When DeShone Kizer refers to himself as a goofball, he doesn’t mean he’s silly. And he certainly isn’t calling himself stupid.
“I’m just saying I’m different,” Kizer told The Chronicle-Telegram on Tuesday.
Kizer was a three-sport star at Toledo Central Catholic High School. He earned a scholarship — his dad gave him no choice — to play football at Notre Dame. He will open his rookie season as the 21-year-old starting quarterback for the Cleveland Browns when they host the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.
While many Midwestern kids would love to travel the same path, that’s where the conformity stops.
“I’m not a mainstream guy by any means,” he said.
When his middle school classmates wore T-shirts and shorts, Kizer went Alex P. Keaton.
“I wore shirt and tie every day,” he said.
In high school, he was country before country was cool for teenagers. He heard “Chicken Fried” by Zac Brown Band and was hooked.
“I’ve always been a guy where I don’t do things to be like everyone else,” he said.
Greg Dempsey, his high school football coach, thought goofball was an interesting vocabulary choice.
“I just always thought he was an independent guy,” he said. “He always had his own path he was going down, his own way.
“But he’s got some goofball in him. You should’ve seen him on trick-shot Thursday in the locker room with a ping pong ball and solo cup.”
A brilliant mind
What really sets Kizer apart — and could be the key to success in the NFL — is the processor between his ears. He calls it a “sports mind.” Western Kentucky coach Mike Sanford, his coordinator at Notre Dame, labels it “bandwidth.”
Kizer (6-foot-4, 233 pounds) learned from his dad, Derek, how to break down a game. Derek played basketball at Bowling Green State University and coached Kizer as a kid.
“Everything that we did at home in terms of our normal conversations was about sports,” said Kizer, the No. 52 pick in this year’s NFL Draft. “I was the point guard on his team, so in order to be playing at the standards that he wanted I had to understand the game like he understands it.
“And he challenged me. I’m 10, 11, 12 years old and we’re writing up plays, we’re X’s and O’s all night long.”
Being two steps ahead of everyone else on the basketball court or football field isn’t always a good thing, according to Kizer, who won a spelling bee in the sixth grade and had a 3.6 GPA in high school. Just because the game is slow for him doesn’t mean his teammates can keep up.
Part of the job as a point guard — his high school coach called him an undersized version of Magic Johnson — and a quarterback is to make others understand the game plan and the play calls and be able to execute them in real time. It’s useless if Kizer’s the only one reading the defense correctly and running the play properly.
“My challenge is never myself,” he said. “My challenge is always to get the guys around me to understand it the way that I understand it. I completely understand now that that can be a blessing and a curse, the intellect, the understanding at a higher level, because if you can’t go out there and relate to your teammates and push that message to your teammates, then it doesn’t help you at all.
“Because if we’re not all on the same page, then it’s just going to create a disconnect.”
Why ask why?
Sanford coached Colts quarterback and former No. 1 pick Andrew Luck at Stanford and called him “an incredible memorizer.”
“You could program him and he was like a dang supercomputer and he’d do exactly what you programmed him to do and do it incredibly well,” said Sanford, who’s in his first season at Western Kentucky after two years with Kizer at Notre Dame.
Kizer doesn’t just follow commands. He understands.
“DeShone engages in such good, deep football schematic, structural conversations with the coach,” Sanford said. “And it’s in a way that I love to coach, because he’s a thinker, he’s analytical. But it’s not overly analytical.”
The Harvard-educated Browns front office loves analytics. This is different.
Kizer can be like the annoying 3-year-old who asks “why?” after every answer from Mom. His first reaction isn’t a nod, it’s a furrowed brow and a follow-up question.
“Especially in the sports world, I’ve always been a guy where I want to understand the why. I don’t need just the what and how to go do things, I want to understand why you even called it and why we’re running it,” he said. “If you can’t give me that answer, I don’t want that answer. So I’m going to challenge you to make sure that as a coach you’re going to provide me that answer.
“And that’s the cool thing now. You get to the NFL level and that’s expected. Every quarterback needs to know the why and every coach is going to give you the why.”
Cleveland’s Hue Jackson can handle the give-and-take, and Sanford said Kizer does it in a respectful way.
“It’s not skeptical, it’s with a great level of trust for what you’re doing schematically,” Sanford said.
Kizer said “quite a few” of his coaches growing up weren’t as receptive to his challenges. They could feel intimidated by a young guy asking too many questions, and he thought it might’ve been a mark against him on some predraft reports.
“There’s been guys from baseball to football to basketball all over the place that have been bothered by me trying to take that to the next level,” he said. “It’s once again a blessing and a curse. I want to be the guy that knows everything but I also want to be a guy that can trust completely in what the coach is doing and if he says go jump three times on your left foot that that’s the right thing for that situation.”
A coach’s kid
Coaches have been everywhere in Kizer’s life. In car rides home after basketball games. In his face on the sideline at Notre Dame. In his ear via the helmet headset.
Jackson and Kizer could team up to save the Browns.
“I think this guy has the right stuff and I think if I am worth my salt as a coach, I will get it out of him,” Jackson said. “And if he is willing to do the work, he will rise to the occasion, and I think he will.”
Jackson and the organization didn’t want to rush Kizer into the starting role before he was ready but he kept getting better and passing every test. Life as a rookie won’t be easy, especially with the Steelers and Ravens out of the gate, but those who’ve been around him the most believe he’ll rise to the challenge.
“I can say without question, without hesitation that DeShone was ready to be an NFL starting quarterback mentally and in terms of the experiences,” Sanford said. “People forget that being the starting quarterback at Notre Dame is on a completely different level, in terms of just the national attention at that position. It’s very, very comparable to being the closer for the New York Yankees, the target man for Manchester United.
“He’s physically built to last in the AFC North. Hue Jackson is a guy who knows what it looks like when a guy’s a potentially special quarterback. And he has made that determination, so that’s not something that is to be taken lightly.”
Dempsey said pressure’s never been an issue.
“He doesn’t shy away from big moments,” he said. “He loves those.”
Notre Dame’s 4-8 record a year ago was a huge letdown following Kizer’s breakout redshirt freshman season of 2015 when he seized the starting job after coming off the bench as an injury replacement. The struggles of 2016 were epitomized by coach Brian Kelly screaming at Kizer after failed possessions.
Kelly’s red-faced rants were broadcast on national television. Kizer’s toughest coach, his dad, saved his loudest lectures for the car ride home from basketball games. The discussions became so intense that Kizer’s mom, Mindy, began driving separately so she wouldn’t have to witness them.
“We were going to talk the whole game out and we’d go into detail on different situations,” Kizer said. “Those car rides are the prime way that I learned how to break down games and to recall within games. Because my dad challenged me right when we got off the court and were in that car, I better be able to talk out every decision I made throughout that game. From the first quarter on a simple pick-and-roll in which I didn’t drop it off and I kicked it out. I was able to recall that consistently.
“So that allows me now to come off on the sideline and talk to Coach Jackson, be able to recall plays throughout and rotations and things that the defense are doing.”
The difficult lessons didn’t stop when they reached the driveway. When Kizer was 12, Derek informed him on the way home from school that he’d have to earn a scholarship to college or join the military. Derek’s dad had given him the same ultimatum.
“Lord knows that I wouldn’t fit well in the military, so everything that I did from there forward was based upon getting that scholarship,” said Kizer, who acknowledged he felt the pressure as a teen. “That was life to me. That’s just how we did things. If you weren’t out shooting free throws or if you weren’t out throwing a ball through a tire or getting a run in before you decided to go off to the Sadie Hawkins dance, you’re wrong.
“Most people parent kids in the sense of, go clean your room, go brush your teeth, go knock out your chores. Well, my chores to my household were sports-based.”
Derek is a police officer and Mindy a court bailiff. She’s no pushover, making Kizer finish work on a deck during a break from Notre Dame when he lost his wallet for a second time and needed cash.
“Mom coached him tough, too,” Dempsey said. “There were high expectations as to how he was to carry himself, represent himself and represent his family.
“They were never soft on him.”
“You saw the family influence,” Toledo Central Catholic baseball coach Jeff Mielcarek said. “The kind of person he is, it’s pretty evident it doesn’t happen by accident.”
A real do-it-all
Kizer was headed down a basketball path, playing on big-time AAU teams with future college stars, until football became the better option. He continued to play basketball and baseball throughout high school despite the rigors of being recruited by the nation’s top football programs.
He was a four-year letterwinner in basketball and third-team All-Ohio in Division I as a senior, averaging 13.4 points, 6.7 assists and 5.6 rebounds. He was a three-time captain and holds the single-season (162) and career (347) assist records.
“Would he have chosen to be a hooper full time and really concentrated on skill development and really worked at things, there’s no question in my mind he would’ve been a midmajor or higher point guard at the Division I level,” said Jim Welling, his coach at Toledo Central Catholic. “He’s got something in there that can make others around him better, whether football, basketball or baseball. He’s got this gift.”
Welling said he didn’t always see eye to eye with Kizer but appreciated his competitive juices and what they produced. During a timeout late in a game Welling started to draw up a play when Kizer stopped him.
“‘Hey, Coach, I’ve got this,’” Welling said. “He takes the clipboard out of my hand.”
Kizer diagrammed a play to get a teammate an open 3-pointer, then ran it and passed to him for the tying shot.
“It was brilliant,” Welling said. “He made me look really good.
“Heart and IQ are going to carry him a long way.”
Kizer only played baseball during the high school season and didn’t pitch for the varsity to make sure his arm was OK for football. He played outfield and batted cleanup.
“If it wasn’t for football, he would’ve been a professional baseball player,” said Mielcarek, a Bengals fan who will “proudly” wear the No. 7 Browns jersey his son bought him. “He had enough raw ability and tools he could’ve really been something.”
It’s impossible to argue with the decision to commit to football. He won a Division II state title as a junior, got the mandated scholarship to one of the best universities and football programs in the country and is an NFL starter before his 22nd birthday.
“I had true passion for every sport that I played,” Kizer said. “Football is a sport that became my calling. And I was able to take all the things I was able to do in those other two sports and apply them to something that was a lot bigger. Football is the ultimate team sport, where I can go out as a quarterback and challenge myself in every aspect of life in terms of the camaraderie of the teammates, the leadership that’s required at the quarterback position, the intellect required to understand defenses and offenses, the physicality that’s involved when you’re out there getting hit by 300-pound guys.”
A special one
As Kizer’s character was called into question during the predraft process that inevitably chews up and spits out all the top prospects, the Toledo Central Catholic community got angry. The kid who visited his teachers, spoke to students and signed every autograph during breaks from Notre Dame didn’t deserve to be ripped by anonymous scouts.
“The hardest thing is when anyone would question his work ethic or character, they don’t know what the heck they’re talking about,” Dempsey said. “I know the man. High character, great work ethic, that’s him. I wanted to swing.
“He’s a genuine guy. During the Notre Dame bye week he’d be punting with our punters. Talk about a goofball, there’s a goofball.”
Kizer inspired plenty of goofy looks before the draft when he was quoted in USA Today comparing his potential to that of Cam Newton physically and Tom Brady in terms of preparation.
“Why can’t I be the greatest? The only thing stopping me from it is me. That’s what’s driving me now,” he said.
“That’s not what I was trying to say,” Kizer said Tuesday. “What I was trying to say was if I do maximize my potential, I would like to be like a guy like Cam Newton physically and have the preparation and understanding of offenses and defenses like a guy like Tom Brady, who’s obviously one of the best to ever do it.”
Kizer has no trouble putting the goofball aside. In fact, his primary personality is much more serious.
“I’m a success-driven guy. I like to have a plan, I like to have a goal in mind at all times,” he said. “In order to achieve that goal, obviously it takes a lot of work.”
Without all the distractions of college and the draft process, Kizer is free to lock in on his job.
“I have nothing but football in front of me,” he said.