Fans love comparisons.
Same jersey numbers, similar physical appearance, familiar upbringings.
“They’re the next such and such!” a fan will boast. Fill in the blank with random guy ‘X’ and he'll be likened to superstar ‘Y.’ When a player is unknown, hype will be created. That's just what fans like to do.
We could be talking about Albert Pujols and Rajon Rondo and someone, somehow, will find something similar. Oh they play different sports? Minor blip.
Now magnify that comparison tenfold when the player is on a national stage, in a high-profile position. Like, for example, a USC quarterback.
When Centennial High (Bakersfield, Calif.) product Cody Kessler was likened to New York Jets and former USC signalcaller Mark Sanchez by his current head coach Lane Kiffin, Kessler was intrigued.
His number as a Golden Hawk was seven, taken by a little-known guy named Matt Barkley when Kessler committed to USC. So Kessler reduced that digit by one, to six, a number once held by Sanchez.
The media loves to make similarities among players too. Scouts use them to help fans better grasp an athlete’s game.
So saying Player X is like successful player Y is easy, and even easier to understand. But when a comparison like that is made, it often comes with great expectations.
Sure Kessler is like Mark Sanchez in a lot of ways. A similar demeanor—both are easygoing, likeable, physical guys. Similar schools—not USC feeders but not USC unknowns. Both are members of the Elite 11, a highly selective quarterback competition that annually recognizes the top-11 arms in the nation. The two also have the same frame: both are listed at 6-2, 225 (although Kessler said he’s currently around 215-220).
Oh and they both worked out with the same quarterback coach Bob Johnson. But Johnson, unlike the fans, Lane Kiffin or the media, is one who won’t adhere to that comparison.
“Who knows how it plays out. That’s the part I can’t predict. We’ll slow down on comparing him until he’s in the NFL,” Johnson said.
If not the next Mark Sanchez, then who is Cody Kessler? Besides one of three backups to slated starter Barkley, what stands out about this newly turned 18-year old?
Within an instant, his athleticism. Formerly a serious basketball player, Kessler had goals of playing in the NBA. He averaged 29 points a game as a point guard at Centennial High. Before he switched from the hardwood to turf, Kessler corralled offers from UCSB and San Jose State as a sophomore. Kessler won the Bakersfield Californian’s 2009 Basketball and Football Player of the Year.
“I wanted him to play basketball,” said Kessler’s mother Christie, a basketball coach herself. “I love the fact there’s so many games and then I thought ‘this has to be his decision.’”
So eventually, Kessler went from viewing the Fall as what his dad jokes as ‘oh, no it’s football season’ to watching Alabama head coach Nick Saban’s office door close automatically, operated by a remote control.
Other schools joined the Crimson Tide in offering Kessler. Pittsburgh, Nebraska, Boise State expressed great interest, and Kessler’s dad admits his son was “Fifteen seconds away from signing with Washington.”
Kessler’s final decision was a result of two major factors: USC’s proximity to home and it’s NFL-quarterback production.
Born into a family of athletes, of coaches, of competitors, Kessler had little say in his upbringing.
“My whole life has been sports,” Kessler said. “Kind of didn’t have a choice if we wanted to [play them].”
But he didn’t mind waking up at 5:30 a.m. as a seventh grader to workout. He actually liked drinking protein shakes “religiously” in high school. It was Kessler’s choice to resist the cheeseburgers and cokes as a teenager. He wanted to be clean, according to his dad.
“Was I hard on him? Sure. Was it a fine line? Absolutely. But there were times I pushed him to the limit. At 13 or 14 he wasn’t really dedicated,” Don Kessler said.
That’s the problem with comparisons. On the surface, Kessler’s upbringing sounds more like Todd Marinovich, a former USC quarterback criticized for being a “test-tube athlete,” than Mark Sanchez.
Then you talk to Kessler. And he acts like a laidback Californian with a strong will to compete. And you watch him on the field, commanding the huddle, owning the collegiate pressure.
“You can’t act like a freshman. You have to come in and say I’m the quarterback no matter what year I am,” Kessler said.
Despite the composure, the kid-and that’s what he is right now-is intense. He and his family’s plans are proof.
Kessler’s dad said his son plans to take two classes every summer to keep on pace for graduating his junior year. Sanchez, who graduated USC as a junior with a communication’s degree, was schooled similarly. If Kessler ends up redshirting a year or wants to stay an extra year to increase his draft stock, the family plans for Kessler to begin his graduate degree.
But unlike Sanchez (and most athletes), Kessler loves criticism. A writer for his local paper previewed Kessler’s high school football team one season and ripped Kessler. Kessler cut out the article and posted it on his wall, his mom said.
Kessler is the kind of kid who wouldn’t tell you he was nervous until after the matter. He will appear ready for the spotlight, even if he isn’t. He’ll make more plays by instinct and throw more touchdowns off unconventionality than a mechanical quarterback.
He’s not a “Robo QB.” But he’s not a Mark Sanchez either.
He’s Cody Kessler.