Trent Dilfer walks through the Minneapolis Convention Center looking like every other dad in the place. He wears ankle socks, sneakers, shorts and a golf shirt. His bald head shines under the lights, and his sunglasses rest on the back of his neck, the arms clinging to the sides of his throat.
Whistles and cheers and the screech of sneakers on dozens upon dozens of volleyball courts fill the air. Dilfer hustles past two courts, cuts behind one and assumes a place next to Court 6 behind a row of seats. He makes eye contact with the middle of his three daughters, Tori, 15, on the court.
The game goes on, and not well. He fights the coach within as he watches. He tries not to be that guy, that annoying dad who thinks he knows everything about everything because he played quarterback in the NFL for five teams over 13 seasons, won a Super Bowl, made the Pro Bowl and talks on ESPN.
On the other hand, as head quarterback coach for the Elite 11 camp, he has immersed himself for four years in studying the best ways to help young athletes reach their full potential, so he is an expert, and an outspoken one at that.
And yet he simply observes—after years of studying video, that’s something he’s really good at. He trusts his daughter’s coaches, so other than occasional shouts of encouragement, he keeps his mouth shut. That is not easy for him.
“Every part of me wants to start coaching,” he says.
This goes on away from the court, too. He always keeps a baseball hat in his car, and it has become a prop that signals the start of a sports conversation with his daughters.
“They’ll say, ‘Dad, can you put on the coaching hat?’ Or I’ll ask them, ‘Hey, I’ve got some insight for you, can I put on the coaching hat?’ So now they know, anything that comes out of my mouth from there, it’s not about dad. There’s no strings attached. It’s me giving them information to help them,” he says. “It’s hard things to hear. My kids will tell you, ‘Dad’s a truth-teller.’”
That’s true in the rest of his life as well. The USA Volleyball Girls’ Junior National Championships is an unusual setting for an interview, but it proves revealing. He is refreshingly transparent, talking openly about his successes and failures.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Dilfer comes across as funny and somber, self-deprecating and confident, focused on details and consumed with an overarching vision.
An All-or-Nothing Approach
He bounces between extremes because the only way Dilfer knows to do anything is full speed. He hits golf balls until his hands bleed, studies Tom Brady in the shotgun until he doesn’t know what he’s watching, and when he finds a song he likes, he downloads the band’s entire catalog and listens to it until he gets sick of it...and then moves on to the next big thing.
He searches for the line between knowing what his staff is doing and micromanaging, between correction and berating and between hierarchical authority and servant leading.
“He’s going to give you the biggest hug, the biggest high-five. He’s going to be seemingly so angry one second, and then he’s just going to plead with you with all of his heart the next,” says Joe Broussard, a Christian mentor and friend who has shepherded Dilfer throughout his tumultuous adult life, including the death of his son.
“It’s not soft. It’s just he has no mask. You love him or you hate him. Because he’s authentic. He doesn’t have the capacity to fake it. So what you see is absolutely what you get. Some people just don’t like that. But at least they know.”
Since taking over the high-profile Elite 11 camp competition four years ago, Dilfer has become a powerful and polarizing figure in quarterback training, attracting acolytes who follow him like a football Svengali and doubters who think he’d rather be a TV star than run a football camp. The truth is he wants neither.
His vision is much bigger.
He wants to change the world, one young man at a time.
Driven to Coach
In 2011, ESPN decided to turn Elite 11 into a stronger TV presence. When then-ESPN executive Joan Lynch asked Dilfer to take over as the quarterback coach, he said no. He was content to work as an NFL analyst for ESPN. But she asked him again and told him to look into the state of quarterback training before he answered.
“For about two weeks, I talked to a lot of people. I went, not spying, but I observed,” he says. He discovered a brood of “quarterback profiteers” preaching the science of repetition, which he disdains. He says he can teach anybody to master the skills necessary to excel in drills, but that methodology creates quarterbacks who play great in camp and terrible in games and leads to the high bust rate in college football.
“I saw incredible dysfunction,” he says. “To the point where I felt burdened that it had to change.”
Shortly after that, he went to an Elite 11 camp in Palo Alto, California, and was intrigued enough to agree to take Lynch’s offer. He didn’t miss playing in the NFL, but he missed team building, and he saw in Elite 11 the chance to build a team that would have an impact far beyond three-step drops, hot reads and tight spirals.
He has since overhauled the camp’s focus from transforming quarterbacks to transforming young men.
“I’m big on building the soul. Most everything I do is based on building the soul,” Dilfer says. “If their soul is strong, the mind will be more receptive and the body will be more receptive. Most people forget about the soul. They build the body and the mind. If the soul is dirtied, who cares about that stuff? It goes to waste. That’s why the streets are littered with talented kids.”
He wants to reverse the trend of a disproportionate number of quarterbacks coming from privileged backgrounds. In October, he plans to launch a subscription-based coaching website to reach players who can’t afford big-time camps.
Some of the biggest recruits in the game have attended Elite 11, from Matt Leinart to Vince Young to Andrew Luck to Jameis Winston. But Dilfer delights in finding talented nobodies from nowhere, giving them access to the top coaches in the game and celebrating their successes.
He is hard on his players but even harder on his assistant coaches, from whom he expects perfection. He benches them when they don’t deliver it.
A Larger Vision
“This is no longer a camp. I want it to be a cult,” Dilfer says. “I wanted to go from camp to cult. That was my first step, where you have a cult following, cult believers. It becomes something so ingrained into the fabric of everybody involved in it that they go to bed at night thinking about it, and they wake up in the morning thinking about it. Because that’s how it was for me. I figured if I can get it to cult, we’ll get to community.”
He envisions a grassroots community whose ripples extend year by year. He asks questions of everybody, from the brightest minds in football to top corporate executives to Special Forces warriors, all in an attempt to create a life-changing experience for the players.
“We’ll never sacrifice quarterback training. We are best-in-class. Nobody’s close. It’s kind of understood. That’s not our No. 1 objective,” he says. “Our No. 1 objective is to mold these young men.”
He says if he found someone with passion like his in baseball or basketball, he’d start an Elite 11 in those sports (setting aside financial issues). For now, he sees quarterbacks as holding a unique place not just in sports but also in society and thus the ideal candidates to influence those around them.
“We’ve talked about this internally, now we’re starting to talk about it publicly to gather more data: We’re seeing the quarterback as the senator, congressman, missionary, fire chief, police chief, CEO, principal, you know what I mean?” he says. “The EMT, difference-makers, influencers, people who are changing the world, a lot of them have the background of that burden of leadership that comes with being a quarterback.”
Dilfer’s long-term vision for Elite 11 goes like this: Elite 11 teaches quarterbacks how to learn, how to self-correct and how to excel amid chaos, and they take those abilities into the real world and become strong leaders.
“It’s bigger than football,” he says. “If this was just quarterback development, I could do it in my sleep.”
Where Learning Begins
He calls them Dilferisms. They are short, pithy and sometimes stolen. This is one of his favorites: “The edge of uncomfortable is where learning begins. Heightened uncomfortableness is where you find greatness.”
Jacob Park, a member of the Elite 11 class of 2013, now at the University of Georgia, said his favorite memory of Dilfer “was definitely the first day we got out there. The drills weren’t going as crisp as he wanted them to. It wasn’t the players’ fault. Man, he jumped the coaches’ butts so fast. In front of everybody—everybody—parents and everything. As soon as he opened his mouth, every drill got that much faster. Everything just tightened up, right there. That showed me, ‘This guy’s the real deal.’”
Dilfer carries a chaotic schedule, as he works as an analyst on ESPN’s NFL coverage, most notably Sunday and Monday nights during the NFL season; he flies from his home in California to Connecticut and back each week.
He breaks his Elite 11 job down into two-year chunks so that his message doesn’t get stale. In his first two years at Elite 11 (2011 and 2012), he focused on disseminating information. Last year and this year (the camp began Saturday and runs until Thursday), he zeroed in on uncomfortable leadership.
Example: Chad Voytik was stressed out. It was late at night in the Elite 11 camp in 2011, and he was struggling to learn his playbook. A seven-on-seven game was scheduled for the next day, and he didn’t want to humiliate himself by not knowing the plays, especially considering TV cameras would be there. So he decided to pull an all-nighter. He was only getting three or four hours of sleep a night anyway.
As Voytik studied in a common area at about 3:30 a.m., he saw Dilfer walking the halls. Dilfer told him there would be a meeting with all 18 quarterbacks in five minutes. Most of the other quarterbacks were awake and cramming just like Voytik. Someone roused the ones who were sleeping, and they all gathered in a conference room. They soon learned Dilfer was not pleased with how the week was going.
“It’s way too comfortable,” Dilfer says he told them. “I don’t care who’s throwing the best skinny post in shorts. That does nothing for me. I’m trying to make you (1) better men and (2) better real players. You’re going to have to learn tough stuff. And one of the things you’re going to have to learn is work capacity.”
Though the players already owned thick playbooks, Dilfer gave them 30 more plays and told them they had to know them by the time the game started in a few hours.
As Dilfer talked, Voytik listened in wonder. “I remember thinking, Wow, this dude is up now, in the middle of the night, and all he cares about is that we’re continuing to learn, continuing to get better,” says Voytik, now a quarterback for Pittsburgh. “You could tell that was a big thing for him. Live in the now, but do something that’s going to affect your next day. That was the point where I was like, ‘Hey, this guy’s for real.’”
Dilfer says the players who stayed up after the meeting dominated the players who went to bed. Voytik never slept.
“I just hope that one day I can find something that I’m that passionate about, and that I can wake up every day and be excited to do it that day,” he says. “That’s what I felt when I was around him.”
While Voytik thought the wee-hours meeting seemed like a spur-of-the moment decision, it wasn’t. It was Dilfer’s attempt to create competition where there wasn’t any. He fears a lack of competition will make Elite 11 soft.
Dilfer, 42, will walk away from Elite 11 when he turns 50, after which he plans to play on the senior golf tour (if he’s good enough; a rung or two lower if he’s not), travel the world and work as a Christian missionary.
“By then I’m going to build this thing so frigging strong that whoever gets this thing is just going to rock and roll.”
His NFL Regret
Much of what Dilfer teaches in Elite 11 is information he wishes he had known when he played, and this is perhaps the best example: He thinks complacency is part of the reason he never reached his full potential in the NFL.
He says his first few years as the starter with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he didn’t have backups good enough to challenge him. He says he would trade everything in his NFL career—including the Super Bowl he won with the Ravens after the 2000 season, the Pro Bowl he played in after the 1997 season and the millions of dollars he made—if he could start over and have his first year in Seattle (2001) be his rookie season.
He says Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren pitted him against fellow quarterback Matt Hasselbeck every day. They competed in everything, which made them both better players (and great friends). If that had been Dilfer’s rookie season, “I would have been exponentially better than I was,” he says.
“I believe I would have gotten better, achieved more, had greater impact, been a better player and, in the process, reached my potential. I’m trying to get these kids to buy into that. Compete with yourself to such a degree that the rest will take care of itself.”
He is often asked if he would trade careers with Hall of Famer Dan Marino—considered the best quarterback never to win a Super Bowl, while Dilfer is sometimes called the worst starting quarterback to win one (a line he uses himself). He says yes, because he says Marino reached his potential. “Reaching your human potential is far more important than a trophy or a ring,” he says.
Faith and Football
Like everybody else who knew Dilfer, Broussard, Fresno State’s chaplain when Dilfer played there in the early 1990s, foresaw a career in coaching for him. When Broussard’s daughter, Charity, now 22, was a baby, Dilfer held her in his left arm and used his right hand to move her arm in the proper throwing motion.
“The way I got him to go to the first [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] camp that he went to, where he actually was introduced to the Lord, was stroking his ego a little bit and saying, ‘Can you go help some young quarterbacks?’” Broussard says. “He thought, ‘Sure, I’ve got something to share.’ He had no idea he was going to be the one learning.”
Dilfer has been a Christian ever since. Like balancing being a dad and a coach, he seeks the right balance of being a man of faith and respecting that Elite 11 is not the proper place to proselytize. He prefers a “covert gospel” approach, trying to model in his behavior a life worthy of the calling he has received.
It’s not by accident that he uses words like “soul” so often. He wants to plant seeds, to hint at deeper meanings while honoring boundaries.
“I would be scared if my faith became too up front with Elite 11 because of the world we live in. Ultimately, I would trust the Lord for grace there,” he says. “I’ve sought counsel on this—'Hey, I’m influencing thousands of people. How up front and bold do I need to be?' They said, ‘Totally embed it.’ They’re like, ‘Completely embed your faith into it. You don’t ever have to throw the Jesus flag on Elite 11.’”
The only time Dilfer talks explicitly about his beliefs is when he talks about his son, Trevin, who died of a rare heart virus in 2003 at the age of five.
Dilfer says he has been approached by publishers to write a book about living through his son’s death, but he has resisted because he doesn’t know how the story ends. He knows it never will end, not really, as he’ll carry his son’s memory and grief with him for the rest of his life.
“I guarantee there is some stuff that I’ve buried away,” he says. “And you know what? Some time it’s going to come out.”
The players he will coach this year are about a year older than Trevin would have been. He didn’t grasp the connection between the young men he molds and the young man he misses until last year. Since then, being surrounded by players like he hoped Trevin would become has turned into a gift he didn’t know he wanted, feeding a hunger he didn’t know he had.
He shares Trevin’s story with the players to illustrate both vulnerability and perseverance—he was struck down but not destroyed. Life doesn’t get harder than that, and yet here he stands.
“We had a conversation where we sat down and talked about all that stuff, our paths and whatnot,” says Manny Wilkins, a member of the Elite 11 2013 team whose dad died when he was 10. “He really pushed it in my head that I need to use it as a positive and not as a negative.”
After his father died, Wilkins fell apart. He was expelled and received zero credits for his freshman year of high school. Though Wilkins, now a freshman at Arizona State, has turned his life around, Dilfer pressed him on the subject.
“He was trying to get in my head, see what I went through with all my troubles I had my freshman year,” Wilkins says. “I used my father’s death as a negative throughout my whole life, all the way up to my sophomore year. Then I realized, I can inspire people to do positive things, show them that even though things happen in your life, there’s always a way to prevail from it.”
In 2011, Gary Voytik attended Elite 11 with his son, Chad, whom Dilfer calls a classic Elite 11 player, a chip-on-his-shoulder, run-through-the-wall type. One day, Dilfer struck up a conversation with Gary. Dilfer told him that Chad reminded him of Trevin, and when Gary tells this story today, he gets chills. He admires Dilfer deeply and said it was an “honor to share” his son with Dilfer.
“The fact I could maybe give him a glimpse of that, that really made me a happier person,” Chad Voytik says. “I was just glad to be there, to be able to be that—I don’t know if you would say person he wanted his son to be—but whatever he was reminded of in me, I was honored.”
A Can-Do Person and Coach
As Dilfer watches Tori’s game, the daughter of former NFL quarterback Chris Chandler stops by to say hello while she’s between games. A dad recognizes Dilfer, walks over and introduces his son as a state tennis champion in Iowa. They leave, and another man approaches. He says he loves Dilfer on ESPN. He asks for a picture. Meanwhile, his daughter stars for the team that is pummeling Dilfer’s daughter’s team.
After that match ends, Dilfer sits on a padded bench in a common area of the convention center. His long legs spread out in front of him, his back against a pillar. He talks about his coaching and teaching philosophy of trusting that the players can do more than most people believe.
He gets amped up, at one point predicting unheralded Elite 11 quarterback Ben Hicks (who has committed to Houston) will throw for “eight billion yards.”
“Somebody told me, ‘You can’t put them under center because they’re all in the shotgun.’ I said, ‘Under center? I’m going to keep them up all night. Screw under center.’ I’m going to make them throw second-layer digs like Norv Turner expected me to throw them in my 12th year in the NFL,” he says.
“I want it to be hard. If they don’t fail, I wouldn’t be able to teach them anything. Stop telling me can’t. I don’t want to hear can’t. You want to see me pissed off is when somebody tells me can’t.”
He is fired up about this year’s Elite 11 players and camp, thinks it will be his best yet based on the training he has planned. One thing’s clear: It will be far above what the players are used to.
He expects the work to push him and his players to the edge—and then a step or two beyond.
That’s where he’s most comfortable.