SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — Spencer Petras lay on the ground, pain shooting up his right arm.
It was too early to know he broke it, his season over because he landed awkwardly missing a tackle on defense. But Petras didn’t need a doctor to tell him this was bad news for his ultimate goal of becoming a starting quarterback.
He was already the fourth-string freshman quarterback. Now he faced the prospect of sitting out most of the season in a cast, watching helplessly as the other QBs distanced themselves a bit more each day.
But Petras never allowed the injury or the competition to faze him. He held firm to the notion that his future was at quarterback.
“It was always a thought I might lose the job,” Petras said. “But I couldn’t believe it. I just had to work for it.”
Petras possessed an unwavering belief in his ability to play quarterback. What Petras learned after breaking his arm changed him. It drove the Marin Catholic High School standout to throw extra passes, lift additional weights and watch more film to ensure the road he walked became a reality.
Ultimately, that road led him to Iowa.
“Spencer was going to be a quarterback, and really, a Division I one,” Marin Catholic football coach Mazi Moayed said. “He wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”
• • •
Looking back, it seems obvious Petras’ path was at quarterback. His father, Adam Petras, sees it clearly now, even if he didn’t years ago.
Father and son threw the football on the beach during vacations in Hawaii. Even as young as age 3, Petras asked his dad to do it the moment they arrived.
“I would throw him the ball, and he would have the wave hit him like a tackle,” Adam Petras said.
Spencer Petras also played baseball, soccer and basketball growing up, but football was always his favorite sport. He had to be the quarterback when his friends played pick-up games. He was a natural passer, and to him, completing the pass was more fun than catching it.
Petras spent Sundays watching games with his Donovan McNabb and Alex Smith action figures nearby, dreaming of playing in the NFL.
“Everyone wants to be a quarterback a little bit,” Petras said. “At least I did.”
He finally played QB in an organized league when his parents signed him up for flag football in sixth grade. When he began playing tackle football in eighth grade, his obsession with the position truly took hold. It amplified everything he loved about playing quarterback.
“Every aspect of it is great,” Petras said. “The bond you have with your teammates and the fun you have playing the sport. I just loved the toughness and the competitiveness and everything about it.”
When it came time to pick a high school, there was only one choice on Petras’ list: Marin Catholic.
Six times since 2009, the program earned a top-10 state ranking and is a top option for aspiring quarterbacks in Marin County, connected to San Francisco by the Golden Gate Bridge.
Jared Goff (California) and Morgan Mahalak (Oregon) went to the Pac-12, with Goff becoming the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick in 2016. Darius Peterson went to College of Idaho, a NAIA program.
“He didn’t want to entertain going to any other high schools at all,” Adam Petras said.
• • •
Spencer Petras cuts an imposing figure. He’s 6-foot-5, 225 pounds and moves with a confident gait.
He was always big for his age, and it’s why his eighth-grade coaches originally played the wanna-be quarterback on the offensive line. But Petras eventually convinced them his right arm was more useful throwing touchdowns than on the ground in a three-point stance.
Moayed first noticed Petras as a seventh- or eighth-grader attending Marin Catholic football camps. Petras’ strong arm, one reason Moayed compares him to Hall of Fame member John Elway, was already apparent, but he would need to prove himself at Marin.
When Moayed gathered his four freshman quarterbacks before the 2014 season, he said one of them was in line to become the program’s quarterback of the future. He would base the decision on work ethic, demeanor, effort in the weight room, and performance in practices and games. He planned to take his time and didn’t expect to pick a starter until the following year.
Petras missed the start of preseason camp because of a long-planned family vacation to Europe. It caused him to slide to fourth on the depth chart. He ended up getting a few reps at quarterback and played on the defensive line until he broke his arm in the second game of the season.
Moayed’s long evaluation plan was a godsend for Petras. He could heal and regain his strength without it impacting his chances of winning the competition.
There wasn’t much for Petras to do at first beyond letting his arm heal. He attended practice every day, handed out water bottles and told his fellow quarterbacks what he saw from the sideline.
After the season, Petras threw himself into workouts. He lifted weights nearly every day and gathered wide receivers for morning throwing sessions four times a week.
Petras ran track at the recommendation of the football staff to improve his footwork and athleticism. He considered playing high school baseball but scrapped the idea because it would have interfered with his quarterback work.
But his priority always was to play quarterback. Everything else took a backseat. Not being able to play his freshman season reinforced its importance to him.
Petras swears he never doubted his ability to win the starting QB job, even after the injury. His mother, Sarah, wasn’t sure where her son’s confidence came from, but she definitely noticed him working in a way he never had before.
“It propelled him to the next step,” she said.
During the subsequent offseason, Petras’ work ethic and leadership traits began to stand out. By the time the quarterbacks were back on the field in the spring of 2015, Petras’ physical development was noticeable.
“He started to outgrow some of the other guys with his arm and his body, and then his frame of mind seemed to be a little bit better than the other guys at the time,” Moayed said. “He really just seemed to work for everything. That stood out to me, because talent alone is not enough, just being committed is not enough.”
Early on during summer practice before Petras’ sophomore year, Moayed called the quarterbacks together and told them Petras won the competition. He was next in line to be Marin Catholic’s starting quarterback.
Naturally, Petras was thrilled. All his work had paid off. But before he could celebrate, Moayed brought him right back down to earth.
“You won the JV job,” Moayed said. “Congrats.”
Through a combination of sincerity and sarcasm, the point hit home. Petras’ work was actually just beginning.
• • •
Petras played the role of understudy his sophomore year. He watched the starter, Darius Peterson, play in front of big crowds on weekends. Petras spent his week playing in JV games and studying film of past Marin Catholic quarterbacks. The video sessions eventually led to a friendship with Goff.
Petras started as a junior in 2016, and a few West Coast and Power 5 programs extended offers after he threw 33 touchdown passes. He initially committed to Oregon State over California last spring.
Even after a successful junior season, he was far from a finished product. Moayed and Petras both knew it. Too often, Petras’ passes missed their target. Improving his accuracy meant working extensively with Moayed to alter his throwing mechanics. Just like after his freshman season, he added more morning throwing sessions, position drills and work in the weight room.
“There is a different motivation back as far as a freshman or sophomore as far as getting to the varsity level,” Petras said. “Whereas going into your senior year, it’s ‘This is my last year of high school; let’s kill it.’ ”
Statistically, he did, posting numbers hard to replicate in a Madden video game by improving his accuracy and not being afraid to throw downfield.
Spencer Petras varsity statistics at Marin Catholic High:
But the numbers don’t do much for him. He’d rather talk about his team making it to the state playoffs the last two seasons and leading Marin to the Class 3-AA state semifinals in 2017.
“Honestly, I think I could have done more, because for a large chunk of our league play, I’m playing only half the game,” Petras said.
College talent evaluators noticed the progress. About 10 programs approached Petras and hoped to flip his commitment after Oregon State coach Gary Andersen resigned in October.
Iowa quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe evaluated Petras in person, and an offer from the Hawkeyes followed in December.
Petras’ recruitment boiled down to Iowa and Oregon State. He took an official visit to Iowa City on Dec. 10. The no-nonsense atmosphere around the program impressed him.
Petras considered flipping his commitment on the spot, but he didn’t want to make a decision based on emotion. The subsequent days were the most stressful of his recruiting process.
He made up his mind on Dec. 15. His next step as a quarterback was to head east, not north.
“It was nerve wracking,” Sarah Petras said. “He just didn’t know. I think he knew he wanted to go to Iowa after his visit, but he was emotionally still attached to Oregon State. It was not an easy time, but once he made the decision, that was that.”
• • •
Sarah Petras never knew if her son would be great at football. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t important to her.
Like most parents, she worried more about academics. She viewed football as a hobby, but now she knows it was much more than that.
“Sometimes you cannot see their path or where they are going to end up, and all I really wanted was for him to know how to work hard,” she said. “Because if you know how to work hard, you can get through anything.
“Football has taught him that. I am so grateful.”
Spencer Petras is part amazed, part surprised. Iowa first expressed interest late in his senior season, leading to a whirlwind recruitment. Yet, here he is, already enrolled at Iowa and eager to get started — something he couldn’t have imagined a year ago.
“That would have been crazy to me,” Petras said. “I wouldn’t have believed you.”
It’s the only step on his path he didn’t see coming.