Mission Viejo, Calif. • A late-summer coolness fell on two nationally ranked high school teams on the first football weekend in California. The lanky junior quarterback of the team in white, the team that up to this particular day had lost only 12 varsity games in its history, took his place in the backfield.
Here was a mystery delivered in a 6-foot-4, 210-pound package from Logan, Utah, an unknown transfer to a school once dubbed Hollywood High. He settled into a position that has never been occupied by a player who did not go on to play Division I football.
On the first series of his first game as the quarterback at Oaks Christian High School, Luke Falk threw an interception.
Falk's entire family made the move to the ritzy Conejo Valley in December, leaving Logan for a comparatively modest home with a pool. In doing so Falk escaped a frustrating two-quarterback system at Logan High School, moved closer to his famous quarterback coach, and jump-started his quest to become one of the top prospects in the country, like Oaks Christian quarterbacks usually are.
He's already on his way. Florida State offered Falk a scholarship on the strength of his YouTube highlight video. Stanford, Arizona State and Utah top his list of schools he hopes take interest.
On this night, Sept. 3 against Bellevue (Wash.), Falk threw three interceptions, the last coming in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, trailing 31-21. The 16-year-old, who still drives a truck with Utah plates, was unable to save his new school from loss No. 13.
A school for the elite • Oaks Christian opened in 2000 on seven concrete acres, thanks to a $40 million investment from a family that wanted a school with excellence in every possible discipline for the area around Westlake Village, a highly affluent community on the northern edge of Los Angeles County.
It quickly became the private school of choice for the rich and famous. Annual tuition is $24,990.
Even in the beginning, sports were a priority at Oaks Christian. The mission statement calls for the "pursuit of academic excellence, artistic expression, and athletic distinction."
Over the years, the grounds have developed into a prep sports wonderland. Fields for each sport have artificial turf. The baseball stadium was funded by Wayne Gretzky, whose son, Trevor, was a football and baseball star at the school. The U.S. Water Polo team trains at the school's Olympic-size pool.
One year Gretzky played football alongside Trey Smith, son of actor Will Smith, and Nick Montana, the University of Washington quarterback whose father is Joe Montana. Carolina Panthers quarterback Jimmy Clausen never lost a game in four years at the school.
A rich tradition is crammed into a brief history.
"I think it attracts a lot of kids here to school to play quarterback," said Bill Redell, who has coached the team since its inception.
Redell is 70 years old and deep creases on his face were shaded by the brim of an Oaks Christian cap. He has become an institution in Southern California coaching. As a former quarterback in the Canadian Football League, he knows the position and, maybe more importantly, he knows the egos.
The Sunday afternoon after losing in his first national TV appearance, Luke Falk pulled his big black truck into a parking lot adjacent to the football field at Oaks Christian. Redell was about to back his car out of a nearby parking spot.
The young quarterback approached the old one. Since leaving Logan, Falk traded in his sun-bleached mop-top for a professional buzzcut.
"You did a lot of good things last night," Redell said. "What did you think of the game?"
Falk had stayed awake late, replaying series and throws in his mind while he lay in his hotel bed.
"I think we can get better," Falk said.
Earlier in the day Redell called Falk's performance against Bellevue "spotty." He needed to improve in future games or could lose the starting job to talented sophomore Brandon Dawkins. But he wasn't going to say that to Falk.
"I haven't given up on you," Redell said.
Falk's head pointed downward to shield his eyes from the glaring sun, but he looked up abruptly.
"Can we still win state?" he said.
California state championships aren't as straightforward as in Utah, where a team such as Logan, which is 4-0 and ranked No. 1 in 4A, merely has to keep winning. In California, teams must win California Interscholastic Federation section championships and then be selected to play in state championship bowl games. The CIF title was certainly still within reach; Oaks Christian has won seven of the last eight.
"It's pretty tough when you have a loss," Redell told Falk.
The player promised to be on time for practice the next day. As Redell drove away, Falk said, "I didn't come here to lose."
Split time • Why did he come here?
Why does a sophomore in high school, already projected as a Division-I prospect, leave his hometown, his friends and a team that was poised for a run at a state championship?
"I'll do anything for the dream," Falk said.
The move to California has forced Falk's parents, Mike and Analee, to face uncomfortable questions about uprooting their family to give their son more exposure. They were featured in the winter on a CNN segment called, "Extreme Parenting," which dissected their decision to pay for private lessons from former NFL quarterback Steve Clarkson, who has mentored stars such as Claussen, Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Leinart.
Clarkson told the Falks that in order to groom Luke into the quarterback he wants to be, they needed to be closer to him in Southern California.
"How can you not take that opportunity when you're told your son has that kind of ability?" Analee Falk said.
As a sophomore at Logan, Falk threw for 1,500 yards and 17 touchdowns as he split time with D.J. Nelson, a gritty runner who kept Falk on the bench more than a potential star should be.
So, late in the fall, during basketball tryouts, Falk announced he was heading to California.
"I held a grudge against him for six months," Logan defensive end Caden Andersen said. "Didn't talk to him."
Luke Falk calls himself fortunate to have parents who can support his dreams. His sisters were going to come along and pursue music careers, but ultimately stayed in Logan to finish their degrees at Utah State. Falk and his parents share their house in the hills, a tangible illustration of what Mike Falk, who owns an international commercial real estate company, characterized as their "two-year adventure." Why did he come here?
Luke Falk may very well become a star quarterback and have his pick of colleges. Money wasn't an issue. And the opportunity was there. For the Falks, the question became, "Why not?"
"Given that Luke goes to college on a scholarship," Mike Falk said, "a full ride, that's better than any real estate investment I've ever made. Including my move here and what I pay Steve [Clarkson]."
'The guy at this campus' • Caden Andersen eventually let go of his grudge. He and Logan teammate Jake Thompson flew to Los Angeles to watch Falk make his Oaks Christian debut.
"I think they're all over it," Falk said. "I had texts, 'Hey what channel will the game be on?' I think things are back to normal."
Except for the football side of things. Falk threw just four interceptions last year for the Grizzlies. In one game at Oaks Christian, he nearly matched that total. In the summer, when Redell tabbed Falk as the starter, another junior who had been fighting for the job, Cody Cordell, transferred down the highway to Crespi. The night before Oaks Christian's opener, Cordell threw two touchdowns in a 48-6 rout over Dominguez.
Redell remained confident in his decision to stick with the lanky transfer from Utah.
"He's a smart kid," Redell said, "he's not a dumb kid. So he'll grow into the position. He hasn't said this, but it may be a little overwhelming to him to come in and be the quarterback of this program."
Redell compares Falk to Clausen, if only because both have NFL-caliber arms and aren't players who will kill you on the run. It's a comparison Falk welcomes, if only because Clausen is the standard for everything around Oaks Christian. Quarterbacks are revered on those seven acres in Westlake Village. After all, the starting quarterback has never not played Division I.
"You kind of are the guy at this campus," Falk said. It's a legacy built by guys like Clausen, who was 42-0 in four years with the Lions. Falk dreamed of posting an unblemished record of his own. By Sunday, though, he had moved on, and only slightly adjusted his expectations.
"I'll have one loss on mine," Falk said.