COLLEGE PARK - Quarterbacks, especially young ones, are going to make mistakes. In 26 years of coaching, Maryland offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe has heard kids curse after interceptions, seen them pout after missed reads and, along the way, even had a few who would cry after losses.
Terps starter Joel Statham, though, is the first quarterback he has ever had who would make a mistake and then laugh when Taaffe tried to correct it.
"It took me awhile to figure it out, but that was his defense mechanism for dealing with something when he was nervous," Taaffe said. "He'd be listening to what I was saying, but he'd be laughing."
That quirk, along with Statham's laid-back personality, had Taaffe and Terps coach Ralph Friedgen scratching their heads when Statham joined the team two years ago after a standout career at Murray County High in Chatsworth, Ga.
"I kind of wondered for a while how important football was to Joel," Friedgen said.
"He didn't really have any sense of urgency, whether it was with football or with school," Taaffe said. "He would just kind of take things as they came. You could see he had talent, so it became a matter of trying to speed up the process."
Which, Taaffe says, was not easy. The mellow, relaxed attitude was ingrained into Statham's character the same way the soft Georgia twang was ingrained into his voice. Growing up in Chatsworth - a town in the northwest corner of the state near the Tennessee border with just five stoplights and fewer than 3,600 people - there wasn't any good reason to go places in a hurry.
"It's real country," Taaffe said. "I tease him a lot about that. I told him they were going to have drivers' ed in Chatsworth, but they had to cancel it because the mule died."
"The area here is very rural," said Statham's mom, Denise Bartley. "It's a great community, but there's not a whole lot to do. There's a movie theater, but that's about it."
Statham spent a lot of his childhood outdoors, hunting and fishing with his friends and family. He loved to go trout fishing with his great-grandfather, Robert Chapman, in the streams of the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was quiet, peaceful and beautiful. But when Chapman died, Statham put down his fishing rod and didn't go back.
"He was always real close to my parents and my grandparents," Bartley said. "I think he just didn't want to do it anymore."
It wasn't long before Statham began to feel drawn to football. In Chatsworth, football is only slightly less important than religion, and it's not unusual to see the two cross paths. Bartley said she can remember more than one sermon in church in which the family pastor brought up the Murray County Indians.
"My town's a lot like the movie Varsity Blues," said Statham, referring to the Paramount Pictures film about high school football in Texas. "I remember my junior year of high school, we went to the elite eight in the playoffs, and we had a big parade with people running up and down the street. It was a lot of fun. Everybody knew who you were around town."
Statham longed to play for Georgia, but the Bulldogs' interest in him was only lukewarm. Maryland, on the other hand, loved his arm and liked the fact that he had run the option in high school, so the Terps' staff sent him letters and called often. They got him to come to Maryland's camp before his senior year, and were impressed by his arm strength. College Park was 600 miles away, but the decision was easy.
"I told him we'd fly him home whenever we could," Bartley said.
Statham's redshirt year was uneventful, and it looked like his freshman season last year would be the same until a confluence of events thrust him into the spotlight against Georgia Tech in Week 8. Statham practiced all week as the Terps' third-string quarterback, but when backup Orlando Evans was suspended right before the trip to Atlanta, he was bumped up. When senior starter Scott McBrien suffered a concussion in the first half, suddenly Statham was out on the field, leading the offense. To top things off, more than 20 members of Statham's family had made the trip from Chatsworth, and were in the crowd.
"I can remember seeing Scott on the sidelines, and he was looking at his hand," Bartley said. "We didn't know he had a concussion at the time. Then I saw one of the players flip the ball to Joel and I just about lost it."
The Yellow Jackets blitzed Statham on virtually every down. Not having taken a single snap with the first-team offense all week, he had to rely on guts and instinct. Statham led the Terps on a 12-play, 63-yard drive and gave Maryland a 3-0 lead in the third quarter, but he also threw an interception and lost a fumble, putting Georgia Tech into position to score the only touchdown. Maryland lost, 7-3, and Statham finished the game 10-for-22 for 110 yards.
"I gained a lot of respect for him in that game," Taaffe said. "He didn't flinch, and he really took a physical pounding. But he made some plays. I thought he showed a quiet confidence."