Whenever there’s been a highly regarded quarterback coming out of Southern California, the phrase “best since John Elway” has been quoted often. Elway, who is from Granada Hills and is rightly referred to as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, played at the high school level in 1978 and 1979, although his senior season was cut short by injury.
But the one quarterback among all of them that we’ve seen at Cal-Hi Sports since the early 1980s from Southern California (we didn’t see Elway in person in high school) who we’d still say is the “best since Elway” has been Carson Palmer of Santa Margarita, who retired on Tuesday at age 38 after a 15-year NFL career.
Palmer had the size, skill, arm strength, accuracy and athleticism (he also played for a CIF Division II state title team in basketball) that college recruiting analysts of today all love so much. He broke 27 school records at Santa Margarita and as a senior he had 31 TD passes with just four interceptions.
Unlike today, Santa Margarita wasn’t in the Trinity League or Angelus League but the Eagles did win a pair of back-to-back CIF Southern Section titles with Palmer at the helm. In the second of those years, they won a memorable 55-42 shootout over Tustin, finished 14-0 and sent Palmer to USC with a 25-game winning streak. Palmer passed for 413 yards and five touchdowns in that game against Tustin, which featured running back DeShaun Foster with 378 yards rushing and six TDs.
After going to USC, of course, Palmer eventually won the Heisman Trophy in 2002 and then the following spring was the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. A couple of knee injuries and a broken arm injury this season tended to curtail Palmer’s NFL career, but he still ends with 46,247 yards and 294 touchdowns, which are both 12th on the all-time list.
Our history with Palmer at Cal-Hi Sports goes back to the days when we were doing magazines at the Anaheim Hilton and his dad responded to an ad in the back about quarterback training with Bob Johnson of Mission Viejo. The two eventually hooked up and Johnson has been a friend, advisor and coach ever since.
When Johnson used to be the director of the Elite 11 quarterback camps and we were also part of Student Sports at the time, Palmer came to the camp several times to get in a few early summer workouts. We talked to him twice at those events and the second time he remembered meeting my son, Sean, the year before.
Even this season, when JT Daniels was doing so well for state and national No. 1 Mater Dei of Santa Ana, the comparisons were being bandied about. We still wouldn’t say JT is the “best since Elway” because Palmer is still hard to beat. Whether he eventually gets into the Pro Football Hall of Fame could be open to debate, but for a lot of reasons he’s a Hall of Famer in our eyes and will be as long as we’re doing Cal-Hi Sports.