Max Shortell started playing quarterback in a Pop Warner league when he was 10, and he had an enthusiastic and motivated position coach: his father, Tom. In their backyard and on the practice field, the father of four boys, a former football player himself, tutored Max in the fundamentals, all the strategy and tactics and play-calling he could handle.
About playing linebacker.
"I really didn't know that much about quarterbacking," Tom Shortell said.
Funny thing, though. His son might have learned more about the mental game of football by seeing it through his father's eyes. He picked it up so quickly, his father let Max call plays in the huddle before his 12th birthday.
"Max got a real unique understanding of the game, and he's told me it still helps him," said Tom Shortell, a Kansas City-area dentist. "I kind of coached him from the defensive side -- here's what the defense looks for, here's what they see when you do this. He sort of learned football in a mirror."
Hey, maybe he's actually lefthanded.
Whatever the approach, the 20-year-old sophomore learned the position pretty well. A decade after first pulling on shoulder pads, Shortell on Saturday night will replace the injured MarQueis Gray and quarterback the Gophers against Syracuse. Though it's technically his third career start, to the Gophers it feels like his formal debut.
"Last year in Michigan, he was kind of thrown out to the wolves -- 100,000 people at his first start," receiver Derrick Engel said of the passer who delivered three of his four career receptions. "He was getting hit all day. It probably got to him a little bit."
It certainly got to his parents, who suffered almost as much as Max through that 58-0 loss in Ann Arbor. Tom had joked to his son when he first committed to Minnesota that his first start probably would come at some scarily enormous venue like the Big House, but he doesn't remember laughing much when it actually happened.
"I remember saying, 'Get up, Max. Get up, Max,' a lot," he said.
A new year
Tom and his wife, Susan, will make the six-hour drive to TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, and like everyone around the program, they see an entirely different quarterback than that "starry-eyed" teenager, as offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover described him.
"He's very strong mentally," said tight end Drew Goodger, a fellow Gopher from the Kansas City suburbs. "He's a very confident individual -- anyone who sees him walk down the street is going to know that. He's got a little swagger to him."
Even the coaches know it. When Shortell took over after Gray was helped off the field last week, Limegrover considered his play-calling options. Last year, he would have settled on a safe, easy running play, in case the quarterback had some jitters.
Not this year. "First play, we said, 'Hey, let's cut 'er loose and see what happens,' " Limegrover said. "He's got a lot more confidence."
Plenty of arm strength, too, probably the best by a Gophers quarterback in several years. The "Red Rocket," as Goodger says his teammates call him for his bright orange hair, hit Engel with a 32-yard pass on that first play, suddenly energizing a stadium that seemed to be nodding off.
"I was not the first option, but the corner and safety both sucked in [to cover] Devin [Crawford-Tufts] running an inside route," said Engel, a Chaska native. "I was outside, so right away, I knew the ball should come to me. Max found a nice little hole to get it to me."
He quickly connected with Isaac Fruechte on a 24-yard completion, then hit A.J. Barker with a 9-yard touchdown. The challenge escalates this week, though. Syracuse will be prepared for Shortell, and he will need to command the huddle from the start.
"As the backup guy, you've got to watch what you say. [Players might think] 'I'm not going to listen to him. What does he know?' " Shortell said. "But as a [starting] quarterback, the leadership position, you've got to step up and be more vocal."
Finding his way
Max is the youngest child in the Shortell family and as such has learned "how to navigate through trouble," Tom said.
Not a bad talent for a quarterback. Like his brothers -- Eric played baseball in the Kansas City Royals' system, Jack played college basketball at Baker University, and Neil is a tight end at Connecticut -- Shortell has been involved in sports all his life, from point guard to third base to quarterback.
"He's probably the most mature of all the boys at this age," Tom said. "He was a fiery kid on the field, but he's always understood that he's not THE guy, that he needs his teammates. He's very humble."
Yet more accomplished in his craft every day. Shortell has been taught by actual quarterback coaches since his father's introductory class, including by QB guru Skip Stitzell, who spent last summer refining his fundamentals.
In fact, if there's one thing Shortell needs to work on most ... well, anyone who has seen the currently-going-viral, sort of, video of Shortell and Gray dancing to "Call Me Maybe" can probably identify his shortcoming.
His dad can't figure that one out.
"In grade school, [one opponent] showed up with a band. Pretty soon, I saw Max in the huddle, dancing," Tom Shortell said with a laugh. "I thought he was pretty good."