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The education of Josh Rosen

LOS ANGELES -- Josh Rosen quietly reconnected this summer with his most notable skeptic: Trent Dilfer, the theatrically opinionated former NFL quarterback who in recent years has reinvented himself as a youth quarterback guru.

Their reconciliation came during the Elite 11 competition for the nation's top high school quarterbacks, three years after their first encounter there when Dilfer fumed about Rosen's resistance to his training methods. Dilfer's frustration with the aggressively inquisitive Rosen would become the top storyline of the Elite 11 documentary broadcast months later.

"Josh, you were the most talked about person this week by far," Dilfer said in the penultimate scene of the show. "Everybody keeps coming back [to], 'Does he think he knows more than us?' "

Rosen, then generally considered the nation's top quarterback in the Class of 2015, finished last among the 11 quarterbacks chosen in the finale.

At the invitation of the Elite 11 organizers, Rosen returned in June as one of the college counselors for the high-profile camp. Dilfer was impressed Rosen accepted the offer, a hint at a thaw in their relationship. By the time the camp was over, Dilfer had become as much a fan of Rosen the man as he was the quarterback.

"I have nothing but good things to say about him," Dilfer said. "I've grown to appreciate how he's aware of his impact, his words, his influence, and he's aware of his talent and how good he can be."

Rosen's growth between those Elite 11s -- from local phenom to star quarterback at UCLA -- was the theme of his address to the teen prodigies in attendance, a tale that included the highs and the lows of the past three years. He was, to Dilfer and the camp organizers, a model alumnus.

Yet as Rosen made clear that summer day and in a handful of public comments since, he aspires to be an atypical Golden Boy, less a bland company man and more an unapologetic advocate. He created headlines most recently, in an interview last month with Bleacher Report, saying, "football and school don't go together" and "at some point, universities have to do more to prepare players for university life and help them succeed beyond football."

In a time of increasing social unrest and political dissension, Rosen has purposefully positioned himself to be a different sort of leading man.

"It's kind of the position that you are in as an athlete," Rosen said, "and you would hope everyone in the world would stick up for each other."

For all of the promise he shows on the football field (he's projected as one of the top prospects in whichever NFL draft that he enters, 2018 or 2019), many who are close to him -- and some who aren't -- predict his biggest impact probably will come away from it.

"He wants to be great," Dilfer said, "and wants to leverage that influence to do bigger things."

In what figures to be his final year of college football, Rosen has so far made the most news on the field.

Rosen has resoundingly bounced back from his sophomore season, which lasted only six games because of a season-ending shoulder injury, to become the nation's leader in passing yards (1,763) and touchdowns (16) through four games. He has been one of the Bruins' few bright spots in a disappointing 2-2 start, keeping them in games with a combination of talent and moxie that has nearly fulfilled every expectation that awaited him in Westwood.

"I think he's great, he's smart, he's funny, and I enjoy him," said Jedd Fisch, Rosen's third offensive coordinator in as many years. "He comes out to practice and never questions or doubts what we're doing and has been really awesome to coach."

While Rosen might not have been able to turn perennially underachieving UCLA into a contender, his 35-of-59, 491-yard, four-touchdown performance against Texas A&M in the season opener -- which rallied the Bruins from a 34-point second-half deficit to a stunning win -- will surely rank among the most indelible moments in program history. "My career at UCLA, we've had a lot of times where the chips didn't fall in our favor, and I think it's time that finally it did," Rosen said after the game.

Before that magical September night in the Rose Bowl, Rosen's career at UCLA was known best for bold statements and brash social media posts.

Rosen had never shied away from sharing himself and his opinions with the public, whether posting a video of his dorm-room hot tub as a freshman or wearing a hat with an obscene message meant for Donald Trump -- while golfing at a Trump golf course. His antics inspired a Sports Illustratedcover in August 2016 that read, in part, "Big Arm? Big Mouth?" and later prompted UCLA head coach Jim Mora to ask Rosen if he wanted to be football flameout Johnny Manziel or Tom Brady.

Rosen's comments to Bleacher Report last month about the NCAA and the challenges facing college athletes drove at least a couple of news cycles. Particularly his comment invoking Alabama as an example of a powerhouse program that couldn't sustain its success with higher academic requirements for entry. "OK, raise the SAT requirement at Alabama and see what kind of team they have," he said.

Mora came to his defense -- "The message to Josh is it's OK to have opinions" -- but also warned him of the consequences for being vocal about his beliefs. "When you express those opinions in a public forum ... part of the learning process is saying things that come back to bite you a little bit," Mora said on "The Dan Patrick Show" days later.

Within Rosen's locker room and huddle, however, there was no controversy: The Bruins had his back.

"It's crazy the blowback that he receives from the outside world," offensive lineman Scott Quessenberry said. "So a lot of the time we do back him up. Actually, all the time we do, because we go through the same struggle as he does and we understand where he's coming from."

Said Jacob Tuioti-Mariner, a defensive end who was also one of Rosen's high school teammates. "He ended up being our voice."

In the swanky seaside enclave of Manhattan Beach, about 15 miles from the UCLA campus, Rosen's first coach still fondly remembers the precociously agile mind of what he still considers the most talented pupil he has had in 40 years.

"I had to teach Little Josh more advanced stuff to keep him interested," said Steve Whitehead, tennis instructor at the Manhattan Country Club. "I could see he was getting bored."

Whitehead stills refers to Rosen as "Little Josh," even though his 5-year-old pupil has now grown into a 6-foot-4, 210-pound 20-year-old man.

Whitehead was one of the very first to notice Rosen's voracious appetite for knowledge, and he encouraged it as a way to keep him at the club. "He would always be like, 'Why?'" Whitehead said. "Which is why he got good so early."

By 12, Rosen was ranked nationally and even became the top player in Southern California in his age group. Whitehead said Rosen then boasted a 105-mph serve, overwhelming for his opponents at that age. Rosen's interest in the game waned as he found other sports, particularly football. Soon, Little Josh no longer wanted the drudgery of the youth tennis circuit and his mother brought him to the club to tell Whitehead.

"He was, like, 'By the way, Steve, I'm not playing,'" Whitehead recalled, chuckling. "It was very casual."

Rosen quickly took to football, where his intelligence, coordination, arm strength and throwing motion developed from years of swinging tennis rackets made him the ideal quarterback prospect. While in middle school, Rosen caught the eye of the coaching staff at St. John Bosco High, an all-boys Catholic school about a 20 miles from Manhattan Beach in Bellflower.

"We definitely thought he must have had some QB guru he had worked with," Bosco coach Jason Negro said. "But that wasn't the case."

Rosen's talent was obvious even before he made varsity: He earned a scholarship offer from Fresno State as a freshman on junior varsity. As a junior, in his second year as the starting quarterback on varsity, Rosen led Bosco to a undefeated season, its first state title and a mythical national championship.

However, what stands out most to Negro and his coaching staff from that time was Rosen's seemingly endless desire to learn. Few of their instructions went without a question from him in return.

Rosen, more than any player they'd ever coached before, wanted to know more than the X's and O's. He would ask them about everything, from the coaches' decisions to organize practice, to the reason for specific workouts, to the hotels they stayed in on cross-country road games.

"He wants to know the why behind everything," said Chad Johnson, Bosco's offensive coordinator.

"It made [Chad] a better offensive coordinator," Negro said. "He knew if he had an idea for doing something, he'd better have a good reason for doing it, because Josh was going to want to know why."

Almost no conversation about Rosen passes without someone mentioning his smarts. His coaches all praise his ability to quickly digest gameplans. His teammates marvel at his commitment to learning, with Tuioti-Mariner saying, "For God's sake, he reads books on the plane." And in previous interviews, he repeatedly has deployed his analogy of football as a chess match, going so far as to play a game with his father for a local TV interview in high school.

As a result, it's no wonder those who don't know him well sometimes, if not often, find him overbearing as opposed to analytical.

Rosen, for his part, has acknowledged that not everyone is impressed with his intellectual pursuits.

"I'm too confident for my own good at times," Rosen said as a high school senior in Bruce Feldman's book, "The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks."

"Sometimes I do come off as arrogant in interviews or whatever, but I feel like that's also part of what makes my play what it is," he said.

Back at Bosco, Negro and Johnson still wonder if their patience for Rosen's boundless curiosity might have set him up for problems at the Elite 11 camp the summer before his senior year of high school.

"We knew that it wasn't a disrespectful thing from him -- we just gave him the time of day," Negro said. "He's not a combative guy; he just wants to have a full understanding of what's going on."

It should come as little surprise that Rosen, who left Bosco as one of the country's top-rated quarterback prospects and rarely met a challenge he couldn't handle, made the transition to UCLA look easy.

He graduated high school early and joined the Bruins in the spring semester of 2015, beating out two upperclassmen for the chance to replace three-year starter Brett Hundley.

His college debut that September at the Rose Bowl was storybook stuff: He went 28-of-35 for 353 yards with three touchdowns in a win over Virginia, one of those performances that immediately thrust him into the national spotlight.

"He exceeded even the wildest dreams of Bruins fans," read a column by Bill Plaschke in the Los Angeles Times following the game. "Everyone figured he would be good. Few had any idea that this quickly, he would be this good."

Rosen eagerly -- and intentionally -- embraced his newfound fame and the platform that came with it.

So, yes, he posed for that infamous hot-tub picture. He also has taken the occasion to show his gratitude for President Barack Obama, who initially placed Rosen's father on the short list for surgeon general in 2008, in a post on Instagram. Sure, Rosen posted a picture of himself between a pair of UCLA cheerleaders planting kisses on his cheeks. He also mocked the NCAA's nonprofit status on Twitter in May 2016 after UCLA announced its 15-year, $280 million deal with Under Armour.

Those close to Rosen say he's keenly self-aware and interested in a range of issues away from football, so his public stances probably aren't just impetuous outbursts. Rosen seemed to suggest as much after his profile in Sports Illustratedlast summer, posting on Instagram that, "I will forever stand up for what I believe is right in this world and I encourage every kid on this planet to do exactly the same."

Those words are music to the ears of those who have long advocated on behalf of college athletes and their labor rights.

"There's nothing wrong with Josh talking about the way he feels and highlighting the rights he thinks players should have," said Kain Colter, co-founder of College Athletes Players Association, which has argued for the right of college athletes to collectively bargain. "He's attempting to talk about issues that affect more than just himself and he has the power to change the game for future generations."

Colter, who gained notoriety for trying to organize a union as a quarterback at Northwestern in 2013, said his organization has had no formal contact with Rosen though former UCLA player and players rights advocate Ramogi Huma has had a few conversations with Rosen.

With probably only a few more games left in Rosen's career at Westwood, he has largely avoided public statements of any kind now that the season is underway. He entered the season to a bevy of headlines about his lower profile, including a Times column proclaiming him "a shadow of former brash self."

Rosen's social media activity has mostly slowed to a crawl: he has posted only nine times on Twitter in 2017 and his Instagram page has recently been filled with innocuous photos of him in uniform, arm cocked with a football in his hand, or hanging out with family and friends.

UCLA has done its part to shield him from too many microphones and cameras, keeping him from team media events for nearly a year (in large part because of his injury last season) and leaving him at home for Pac-12 media days in July. The Bruins' media staff declined to make Rosen available for a one-on-one interview for this story, and his parents also refused a request to talk. "I think it's great that they've tried to sequester him and shield him from some of those things," Negro said.

Added Johnson: "I think he realizes now is not the right time to save the world."

But in light of recent developments, with President Trump -- already a former target of Rosen's ire -- taking aim at NFL players protesting racial inequality, the moment seems especially inviting for those with strong opinions. Already, some of Rosen's teammates at UCLA have lent their voices to the dissent, even if only to retweet the sentiments of others.

Might Rosen be next, and soon?

"He's becoming a guy that is socially responsible and, you know, understands the meaning of his words and the impact of his words," Mora said. "There's been some tough lessons along the way but, man, I'm so impressed with him. It's great to see it all happen right before our eyes."

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