Dana Zupke sits in the Pinnacle High football meeting room, surrounded by whiteboards, helmets and photos of past teams. The joy in the coach’s eyes is hard to miss as he reflects on the moment he noticed Spencer Rattler in elementary school.
“I remember Spencer playing Boys and Girls Club basketball, (him) just flying up and down the court, and going, ‘Wow,’ ” said Zupke, who is about to start his 16th year at Pinnacle. “Already someone was like, ‘Do you know who that is? That’s Spencer Rattler.’ It was already this thing.”
“This thing” is Rattler, a quarterback who has skyrocketed into the national spotlight. He is headed for the University of Oklahoma to play for the Sooners in a year.
Mountain Pointe has noticed Rattler, too. The Pride last saw him in the 6A basketball state championship game, where Rattler played a role in Pinnacle ending the Pride’s magical Cinderella season.
The Pride soon will see him again, on opening night in their 6A football season. Mountain Pointe visits Rattler and Pinnacle on Aug. 24. Although he was a menace in hoops, Rattler never has beaten Mountain Pointe on the football field.
While it will be MP’s opener, it will not be Rattler’s. The Pioneers open their football season Aug. 17 at home against 2017 6A state runnerup Perry.
When the 17-year-old starts his senior season in August, ESPN and Rivals will have him as the highest-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2019.
In three seasons at Pinnacle, Rattler has passed for more than 9,000 yards and 93 touchdowns against 30 interceptions. He recently was the top performer at the Elite 11 Finals in Los Angeles, widely regarded as the nation’s leading quarterback competition for high schoolers.
“I guess the best way to say it is he has absolutely lived up to all the hype that he had coming into school as a freshman,” Zupke said.
Rattler accepts the spotlight and enjoys media attention. He has more than 10,000 Twitter followers and has no shame promoting Oklahoma. But as he fidgets in his seat, it’s easy to remember that he’s still a 17-year-old kid.
“When you start getting the attention, it kind of gets to your head, but you have to let it go,” Rattler said. “I’m really just a normal kid.”
Zupke credits Rattler’s parents for that.
“They are wonderful people and that’s part of the reason that he’s not out of control,” Zupke said. “I haven’t had to do too much to keep him grounded.”
Despite hundreds of recruitment letters and national accolades, Rattler’s parents still make him take out the trash, clean up the backyard and make his bed.
“He’s still just that 17-year-old son to me,” said Susan Rattler. “He eats dinner with us every night and I make him breakfast every morning.”
As a freshman at 14, Rattler was thrust into a varsity starting role. Zupke had no intention of starting him, but the Pioneers’ incumbent starter quit during the summer.
“My first game, we played Chandler. I definitely learned a lot in that game,” Rattler said, chuckling.
Rattler threw three interceptions, failed to score a touchdown and recorded only 133 yards passing. His quarterback rating was 27.6. Pinnacle was routed 56-10.
Despite the lopsided loss, the game provided positives.
“While he didn’t have a good game, just to see his poise (was encouraging),” Zupke said. “Here’s a 14-year-old kid out on the field with 17- and 18-year-old men and he looked like he had been doing that his whole life.”
Rattler built on those learning moments. His next three games highlighted his potential.
“He just shredded them,” Zupke said of Rattler’s second game, against powerhouse Scottsdale Saguaro. “That was the first of many jaw-dropping moments with Spencer.”
During that three-game stretch, Rattler accounted for 798 yards, nine touchdowns and three wins without throwing an interception.
Rattler’s first high-level national exposure came in the first week of his sophomore season, an ESPN televised game against Chandler Basha. What most didn’t know about the 49-41 win, in which Rattler passed for more than 300 yards and three touchdowns, was that he played with a broken throwing hand.
“Broken hand, broken foot, doesn’t matter. He wants to play. He’s not going to make any excuses,” said Mike Giovando, Rattler’s private quarterback coach.
Every season under Rattler, Pinnacle has improved, but it has yet to reach the third round of the state playoffs.
Rattler’s best trait may be his pinpoint accuracy, an attribute that scouts and analysts say is among the most unteachable. He believes that he can put the ball wherever he wants it on the field.
“It is uncanny,” Zupke said, adding that ball placement is a skill Rattler worked hard to improve. “When I compare him to every other quarterback we see out there, it’s how consistently he puts the ball in the exact spot it needs to be (that stands out).”
Rattler committed to Oklahoma last summer during a bizarre time for the OU program. Coach Bob Stoops, who had been with the school since 1999, retired unexpectedly. Oklahoma stayed in house, hiring 33-year-old offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley as head coach. Riley is the assistant who had been recruiting Rattler.
“They developed that relationship that head coaches can’t do at a college level normally,” Zupke said. “Now he has this really personal relationship with the head coach.”
Rattler said he could read Riley the way he reads defenses.
“Some are telling you lies right to your face,” Rattler said. “Really we just clicked right off the jump.”
In nine of the last 11 seasons, OU’s starting quarterback has gone on to be drafted in the NFL.
“That offense, it’s just what he wants,” Zupke said of Riley’s pro-style spread. “(Spencer) wants to ride, fake zone, and then punch it deep. He’d do that 50 times a game if Coach gave him the opportunity.”
When asked about his favorite play, it’s simple. “I like four verts,” Rattler said, stepping to the whiteboard to draw three variations of the vertical plays that Pinnacle runs, plays that challenge a defense’s secondary by sending four receivers deep.
Rattler says Pinnacle has even incorporated some plays from Riley’s Oklahoma playbook.
It’s easy to compare him to Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma’s starting quarterback the past three years and the first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Like Mayfield, Rattler’s stature is far from physically imposing in person. Both are about 6-foot-1. Rattler weighs about 175, undersize for a prototypical quarterback. Both rely on their accuracy.
Rattler lists starting as a true freshman at Oklahoma among his goals, something that hasn’t been done there at quarterback since 1990. Although Rattler does not plan to enroll early in January, Giovando plans to go to Norman after the Sooners’ season and meet with Riley to get into their playbook.
“Our main focus is for him to have a great senior year, go tear it up this year and hopefully have an opportunity to go get that state title,” Giovando said. “Come January that’s when we’re going to start getting Spencer ready for Oklahoma.”
With Rattler exclusively playing football this season, something that might be good news for the Mountain Pointe basketball team, his focus remains winning the state football title, and likely with it Gatorade Player of the Year.
“He’s a very confident young man and that’s a big reason why he’s good, because he knows he’s good,” Zupke said. “And he has all the physical tools to back that up.”
The Ahwatukee Foothills News staff contributed to this report.