MANHATTAN BEACH, Calif. – To know who Josh Rosen is – who he really is – you need to go back.
Back before he was the Miami Dolphins’ next great hope at quarterback.
Before he was the 10th pick in the NFL draft.
Before he set records – and, fairly or not, became a villain to many – at UCLA.
Before he was the top-rated college recruit in the nation.
And before he won a high school national championship.
All the way back to the mid-2000s, to his hometown here, and its sprawling, eponymous country club.
The amenities at Manhattan Country Club are choice.
Olympic swimming pool. A 6,000 square-foot gym, banquet rooms for events plus a bar and grill. With a five-figure initiation fee and a ritzy zip code, it’s an urban playground for the rich and powerful.
But what truly sets this club apart from the pack:
Its 18 courts for squash, racquetball and – most relevant to this story – tennis.
For the better part of a decade, those courts were Rosen’s second home.
And he was their pint-sized king.
He was just 5 or 6 when his mom, Liz Lippincott, dropped him off with Steve Whitehead, who would be his instructor for the next seven years and an honorary family member for life.
Whitehead has taught kids tennis at MCC for more than two decades and worked in the sport for twice that long.
And he can count on one hand – and perhaps two or three fingers – the number of child prodigies he has come across who were in Rosen’s league.
“I knew he was talented,” Whitehead said last week, while picking at a cheese omelet and potatoes at The Kettle, a cozy restaurant four blocks from the Pacific Ocean. “Coordination. Seeing the ball, hitting the ball. He learns quickly.”
Was it nature? Or nurture? Probably both.
Rosen’s origin story is like something out of a Fitzgerald novel.
The privileged son of an accomplished ice skater and an all-Ivy League lacrosse star could throw a tennis ball from the baseline over the far fence – a distance of more than 100 feet – as a tike. He was a big, fearless hitter who would charge the net against older, more accomplished players.
But plenty of kids have natural gifts. What set him apart?
Intelligence, desire and …
“He’s a fighter,” Whitehead said. “You’re going to get a guy brought up to fight.”
Fast forward a decade, and today Rosen goes months without picking up a racquet. By age 12, he was one of the top 50 players in the country, but he lost his taste for the game.
He walked away from the sport to focus on football and rehab a nagging shoulder injury.
Yet there’s plenty to learn about who Rosen, perhaps the most misunderstood quarterback in football, is today by exploring who he was then.
The Dolphins thought so. That’s why they sent a scout to talk to Whitehead in early 2018, when they debated targeting Rosen early in that year’s draft.
In the end, he went to the Arizona Cardinals at 10. And even if he were available when the Dolphins picked at 11, they would have passed. Adam Gase, Miami’s coach from 2016 to 2018, wasn’t a fan.
But the Dolphins had a change of heart this spring, when a new coach, a new offensive coordinator and a new organizational philosophy made Rosen appealing via trade. The Cardinals, who gave up on Rosen after one ugly season, traded him to Miami for a second- and fifth-round pick in late April.
And why were the Dolphins comfortable taking on a guy who has been called everything from arrogant to entitled to difficult to coach?
Because they talked to Whitehead and knew the fuller story.
“I know he’s smart,” Whitehead said. “Super-high IQ. But in this club, everybody likes him.”
Does that sound like a troublemaker?
Yes, Rosen is wired a little differently. He doesn’t suffer fools. He loves football, but because of his family’s wealth, doesn’t need it. And he will challenge anyone, including his coaches.
Whitehead saw it when Rosen was 10 years old. His pupil was so far advanced that the sport began to bore him. So Whitehead kept Rosen’s interest by teaching him shots that are tough for many high schoolers. And predictably, Rosen soon mastered those, too.
“You hear all of these things about Josh, that he’s tough to coach and things like that,” said Jason Negro, who was Rosen’s football coach at nearby St. John Bosco, the private school that Rosen helped lift to unprecedented heights earlier this decade.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Negro continued. “If that’s the case, you’re not a very good coach or you’re not a very good educator. … You have to adapt to kids. You have to be able to find out what it takes for them to be able to learn. Josh wants to learn. That’s one of the things as he went through his development in our program, he continued to learn every single year. He was never satisfied.”
Negro added: “I think he’s a free speaker. He says what’s on his mind, and I think sometimes that gets him in trouble. And ultimately what happens is people who don’t know him and can take it the wrong way. If you don’t have enough time with someone to really get to know where they’re coming from, it’s really unfair to that person. I think that Josh has been a victim of that circumstance.”
Negro and Bosco are two of the biggest brands in high school football. And the easy-going, quick-witted 40-something readily admits that Rosen is as responsible for their prestige as anyone.
On an overcast Friday afternoon earlier this month, Negro gushed about his former quarterback at a Bosco football fundraiser. Dozens of boosters were playing in a $200-a-person charity scramble at the El Dorado Park Golf Course in Long Beach, a well-maintained public course with tight fairways lined by purple blooming Jacaranda trees.
St. John Bosco is the preseason No. 2 high school team in the country, according to USA Today. And while it’s a school of less than 1,000 students, the athletic department has a remarkable roster of alumni, including MLB stars Nomar Garciaparra and Evan Longoria.
And Bosco might have college football’s next big thing in quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei, a 6-4, 235-pound rising senior who is the No. 1 recruit in the country, according to Rivals. Uiagalelei plans to play at Clemson in 2020, but first has some unfinished business: avenging last year’s loss to rival Mater Dei in the California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section playoffs.
Rosen beat Mater Dei four times in his three years as Bosco’s starting quarterback, including twice in 2013, when the Braves won their first state championship and finished the season No. 1 nationally in MaxPrep’s computer rankings. Rosen was just a junior then, but earned the respect of a roster loaded with talent.
Among the players on that team: Shay Fields, a receiver now with the Washington Redskins; Naijiel Hale, a four-star talent and son of the late rapper Nate Dogg; and Rivals top 250 recruits Damien Mama, Jaleel Woodad and Chandler Leniu.
“We were so deep,” said William Cole, who played safety for Bosco’s championship team. “If someone went down, we had other people to take over. Just the overall talent of the entire team.”
And Rosen was the most talented of them all.
Negro knew right away he had the goods. The coordination and ease of motion that made Rosen a great tennis player made him arguably the best high school quarterback in the country.
Negro was convinced enough in Rosen’s ability to name him the starter as a sophomore, which is nearly unheard of at Bosco.
But the hype train didn’t truly pick up steam until five games into the 2012 season. The Braves were in Sandy, Utah, to face the top-25 Jordan Beetdiggers and their star Austin Kafentzis, who was the top sophomore quarterback in the nation, according to MaxPreps.
“Josh led us on a fourth-quarter, last-second (drive), we scored with 17 seconds left, and we beat that team,” Negro said. ” … I think that moment was probably a defining moment in terms of, ‘Wow, this guy’s on the scene. He just dueled in Utah, out of state, against the freshman player of the year, country-wise, and beat him, on a last-second drive.”
The following year, Rosen became a national brand. After leading Bosco to the title – memorably trucking a stud safety from Mission Hills’ Bishop Alemany in the playoffs on quarterback keeper along the way – he was one of the top two or three recruits in the entire country, regardless of position.
Dozens of colleges wanted him. At least 17 offered a scholarship, including Alabama, Florida State, Michigan, Notre Dame and Southern Cal.
But in reality, he was all but destined to go to UCLA. The school had the perfect combination of academics, athletics, location and climate.
Rosen, Negro said, relished the idea of not just playing for his hometown team, but making them a contender for a national title.
Plus, then-Bruins coach Jim Mora was familiar to the family. He lived in their neighborhood, and Josh was tight with Mora’s daughter Lillia. In fact, the story goes, she knew who Rosen was before her dad did.
Rosen was so eager to begin his college career that he enrolled the spring of his senior year at Bosco, helping him become the first freshman to ever start a season opener for UCLA.
It was a perfect fit. On paper.
But the national titles and All-American honors and Heisman Trophies never materialized.
Instead, Mora is out of a job and the UCLA program is as lost as ever.
The easy answer is that Rosen wasn’t good enough to put a program that had ample talent, at least early in his time there, over the top.
But that isn’t necessarily the fair answer either.
He was excellent as a freshman, throwing for 3,669 yards and 23 touchdowns. UCLA went 8-4 in the regular season before losing its bowl game Nebraska.
Expectations were huge for Rosen entering his sophomore year. But his health failed him. He started just half the games before needing season-ending surgery to repair a soft tissue injury. The Bruins collapsed in Rosen’s absence, finishing the year 3-9.
As a junior, Rosen had a strong individual year, breaking the UCLA record for passing yards in a season (3,756). And that came in just 11 games; two concussions kept him out of the rest. But the team went 6-7, leading to Mora’s midseason termination.
Meanwhile, Rosen became a national lightning rod after polarizing comments about politics and the NCAA. Having a hot tub in his dorm room and telling ESPN “I don’t need football” made things worse.
Certainly, Rosen did himself no favors. A reputation of arrogance and entitlement took hold, often spread by people who never met him. But none of that would have mattered if he won a championship.
But how much of his team’s shortcomings were his fault?
Even with future fifth-round NFL draft pick Scott Quessenberry blocking for him, Rosen was sacked 53 times in 30 games, including 26 his junior season. He also had a different offensive coordinator each year on campus: Noel Mazzone in 2015, Kennedy Polamalu in 2016 and Jedd Fisch in 2017.
Plus the Bruins’ defense ranked no better than 50th in yards or points his three seasons on campus. They allowed an absurd 489 yards per game in 2017, eighth most in all of college football that year.
“He did a lot with a little at UCLA,” Cole said.
Added Fisch, who coached two seasons at the University of Miami: “Football’s the greatest team sport there is. It’s not necessarily ever going to be one (person). … I would argue that he had a really good college career, statistically. Now it just has to correlate to more wins.”
Fisch, now a senior offensive assistant for the Los Angeles Rams, didn’t win much in his one season with Rosen in Westwood.
But he never doubted his ability. Fisch got a taste of it their first practice together.
“You saw how gifted he was. He really is a special skill set, in terms of throwing the ball,” Fisch said. “He has an extremely natural throwing motion. If you were videotape it, you would say, ‘That’s how you want to throw. That’s how you want it to look.’ “
Rosen had the brains to go with the brawn. He would learn a play in a meeting and execute it immediately on the practice field – at a high level, Fisch said.
While they didn’t have great success in their short time together – Fisch actually took over as interim head coach after UCLA fired Mora – they did share at least one really special moment.
“We’re down 34 points in our first game ever together,” Fisch said. “Imagine that. It’s your first game coaching in the Pac-12. You’re coaching against Texas A&M. You’re down 44-10. It was at home, which is even worse. You have what a lot of people perceive as the best quarterback in the country. And he looks at me and he goes, ‘Don’t worry coach, I’ve got you. We’re going to get this thing.’ “
Fisch continued: “We score and it’s 44-17 and then we get a stop and we score again. And then I go back to him and say, ‘We are going to win this game.’ And he says, ‘There’s no doubt.’ “
They did, scoring 28 points in the fourth quarter, capped by a fake-spike touchdown with 43 seconds left in the game.
Two years later, the quarterback who stole Dan Marino’s signature play hopes to be his true heir. The Dolphins have been looking for their franchise quarterback since Marino retired, and Rosen – after a failed year in an awful situation in Arizona – has the ability to fill the role.
Despite taking him 10th just last year, the Cardinals and new coach Kliff Kingsbury gave up on Rosen after only 14 starts – which didn’t sit well with Negro.
“You know what? At the end of the day, it’s probably a good thing for him for it to happen,” he said. “It’s yet to be determined how successful they’re going to be. But to bring a guy in who wasn’t even successful at the college level and got fired from his alma mater (Texas Tech), to an NFL team – that’s how you get jobs these days? It was pretty surprising to me.
“Honestly, I think it’s better for Josh,” he continued. “I don’t think they did a very good job there protecting him and making him feel like he was their franchise guy. I think down in Miami, if they surround him with really good people and are able to get some stability around him, he’s going to be super successful and that town’s going to fall in love with him.”
Added Quessenberry: “He’s just talented. He’s so talented and cares and wants to be great, to be the best. It really, really matters to him.”
And it has since basically the first time he picked up a tennis racquet.
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