. 5 Tanner McKee, a backup with the Philadelphia Eagles, and No. 35 Will Levis of the Tennessee Titans.

Iowa State quarterback Brock Purdy in 2018.
Brock Purdy with Iowa State in 2018.Brian Bahr / Getty Images file

The rest of those Purdy-superior signal callers include 9-to-5 employees, sixth-year college students and a handful of athletes hanging by their fingertips to pro football dreams.

  • Twenty-one of those 2018 high school graduates played college football in fall 2023. A few of these Saturday-afternoon warriors have plans to stay in school in 2024, which would be their seventh fall since graduating from high school.
  • Three players were on the periphery of pro football in the fall of 2023. No. 6 Matt Corral and No. 8 Adrian Martinez were both cut from practice squads of the New England Patriots and Detroit Lions, respectively, while No. 19 Kevin Doyle played spring ball for the Fehérvár Enthroners, an American football team in Hungary. Martinez has since signed with the Birmingham Stallions of the United Football League.
  • Three of the 2018 class were injured and on NCAA sidelines this past fall with hopes of playing again in this upcoming season.
  • And eight of those 2018 high school grads hung up their cleats before autumn leaves fell in 2023 and went on to pursue careers off the gridiron.

“It’s really been cool seeing everybody take their own path and do some other things,” said Doyle, who didn’t throw a pass in three years at the University of Arizona but has since played American football extensively throughout Europe. “It’s been great to see everyone blossom.”

Seeking wealth off the gridiron

Of the eight former quarterbacks who had dropped out of the sport by this past fall, former Princeton signal caller Brevin White was once the best known of the 2018 class for his stunning off-the-field move: He turned down a scholarship offer from perennial powerhouse Alabama to go to Princeton.

White, now a wealth manager for the Atlanta firm BIP Wealth, was shocked to learn he was rated so highly in his 2018 QB class at No. 12: “Oh, wow, you’re making me blush.”

Future Princeton and Iowa State quarterbacks Brevin White and Brock Purdy visit the University of Alabama as high school seniors.
Future Princeton and Iowa State quarterbacks Brevin White and Brock Purdy visit the University of Alabama as high school seniors.Obtained by NBC News

White only played a handful of games at Princeton before graduating in 2022. He said he’s rooting for Purdy without any of that-could-have-been-me sorrow.

Purdy became the 49ers starting QB in 2022 after Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo both got hurt, forcing San Francisco to use the little-known, long-underrated quarterback.

“The reality is two quarterbacks got injured, he got his opportunity, and this is where you separate yourself from a two-, three-year washout and being guy who’ll be here forever, and he [Purdy] took it and ran with it,” White said. “The amount of confidence and poise he has for being such a young guy, I don’t think you could look at that and say, ‘Oh, I could have done that.’”

He added: “The things he’s done with the Niners makes it hard to have those thoughts of, ‘Oh, I could do that.’ He’s definitely done his part in making a name of himself.”

White’s football career crossed paths with Purdy’s in their senior years of high school when they were on the same recruiting trip to Alabama, meeting then-coach Nick Saban.

High school glory doesn’t always translate

The University of Alabama also played a role in the life of Swift Lyle, who was the No. 23 passer of his graduating class. Despite that high ranking, Lyle said he didn’t garner any scholarship offers from Power Five programs before ending up at Georgia State.

After not playing his freshman year, Lyle wanted to go to junior college and hopefully catch the eye of a Power Five recruiter, but he couldn’t find any takers.

“I tried to go there [to junior college] to play another year of football and then get recruited again, but it didn’t work out,” Lyle said.

Lyle cut his football losses early and enrolled at the University of Alabama as a full-time student, graduating from the famous football campus in 2022 with a degree in finance.

He now works in marketing for Thompson Tractor Company in Birmingham, Alabama, and has an eye toward medical equipment or pharmaceutical sales as another possible career option.

Though Lyle’s football career fell short of stardom, the Alabama native said he’ll be all in for Purdy on Sunday.

“Yeah, that could have been me, but I’m nothing but pulling for him. He’s a great story,” Lyle said. “There’s nothing like it. I hope he wins on Feb. 11, that’d be awesome.”

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy speaks to media on Feb. 8, 2024 in Henderson, Nev.
Purdy speaks to reporters Thursday in Henderson, Nev.Chris Unger / Getty Images

While Purdy has set himself up to be a national name and with bigger paychecks to come, he’s now one of the 49ers’ lowest-paid players, making $934,252 this season.

He famously still lives with a roommate and drives a Toyota Sequoia.

Putting pro football dreams on ice

Gunnar Holmberg, No. 28 of the Purdy class, knows what it means to have to scrounge up dollars.

“I was still having to ask my mom for money to be at FIU,” said Holmberg, who played at Duke and Florida International. “That kind of helped lead me to decide to step away and get a job and figure out what I really want to do in life.”

Gunnar Holmberg of the Duke Blue Devils looks to pass in 2021.
Gunnar Holmberg of the Duke Blue Devils looks to pass in 2021.Grant Halverson / Getty Images file

Holmberg had college eligibility left this past fall but decided to give up football and take a 9-to-5 job, just 7 miles down the road from where Purdy plays at Levi’s Stadium.

Holmberg — who works in group ticket sales for the San Jose Sharks — admitted to feeling some twinge of sadness about his playing career ending.

“Maybe I felt that a little of that early on when I first stopped playing,” the Duke grad and aspiring athletics administrator said. “But now it’s content. I’m not watching guys on Sundays and, ‘Oh, I need to be out there.’ I’m pretty OK with where I am now.”

‘You know, you find out that’s OK’ not to play

For these onetime high school football stars, opting to move on in life wasn’t always the easiest.

“Of course I wanted to play in the NFL,” said former Stanford quarterback Jack West, reflecting on his teenage years when he was ranked the nation’s No. 7 passer of the 2018 class.

West graduated from the prestigious West Coast school in 2022 and worked for a major construction firm before going back home to Alabama to prepare for the LSAT and apply to law school.

Stanford Cardinal quarterback Jack West before a game in 2021.
Stanford Cardinal quarterback Jack West before a game in 2021.Jordon Kelly / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images file

“You know, you find out that’s OK” not to play football anymore, West said. “You find out it’s OK to use your brain in other areas that maybe you didn’t think of before — like law school.”

He’ll be rooting for Purdy on Sunday.

“I mean, everyone has their own path, and his turned out to be an NFL quarterback leading his team to the Super Bowl, which is outstanding,” West said. “I have nothing but respect for that guy, and I think it’s really cool for someone from our class to be doing that.”

‘So it’s been a journey of reshaping myself.’

No. 20 Allan Walters had a long, multicampus football career with stops at Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Arkansas State before going home to New Jersey to complete his studies at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

While many from his high school class were playing college football in 2023, he was working in sales at ADP, the nationally known payroll services company. He’s since moved on to work in personal training, a career he hopes will keep him close to football.

“It’s something I’m passionate about,” he said.

Vanderbilt Commodores quarterback Allan Walters in 2018.
Vanderbilt Commodores quarterback Allan Walters in 2018.Leslie Plaza / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images file

Walters admitted that the pressure of being a highly recruited quarterback was a challenge for him at times in his college career. And as for regrets, he has a few.

“Trust me, looking back, there are things I regret,” he said. “I wish — and I’m not saying I didn’t give my all or anything like that — but I wish that I fully bought in sometimes and fully listened to some advice I got.”

Walters said the teenage him would regularly say to others that his chances of making the NFL were remote. But he admitted, deep down, teenage Walters had every intention of playing on Sundays.

“I knew my chances [were low] but I never really thought that’s not going to be me,” he laughed. “So it’s been a journey of reshaping myself, to find out what I’m passionate about, and it’s been a fun learning experience.”

The rise of Purdy and Green Bay Packers QB Jordan Love, also an overlooked high school player, have caught Walters’ attention.

“So no, no bitterness here. He’s earned it,” Walters said, referring to Purdy. “And it’s so exciting to see guys like Brock Purdy and Jordan Love, just guys flying under the radar. It’s an awesome story, and it’s super exciting to watch.”

Torn ACL altered formula for success

No. 21 Matthew Baldwin, who had stops at Ohio State and Texas Christian University, didn’t have much choice but to give up football after a torn ACL late in high school led to a string of surgeries in college.

He medically retired from the sport in 2020 before earning his bachelor’s degree at TCU in 2023.

But the loss of football meant more time for physics and tech classes, leading Baldwin to his current job at chemical research company Blue Current, in Hayward, California, about 25 miles north of Levi’s Stadium.

Even though teenaged Baldwin had interest in a STEM career, time demands of playing big-time college football would’ve prevented that. And as a high school hot shot, Baldwin said he was once all-in for pro football because “as any dumb 17-year-old would be like, ‘yeah, I’m going to the league (NFL)!'”

“Any quarterback who has ever played with delusional confidence, which I think you need to play quarterback, might think ‘anyone could do that’ (play like Purdy) and you couldn’t be more wrong,” Baldwin said. “Brock is a dog. He is that guy.”

Baldwin said he’ll be all aboard the Purdy bandwagon on Sunday.

“I have nothing but support and happiness for him,” he said. “He pursued his dream. He’s not some boastful, overly proud guy. He’s a humble dude who has earned all of this.”

Regrets can make for a ‘slippery slope’

Two of those eight non-football players were still in sports, with No. 14 Connor Noland pitching in the Chicago Cubs minor league system and No. 17 Artur Sitkowski on the coaching staff at the University of Illinois.

High school quarterback Kevin Doyle of the St. John's College Cadets in 2017.
High school quarterback Kevin Doyle of the St. John’s College Cadets in 2017.Toni L. Sandys / The Washington Post via Getty Images file

Doyle, the overseas QB, urged all football players to look at themselves as something beyond the gridiron.

“I feel like I’m bigger than football. I’m Kevin who plays football, not football player Kevin,” Doyle said. “And I assume Brock feels the same way. He’s very humble and seems to be, ‘I’m Brock,’ not ‘Brock Purdy, the starting quarterback of the 49ers.’”

He added: “So there’s no ill will from me, none of that ‘That should have been me,’ because that’s such a slippery slope and I don’t need that.”

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