Long before Ben Olson of Thousand Oaks High became one of the most sought-after quarterbacks on the West Coast, his leadership qualities were already apparent.
Two years ago, Gary McGinnis, a Thousand Oaks assistant coach, pulled Olson aside and asked a favor. McGinnis' daughter, Michele, was coming on campus for the first time as a substitute teacher. He wanted to know if Olson would watch out for her in class.
Teenagers sometimes don't treat substitutes kindly, but on that day the best-behaved students at Thousand Oaks were in Ms. McGinnis' English class.
That's because Olson went to the front of the room before she arrived and told his classmates, "OK, guys, no goofing around at all."
When Olson acts, people follow. It's not blind trust in his ability but unwavering faith in his instincts and judgment.
"A lot of college coaches say he's the whole package," Thousand Oaks Coach Mike Sanders said. "You talk to him, he looks you in the eye and shakes your hand."
Olson is 6 feet 5, 210 pounds, runs 40 yards in 4.65 seconds and has a 36-inch vertical leap. His football career has been marked by continual improvement. In thefinal game of his junior year against Arroyo Grande, he passed for a career-best 480 yards.
"That's my goal, to keep on improving," he said. "Last year was pretty much my first year at quarterback. As the year went on, my team progressed and I progressed."
Olson didn't start playing quarterback until he joined the Conejo Cowboys as an eighth-grader. Onlookers cringed each time Olson took the snap because he usually was sacked.
"He'd say hike and guys would come through and kill him," receiver Dave Anderson said.
Olson's father, Richard, saw the punishment and concluded, "See, I told you you wouldn't like football."
Except the opposite was true.
"I fell in love with my first practice," Olson said.
He played only three games as a freshman after breaking his ankle. He shared time on the varsity as a sophomore, passing for 673 yards. Last season, Sanders was hired and brought with him a four-receiver attack. And with him came Ryan Fien, a former UCLA and Idaho quarterback.
With Sanders and Fien guiding him, the left-handed Olson passed for 2,907 yards and 17 touchdowns. He completed 58.2% of his passes and was intercepted six times.
"You can see the confidence and maturity in him," Sanders said. "It's hard playing defense against him every day. He sure can frustrate you. You think you have it all covered and he's able to find the open receiver."
Olson's athleticism and strength can be seen on the basketball court. He led his team in three-point shooting and repeatedly out-muscled players for rebounds.
His reputation as a football player was enhanced after he participated in a combine at Stanford during the summer. Suddenly, Internet gurus were proclaiming him perhaps the No. 1 quarterback in the state, if not the nation.
Besides a strong arm, Olson's size and ability to improvise are critical to his success. He knows how to scramble and can take a hit. That experience from getting pummeled as an eighth-grader is paying off.
"You have to punish people," he said. "You can't always be the one being punished."
UCLA, Brigham Young, Stanford, USC, Tennessee and Oklahoma are the schools he mentions most when asked about possible college choices.
But before picking a college, Olson is expected to make an equally difficult choice--whether to leave on a two-year Mormon mission after high school graduation. His older brother, Chad, recently returned from a mission. But Olson is not certain he will take the same path.
He said he has researched the performances of quarterbacks who left school for two years to go on a mission.
"No quarterback has gone on a mission, come back and really done anything in college football," he said. "I'd be the one to change that. I have to come up soon with a decision because it's not fair for the colleges. They have to know what's happening."
Olson exudes the kind of charisma that inspires people around him. Children, in particular, gravitate to him as if he were the Pied Piper.
When he read to a group of kindergartners on Dr. Seuss reading day at a local elementary school, kids were mesmerized. They sent him drawings, using red crayons and polka dots to portray Olson's red hair and freckles. Some drew his arms three times as big as his body.
He made a positive impression on the group of 5- and 6-year-olds, reminding them he couldn't play football unless he knew how to read. Even if some of the kids were restless, Olson remained patient and vigilant.
"You have to respect everybody," he said. "Treat people the way you want to be treated."
Olson is convinced he's on the right path to becoming a top quarterback.
"Nothing comes without hard work," he said. "I've worked real hard to get where I am and hopefully I'll continue to work hard."
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How They Rate
Ranking the best quarterbacks in the Southland:
Rk Name, School Ht Wt. Yr. Comment 1. Will Savage, Woodland 6-3 180 Sr. Summer improvement has Hills El Camino Real made him a top passer. 2. Brian Johnson, 6-0 170 Sr. No-huddle offense suits Westchester him well. 3. Ruben Nevarez, San 6-6 230 Sr. Improved footwork has Fernando coaches excited. 4. Scott Jensen, Van Nuys 5-10 150 Sr. Passed for 2,187 yards, Birmingham 23 TDs. 5. John Brown, Jefferson 5-7 165 Sr. Versatile athlete who creates problems. 6. Jason Moss, Chatsworth 6-1 200 Jr. Has arm strength to get job done. 7. Luke Sniewski, Granada 6-5 180 Sr. Has never thrown a Hills varsity pass but beware. 8. Mark Moreno, Bell 6-0 190 Sr. Enters third year as a starter. 9. Adam Geery, Granada 5-11 170 Sr. Passed for 2,001 yards, Hills Kennedy 21 TDs. 10. Damian Satete, 6-0 180 Jr. Guided team to City Wilmington Banning title as a sophomore.
1. Ben Olson, Thousand Oaks 6-5 210 Sr. A polished and competent can't-miss prospect. 2. Matt Moore, Newhall Hart 6-4 180 Sr. Won't have any trouble continuing Hart tradition. 3. James Cox, Simi Valley 6-3 190 Sr. Committed to Colorado. Royal 4. Ryan Stone, Claremont 6-3 200 Sr. Smart, effective with a strong arm. 5. Marshall Tharpe, Santa 6-3 185 Sr. Committed to Colorado Margarita State. 6. Dustin Kelly, Santa 6-1 185 Sr. Passed for 3,017 yards, Maria St. Joseph 28 touchdowns. 7. Colt Brennan, Santa Ana 6-3 170 Sr. By season's end, he'll Mater Dei be a standout. 8. Hudson Gossard, 5-9 175 Sr. Threw for 28 TDs, Crescenta Valley completed 64% of his passes. 9. Mike Hicks, Anaheim 6-2 200 Sr. Most efficient QB in Western Orange County last season. 10. Ryan O'Hara, Pasadena 6-6 185 Sr. Committed to Arizona. Muir 11. Matt Engle, El Segundo 6-0 185 Jr. Passed for 2,234 yards, 19 TDs. 12. Phil Beckmann, Sherman 5-11 180 Sr. Combines quarter-miler Oaks Notre Dame speed with QB instincts. 13. Beau Budde, San Clemente 6-2 185 Jr. Starting to make impressive progress. 14. Erik Vose, West Hills 6-3 185 Jr. Passed for 1,981, 22 TDs Chaminade as a sophomore. 15. Rocky Hinds, Playa Del 6-3 205 So. Has the potential to Rey St. Bernard eventually be No. 1. 16. Odell Howard, Pomona 6-4 220 Sr. An athlete who can play any position.
Compiled by Eric Sondheimer