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Brock Purdy was lightly recruited after his junior season of high school.
And a gnarly, old cactus.
The first struck just before his junior season began, stealing 27 pounds from his frame and discernable zip from his passes. His personal throwing coach, Dan Manucci, said his sessions usually last an hour and a half. When Purdy was cleared to hit the field again, the 16-year-old could barely muster 30 minutes.
“I said, ‘Brock, how do you feel?’ He said, ‘Coach, I’m toast,’” Manucci recalled. “It was one of those where he was in fifth gear and all of a sudden he got put in park.”
By December of that year, Purdy finally was rolling again. He led Perry High in Gilbert, Ariz., to the state playoffs in a breakout season in which he completed 64 percent of his attempts. Still, when prospective college coaches flipped on the film, they couldn’t see past a skinny, 6-foot quarterback whose throws seemed to float.
“Even though you tell ’em, ‘Look, the kid had mono. He didn’t have his strength, he didn’t have his weight,’” said Purdy’s head coach back then, Preston Jones. “You tell ’em, ‘Watch that last game of the year and you’ll see a different velocity.’ But they didn’t. They prejudge.”
It didn’t help that when college coaches came to observe the still-unsigned Purdy the following spring, he was off to the side with a bandage on his non-throwing hand.
Jones said he used to take his rising seniors to the lake as part of a spring bonding session. But that got scuttled when one of the boys jumped in, struck a propeller and needed stitches. So the team-building outing that year was changed to a kids-versus-coaches paintball battle in the desert.
“Well, being a competitor, Brock slides in behind a cactus, puts his hand out and gets a saguaro needle through his hand,” Jones recalled.
A few hours later, Purdy’s left hand looked like an about-to-burst balloon, and he was rushed to the hospital that night for surgery. General anesthesia, open the hand up, clean it out, stitch it back up — the works.
“There was like some poison and stuff in there,” Purdy said. “It got in there pretty good. So I missed a couple of weeks of spring ball when the coaches come down to watch you. It was bad timing.”
The run-in with the cactus gave Purdy trouble gripping the ball, and the Perry High coaching staff worried the team was going to begin the promising new season like it did the last one: with its star quarterback on the bench.
“I mean, he’s the offense,” said Adam Snyder, the longtime 49ers offensive lineman who now coaches the offensive line for the high school. “And we had just taken a run in the state playoffs. And to have a cactus injury — it’s not really one of the things you think are going to happen. But we do live in the desert.”
Said Jones: “It was, ‘Oh, man. Last year was mono. This year it’s a cactus. What in the heck, man?’”
This time it was only a scare. Purdy’s left hand healed by the end of the summer. He started every game and, now at about 200 pounds, finally looked like himself. He threw for 4,405 yards, ran for another 1,000 and nearly toppled the state’s powerhouse, Chandler High, in a one-for-the-ages loss in the state championship.
During that season, he showed everything that caught the 49ers’ eye in the recent NFL Draft. Purdy was accurate and in control, connecting on 65 percent of his passes. More than that, he routinely turned plays that seemed dead in the water into first downs and scores. Purdy often uses the word “craftiness” when asked to describe his strengths. To hear his former coaches, “craftiness” didn’t always cut it. Sometimes he seemed like Houdini.
“You can throw on any of his high school games and there’s going to be moments when your jaw hits the floor,” Snyder said. “We were always in the game because Brock was so dangerous.”
What’s more, Purdy ended up being the last man standing. By the end of his senior year, all of the 6-foot-4 passers with rocket arms had been snapped up. Some colleges, however, hadn’t yet landed a quarterback for their upcoming class, while others had recruits who’d backed out at the last minute. Programs were scrambling, and Purdy, who still hadn’t signed, was the best prospect remaining. The ugly duckling was now a prize.
Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher came into town singing Purdy’s praises. Big 12 schools visited. Every day more coaches were hanging around the high school to woo Purdy.
“I’ve never been a part of recruiting like that,” Jones said. “It was crazy. We would have to hide him sometimes because they would bring three, four, five coaches down just to try to impress him. And he would sneak out the back door, and I’d say, ‘Oh, he’s gone for the day.’”
Nick Saban never arrived. But the Alabama head coach sent an assistant, and Saban met with Purdy during an on-campus visit in Tuscaloosa, Ala., after his senior football season.
The meeting didn’t go well.
Said Jones: “Brock told me, ‘He didn’t really know me, Coach.’ (Saban said), ‘You’re below average in height. Your arm strength is whatever. Your accuracy is average.’ And as soon as he mentioned the accuracy, Brock knew right away: ‘This guy doesn’t know me.’ Because, if anything, that’s his strength. He goes, ‘Coach, he didn’t know who I was.’”
“He came back from his recruiting trip and said, ‘I want to go somewhere and try to kick his ass,’” Jones recalled.
“Somewhere” turned out to be Iowa State, a school with barely a sliver of Alabama’s football success but with a head coach, Matt Campbell, Purdy admired. There also was a close-knit college atmosphere, especially on game days, that Purdy craved. The Cyclones never had a losing season after Purdy arrived in 2018, and in 2020 they beat Oregon in the Fiesta Bowl.
“Brock’s not a flashy guy,” Jones said. “He’s not going to go where they have the flashiest uniforms and the coolest stadiums. He’s not a shallow guy. He can read people; he knows what’s real. And I think he valued that in Coach Campbell. He’s an old-school guy. He kind of puts the value in the person first and the football player second. And I think (Purdy) could sense that and he could see it.”
The encounter with Saban underscores something else about Purdy the 49ers picked up on: He’s respectful, says all the right things and has trained, studied film and fueled his body — chicken and brown rice — like a professional player since he was 16. At the same time, there’s something wilder raging below the surface. Manucci, his throwing coach, described it as a controlled burn.
“He’s very even-keeled,” he said. “But he also has this fire burning in his belly.”
In the end, Purdy’s draft experience was similar to his college recruitment: mostly quiet, slow and humbling … with a frantic finish.
Snyder, whose last season with the 49ers was in 2013, noted he doesn’t know many people at team headquarters anymore. But he called those he did, urging them to take a chance on Purdy. He texted his good friend Joe Staley, the retired offensive tackle who remains tight with Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch.
“Tell Kyle and John that they’ve got a steal here,” he wrote. “Because this kid really has a chance to make this roster. And he’s just the type of kid you want in the locker room. And he’s the type of dude you want at the podium. He’d just do a really good job of representing your organization.”
At the end of the sixth round, the 49ers had two picks, which they used on a defensive tackle and a cornerback. When the seventh and final round began, Purdy’s name still hadn’t been called. After a while, 15 picks were remaining. Soon after that, there were 10.
“At that point, it was, ‘Man, I just hope he gets a shot,’” Snyder said.
When the final round began, Purdy said the 49ers called to alert him that they were eying him with their seventh-round pick. But that pick was the last one in the draft — the so-called Mr. Irrelevant spot — and other teams already were calling to see if he was interested in joining them as an undrafted free agent.
As the Rams were making their selection with the second-to-last pick, the 49ers called back. Purdy took his phone into his parents’ bedroom, listened as the 49ers told him they planned to take him at No. 262, then calmly walked back into the family room and told his family it was yet another free agency call.
When Purdy’s name finally flashed onto the screen, Snyder’s house when berserk.
“The kids started freaking out,” Snyder said. “They were really freaking out because it was to the Niners.”
The same thing happened in Purdy’s family room.
“I had told everyone it was another free-agency call just in case I didn’t get drafted,” Purdy said. “So that’s why everyone erupted. I waited until my name came up on the screen and had fun with it.”
(Photo: Chris Unger / Getty Images)