COLLEGE PARK - It was like hearing a soprano hit the perfect high note. It was like watching a great painter size up the sunset. It was like picking up a novel and being moved by the opening lines.
It was that singular moment when you see someone do something special and you know there is the potential for greatness.
It was, for Maryland assistant football coach James Franklin, the day three years ago when he watched Pennsylvania high school quarterback Jordan Steffy throw a football.
Football, you see, is as much an art form as it is a game - at least to the men who have spent their lives playing it and coaching it. Some aspects of it can be learned and drilled into the mind through repetition and study, but a major part of the game will always remain instinctive.
When Franklin, Maryland's recruiting coordinator, watched Steffy fire spiral after spiral downfield that day, he knew what the youth had simply could not be taught.
"You just saw the way the ball came out of his hand, and you knew he had something special," Franklin said. "About 98 percent of the people in the country can't throw a football like that. But [Steffy] could."
What followed was an exhaustive but determined recruiting campaign by Franklin, who eventually won Steffy over. After an All-America career at Conestoga Valley High School, Steffy, a 6-foot-1, 210-pound four-year starter, choose Maryland last winter over Penn State, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Michigan State, among others.
His signing was seen as a major coup for Maryland's program and as a big moment for Terps coach Ralph Friedgen, who has longed to see his offense run by a blue-chip recruit.
But now comes the hardest part for everyone involved - making sure the artist lives up to his promise.
Though Steffy is only 19 and still dealing with the transition to college life, the Maryland coaching staff has made it clear it fully expects him to compete for the starting job this preseason, which begins next Wednesday.
Sophomores Joel Statham and Sam Hollenbach have an edge in experience, but Friedgen, entering his fourth year at Terps coach, said that he would have no qualms about simplifying his offense and going with the freshman if he felt it gave the Terps their best chance to win.
Statham is still the clear favorite, but he won't be handed the job. The day he signed, Steffy was given the Terps' playbook and told to get cracking.
"I know it's not going to be a walk in the park," said Steffy, who has been on campus for two weeks, lifting, running and throwing in seven-on-seven passing drills. "I just want to give myself a shot. Obviously, with the other quarterbacks there, I don't think I could be the starter from Day One. That's not a realistic goal. But come fall, I want to put myself in a position to compete."
`Done his homework'
"From what I hear, he seems like he's really worked at it," said Friedgen, who isn't allowed to watch Steffy throw until practice officially begins. "I was surprised by what he knew. It seems like he's done his homework."
Steffy has been exceeding expectations for some time. As a freshman in high school, he wrestled away the starting quarterback job from a senior midway through the season. And though some people were upset, he quickly quieted his doubters by leading Conestoga Valley to the district title game.
For his high school career, Steffy passed for 5,587 yards and 51 touchdowns and also rushed for 929 yards and 22 scores. His best effort may have come against Elizabethtown his senior year, when, despite a driving rainstorm, he went 16 of 18 for 315 yards and threw six touchdown passes.
Outside of football, it's no different, whether the sport is poker, basketball, video games or bowling. Steffy plays to win. His grandmother owns lanes in Lancaster, and he once bowled a 243.
In basketball, he scored more than 1,000 points in his career and, in the Lancaster-Lebanon League semifinals, despite being double-teamed, he scored 26 of his team's 48 points in a loss to Lancaster Catholic. His coach, Bob Borden, called it the most impressive individual effort he'd seen in 23 years of coaching.
"I like that leadership role," Steffy said. "It's a role where you have to be responsible. There's a lot of pressure on your shoulders. When you win, you're the hero, and when you lose, you're the bad guy. I like that."
Steffy's charisma and confidence were certainly on display the day he signed with Maryland. At a news conference attended by members of the local and national media, Steffy psyched out the audience by putting on a Michigan State jersey and talking about how much he admired then Spartans quarterback Jeff Smoker.
No doubt about tools
He followed it up by throwing on a red and white Terps jersey and declaring that he wanted to do what Smoker did - but wanted to do it in College Park.
"He has a real chance to help us this year," Franklin said. "He's a legit 4.5 guy with a very strong arm. He's more physical right now than Scott McBrien was as a senior.
"With as much stuff as we run, it's going to be very, very difficult. But does he have the tools? No doubt about it."
Occasionally, tools are enough. In 1989, when Friedgen was the offensive coordinator at Georgia Tech, he and Bobby Ross were struggling to pick a starter among Lee Williamson, Paul Bowman, Jeff Howard and Shawn Jones. They ended up picking Jones, a second-year freshman and the most athletic quarterback.
"He didn't have the stats that the other quarterbacks did, but the one stat he did have was that every team he was on scored," Friedgen said. "If you've got a mobile quarterback, he can make a good play out of a bad play."
Friedgen wasn't trying to compare the Jones situation to his current one, but if Steffy plays well during two-a-days, the similarities will be hard to ignore.