Pressure? What Pressure?
David Sills is your typical 14-year-old—except for the football scholarship to USC. But anything could happen in four years. Exactly what is up to David.
Or in the film room—in the basement of his parents’ home in Bear—where he watches New Orleans Saints games while channeling Drew Brees, calling out defenses (“combo 24 coverage”), identifying “Mike,” “Will” and “Sam” (middle, weak and strong-side linebackers, respectively), then picking out the open receiver?
Watch David Sills perform for a day or two and you almost forget that he’s 14, and you think maybe Lane Kiffin isn’t crazy after all.
In February, Kiffin, head football coach at the University of Southern California, offered Sills, then 13, a scholarship. David accepted almost immediately, thus becoming the youngest player ever to commit to play football at a major university.
There ensued a collective tongue-clucking from bloggers and sports commentators across the country, many invoking the name of Todd Marinovich. Marinovich was the “Robo-quarterback” of the late ’80s and early ’90s whose development was micromanaged by his father, Marv, a former pro football player and fitness expert.
Raised on a diet that banned junk food, Marinovich began doing pull-ups and sit-ups by age 3. By age 4, he ran eight-minute miles. He played two years at USC, then entered the 1991 NFL draft. He was picked ahead of Brett Favre. The once-shy teenager then became an epic partier.
He lasted only two years with the Oakland Raiders. His life soon spiraled downward due to personal problems and drugs, and his became a cautionary tale of unfulfilled potential and burnout caused by too much pressure at too young an age.
Pressure? What pressure? A lanky, tow-headed eighth-grader at Red Lion Christian Academy in Bear, David Sills seems happy, friendly, mildly mischievous. He likes movies, bowling and meals at Friendly’s. He spends summers at his family’s Rehoboth Beach home, golfing and skim boarding. Sisters Emma, 17, and Abby, 15, help keep him in line, and, says his dad, David N. Sills IV, “He eats more Big Macs than I would like to admit. David is definitely not a machine driven by his parents.”
Denise Sills has weathered the criticism sparked by her son’s verbal commitment, criticism often aimed at her and her husband’s parenting skills. She says no one has ever said anything to her face, and she has stopped reading the blogs.
“You have to know my son,” she says. “He’s going with the flow. I would not allow all this if I thought it was getting out of hand.”
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The Red Lion community has known David since his pre-kindergarten days, so he is treated like any other student there. Two of his teachers, Shelley Fleming and Carrie Timmons, describe him as “your typical eighth-grade boy.”
“He’s always kind and respectful,” says Fleming. “He’s the one who will volunteer to pass out papers in class.” Adds Timmons, “He’s not set apart from other students, and he’s well-liked.”
Sills threw 41 touchdown passes last year in Red Lion Middle School’s eight-game season, and he’s quick to share the credit, especially with his top receiver and fellow co-captain, Zakeer “Taz” Washington. “I’ve never seen anyone in Delaware with hands as good as his,” says David. “He had 24 of my 41 touchdowns. He made me look good.” Just as important is his offensive line. “I have a lot of confidence in them,” David says. “They really protect me.”
Any pressure he may feel probably comes from his father. The president of Daystar Sills, a Wilmington-based commercial contractor, the senior Sills wrestled and played quarterback at Newark High School and defensive back and quarterback at Virginia Military Institute.
The senior Sills is no Marv Marinovich, but he did coach David’s middle school team, he will coach the Red Lion freshman-junior varsity team this year, and he conducts David’s film sessions, quizzing him as each play unfolds on the screen. “I used to hate it,” says David, “but now I can see it’s benefitting me, and it’s become a habit.”
Sills saw potential in his son early on. He began taking him to area football camps when he was 8. Five years ago, David was named best quarterback in the 9/10-year-old division at the annual Philadelphia Eagles camp.
Soon after, the father read an article in USA Today about Steve Clarkson, a quarterback coach in Pasadena, California, who has trained the likes of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger, the Arizona Cardinals’ Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley, the current USC signal-caller.
Sills called Clarkson, who at first rejected the idea of working with a 10-year-old, but later gave in to the father’s persistence.
Clarkson’s services don’t come cheap: $3,000 plus expenses to be flown in for one evaluation, then, after agreeing to coach a student, $1,000 per four-hour lesson. For four days at his Air 7 camp, the tab is $1,400.
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Working with David here and in California, Clarkson soon saw the kid’s talent, calling it “off the chart.” Most important, he says, is David’s down-to-the-bone love of the game. “This [training] is a lot of work,” says the quarterback guru, “so you have to love it. He has fun out there on the field.”
Having worked with former and current USC quarterbacks, Clarkson knows the Trojan program like few outsiders, so he took the extraordinary step of recommending Sills to Kiffin. USC has always been David’s favorite team, according to the senior Sills. “If it hadn’t been USC, we probably wouldn’t have let him commit,” he says.
The family knows that Kiffin, something of a peripatetic maverick, may not be at Southern Cal in five years. If not, the senior Sills is confident the school will honor the scholarship “and, hopefully,” he adds, “someone will come in there who runs a pro-style offense”—the offense David is used to. David is already learning Pac-10 defenses via films supplied by USC.
Besides the film work, David spends countless hours on aerobic conditioning and weight lifting. From August until June, he and other Red Lion athletes arrived at the school at 5 a.m. three days a week for core weight-training. After school came agility and conditioning drills. From August to May, he packed on 20 pounds. He now carries 145 pounds on his 6-foot frame. (He’s been projected to hit 6-foot-5.)
An all-around athlete, David was a champion peewee wrestler before switching to basketball, where he was an all-star. But he’s given up those sports to concentrate on football.
Such intense specialization and the burden of a scholarship at 13 “raises some red flags” for Dr. Larry Lauer, a sports psychologist at Michigan State University and an expert in the study of youth sports. “David’s ability to adapt is critical,” says Lauer, “like how he adapts to his peers and how they treat him, positively or negatively. Also, people change a lot through their teen years, and he may not be the best quarterback in Delaware when he’s 17. It’ll be a test of his mental toughness and his character.”
Most important, says Lauer, is maintaining “that fire within, that passion, that love of the game. If it becomes about external things, like the scholarship or the expectations of others, you can start resenting your sport.”
The senior Sills’ unrequited love is golf (he’s a 12 handicap), so he says he definitely is not living vicariously through his son. “I’ve told all my kids, ‘If you want to do something, I’ll give you every opportunity I can, but you have to do it 100 percent. I can’t do it for you.’”
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Emma Sills, a senior this year at Red Lion, hopes to play golf in college. Abby, a sophomore at Delaware Military Academy, swims and plays soccer. As for David, the senior Sills says, “I’ve always told him if he’s not having fun, he needs to quit.”
The poster boy for football burnout, Marinovich is now drug-free, conducting occasional quarterback clinics, and getting his life back together while helping to raise his year-old son. Reached by phone at his California home, Marinovich called the USC scholarship offer to Sills “crazy.”
“I’m not taking anything away from the kid,” says the 41-year-old ex-millionaire. “I’m sure he’s got ability. But from the USC standpoint I don’t understand it. It’s added pressure a kid like that doesn’t need. A lot can happen in five years. There are guys who look good in what they call ‘the underwear’ [shorts and T-shirt], but when you have live bullets being shot at you, it’s a whole different deal.”
His advice for David: “I think it’s important to focus not so much on the future, but what you are doing daily to prepare yourself for the season at hand.”
That’s exactly how David sees it. Red Lion Academy’s freshman-junior varsity team will play nine games this year, beginning September 11 at Don Bosco Prep. The Ramsey, New Jersey, school has one of the most storied football programs in the country, annually competing for the elusive national championship while producing a steady stream of Division I players.
Asked if he has thought about the Don Bosco game, David Sills gets a steely look in his eyes, even as a smile tugs at his mouth. “Every day,” he says. “Every day.”