This article appears in the October/November 2004 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
The pool table at Pat Devlin's house doesn't see much action anymore. Not the usual sort, anyway. These days, it's mostly used as a poker table. Texas hold 'em. Five-card stud. Low in the hole. Wild widow.
Devlin, a junior quarterback at Downingtown East, and his buddies play them all. They have for months now. Junior safety Brian Bosak is the shark of the group ("Smartest kid I've ever met — I still haven't figured him out yet," says Devlin). Junior lineman Mike Lukenda runs his mouth a lot, but loses just as much. Senior center Tripp Laino, not one to take chances, often wears sunglasses so as not to give himself away.
Now, before anyone gets the wrong idea and calls the authorities, this is a simple five-cent ante game. Just teammates getting together to pass the time and share some laughs.
"We live in a town where if you want to do something exciting, you either go to the movies or hang out with friends," says Devlin, a 6-foot-3, 198-pounder who is rated the nation's No. 4 overall football recruit in the Class of 2006 by SchoolSports.com. "Poker involves a lot of thinking. It's just some good fun to pass the time. Me? I'm a very conservative player. I like to stay in as long as I can."
If he doesn't already know, it will come as no surprise to Downingtown East second-year head coach Michael Matta that Devlin is a heady, gutsy gambler. Matta knew it from the first moment he met the kid.
At the coaching staff's urging, Devlin walked from Lionville Middle School and arrived 20 minutes late to Downingtown practices every day as an eighth-grader. The coaches thought the kid had potential and would be that much better off the more familiar he became with the offense.
A year later, Devlin was one of two freshmen on the 108-player varsity roster (the other frosh at least had a brother on the team) and played second-string quarterback on a 10-1 team, throwing for 450 yards and three touchdowns in mop-up duty. He also paid his dues, carrying the ball bags and taking his lumps running the scout team.
"That's where he won the respect of the guys here now," says Matta, 44, who served six years as defensive coordinator before Downingtown split its high schools into East and West following the 2002-03 school year (Devlin attended Downingtown High as a freshman and moved to East as a sophomore after the split). "He was never coddled. He's not a prima donna. He'd walk up here, dump his bag in the locker room and run onto the field, alone, 20 minutes late. As a 13-year-old in a loaded program."
Even given that debut and even with all Matta knew about Devlin, the veteran coach never expected to see what he saw last November, when the Cougars trailed rival Coatesville by four late in the game. It was third and long, and as far as Matta is concerned, that's when Pat Devlin the football phenom was born.
"We called a play and our offensive coordinator, Dan Ellis, saw something," says Matta, who led East to a 5-7 record last fall in its inaugural season. "He yells to Pat, who's already under center, and signals. Pat puts his arms out and yells ‘Easy! Easy!' to calm everybody down, calls the audible, drops back and throws a touchdown pass. That's when I was sure we were dealing with someone special.
"His poise is exceptional," adds Matta. "He's got a huge arm, but the fact is our offense is very sophisticated, and we ask him to do a lot of different stuff, and he has the poise to make a lot of different types of throws."
It gets better. This kid already talks like an NFL veteran. Ask him what he repeats in his head on the football field and the answer is far better than the question, if you're in the market for a quarterback.
"You can't lose your cool," says Devlin, who threw for 2,913 yards and 27 touchdowns as a sophomore last year. "If you make a bad mistake, you can't let it stay with you. You've got to be over it by the next play."
There's even more evidence Devlin is wise beyond his years. Of all the things he could say about the benefits of being tutored by Ellis — a former Downingtown quarterback and two-year starter at Virginia who has essentially installed a college-style passing attack at East — Devlin singles out the circumstance that ultimately keeps the Cougars moving down the field.
"You can talk to him about anything," says Devlin, who owns a legit shot at becoming the state's all-time leading passer (Lakeland's Evan Kraky finished his career in 2001 with a state-record 7,447 yards). "You can't be afraid to tell a guy in his position anything if something on the field just isn't working."
No boundaries. No tiptoeing around the subject. Just young men trying to put the ball in the end zone. Well, very young men when you include the Cougars' 16-year-old field general.
So Devlin communicates well with adults. But motivating and leading peers a full year or two older than him can't be easy. To get their attention, man, he must have to scream himself red in the face.
"You don't have to yell at guys to motivate them," says Devlin, who hooked up with All-State senior wide receiver Eric Edginton to the tune of 98 catches for 1,100 yards last season. "It comes from practicing with them. If they know you've worked hard with them, they'll believe in you."
"He's a great leader — he communicates well with everyone on the team," says Matta. "That's kids from all walks of life, all different socio-economic backgrounds and all ethnicities. That's special."
Honestly, Pat Devlin seems almost too good to be true. It's no wonder he's receiving two or three letters a day from big-time college programs. But for now, he isn't putting much thought into his college decision.
"Right now, I just want to play," says Devlin. "I don't want to talk about the future and the next level. It excites me. I don't get nervous. It's a great opportunity, but it's the next game that matters. That's what we've been working for since January."