DELTONA, Fla. – Paxton Lynch woke up on the morning of the Central Florida high school football all-star game in 2011 and figured there was no reason to be nervous.
"I thought the all-star game was gonna be possibly my last game," Lynch said last Friday. "I thought of it like that. I went out and enjoyed myself."
A little more than four years later, Lynch is a likely NFL first-round pick, and possibly destined for a top-three spot depending on what teams see in him over the coming weeks.
Lynch is 6-foot-7, hoping to run a sub-4.7 40-yard-dash later this month at the NFL scouting combine, and he has a massive throwing hand that measures nearly a foot. "I'm trying to blow people away with my size and athletic ability," he says, and he just might do that.
So how did Lynch fall completely off the radar in the recruiting-crazy state of Florida? Why was he a week removed from signing day in 2012 and preparing himself for a post-college life of "probably working with my dad"?
What makes his story even more odd is that Florida, UCF and even Florida State could have used Lynch last season. None of these schools are overrun with quarterbacks. It got to the point during Lynch's senior year of high school that a local sportswriter who covered the team regularly asked himself, "What can I do to get Paxton noticed?"
Deltona is a small, working-class suburb of Orlando, along Interstate 4 about halfway from downtown toward Daytona. Not too far off the highway is a religious school of about 600 kids called Trinity Christian Academy. It graduated its first class, of eight students, in 1987. By the time Paxton Lynch arrived after being home-schooled as a child, most of the K-through-12 grades had around 40 students.
"We're a tiny, tiny, tiny school," says athletic director Buddy Shacklette, who wrote for the Daytona News-Journal before coming to the academy. "We actually are known for baseball."
It's hard to believe the school is known for any sport, as the weight room is converted from an old band room and still has wooden boards on the wall to muffle the sound of music. Behind the school sits the athletic department, which is a trailer left over from I-4 construction. Inside, a helmet sits on top of a washing machine in the team meeting room, and the coach's office has a floor made from an old basketball court. The football team does not have space to practice, so it regularly busses 10 minutes down the road to a community park, where it works out in a field near a playground. Hundreds of quarterbacks in Texas have facilities that rival college and even professional programs, and a potential No. 1 NFL pick comes from here.
"We probably need to track down his jersey," Shacklette says.
There was still another obstacle to Lynch getting discovered: the Trinity offense. It ran the Wing-T while he was there, which more or less turned him into a dual-threat passer with only one threat. Lynch was a good athlete, and a good runner, but he also had a strong arm (as does his brother, Evan, who played baseball), which he seldom used.
"We always wondered as reporters," Shackette says, "Why wouldn't you turn this kid loose?"
Lynch found himself wondering the same.
"I always looked at other teams' stats, and they're throwing the ball 25, 30 times a day," he says. "Why aren't we doing that?"
The frustration bubbled when Lynch went to camps and still received little attention. It didn't help that he bruised his knee before his senior season and missed time, but that didn't explain it fully. He was a three-star Rivals prep and his only interest, he says, came from Bethune-Cookman, Florida A&M and Florida Tech.
"We went to the camps," says Paxton's father, David. "Everyone had a chance to see him. They were just worried about the small school."
The Lynches stayed with Trinity anyway, even though many families would have headed for a bigger stage. They liked the education, and even liked the Wing-T, as Paxton enjoyed running the football. They figured it would all work out somehow.
"We just kept trusting in God, that he was going to put him in the right position," David Lynch says. "It was hard for him sometimes. He knows he's good enough; why doesn't anybody believe the same thing?"
The all-star game was more or less the last shot, even though Paxton figured the last shot might already have passed. "It was an all-star game," he says now. "People really don't care."
People started to care after Lynch won MVP honors, throwing for two touchdowns and running for another. Still, not much materialized. Then Florida offensive coordinator Charlie Weis showed strong interest, but he took the head job at Kansas. Brent Pease, the ensuing offensive coordinator, picked up the thread, but he seemed to prefer Skyler Mornhinweg, the son of long-time NFL offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.
"They were gonna wait to see what he was going to do and I wasn't going to sit around waiting on y'all," Lynch says. "He ended up committing and I don't know what he's doing now." (Mornhinweg transferred to Columbia.)
That left the door open for Memphis, which found out about Lynch because an assistant athletic director read a recruiting story about overlooked prep players.
"Someone said there was a kid in Florida," says Justin Fuente, then at Memphis. "We sent a coach down there, met with him. We tried to scare up as much video as we could. We scoured the Internet. We had some footage from the all-star game and that was about it. It was a quick evaluation."
Fuente offered without ever seeing Lynch throw live.
Lynch visited on the last possible day, and committed.
Then, on signing day, UCF lost top quarterback recruit Jonathan Wallace to Auburn. Then coach George O'Leary asked offensive coordinator Charlie Taaffe if he had a Plan B, and Taaffe rushed to call Lynch. By then it was too late.
Lynch starred for Memphis, even entering the Heisman conversation at one point last year. Fuente is now Frank Beamer's replacement at Virginia Tech, and UCF's O'Leary resigned in October.
Had Taaffe called a week sooner, "I'd probably still be there," he says with a half-laugh.
Taaffe has seen something similar before: Blake Bortles was also an overlooked prep in this area. Many college coaches saw him as a tight end, if that. He committed to Taaffe and UCF, won a BCS bowl game and became a top-three NFL pick. "There are a lot of parallels," says Taaffe, who is now training Lynch for the combine at D1 training center in nearby Lake Mary. It's notable how in a world of social media and YouTube and the constant search for the franchise quarterback, some of the top passing prospects – including Carson Wentz of North Dakota State – are all but completely missed.
"He's a product of early recruiting," Fuente says of Lynch. "There are so many early offers now. Coaches get filled up and they can't offer even if they like him. It's a classic example of a guy who hasn't reached his peak as a junior in high school."
Another possible bonus for would-be NFL teams is that prospects like Lynch and Wentz "aren't catered to" in the words of Taaffe. They aren't presumptuous and they often like to learn. Lynch, like Bortles, intends to throw at the combine in the hopes of impressing rather than maintaining some preconceived level of hype.
There is a downside, though, and it's especially so in Lynch's case: inexperience. He had almost no passing game in high school, and the system he ran at Memphis is not all that similar to what he'll be using in Cleveland or Dallas or Houston or wherever he lands.
"[There are] things Paxton didn't do a lot of in college that he's going to be required to do in the NFL," Taaffe says. "Which is playing under center, both in the run game and the pass game. He didn't do much of those things at all at Memphis and that will be a transition for him. He very rarely was in the huddle. Everything was up-tempo, look over to the sidelines to get the play. They don't do that on Sundays."
So a big part of Lynch's pre-combine learning curve is classroom work. When he's not doing cardio or weights, he is breaking down tape.
"I really didn't know that much about football in high school," he says. "Then I learned everything in college."
He will have to learn everything again in the months to come. Taaffe says Lynch's football IQ is "outstanding," but he struggled in Memphis' bowl game, where Lynch threw for 104 yards, no touchdowns and had an interception against Auburn, which took a lot of his trusted screen passes away.
"They kind of got after us a little bit," Lynch says. "It was a bad note to end on."
He'll have to be patient, and his new fan base will have to be too. Even Bortles played in a college offense more suited to the NFL, and he had to learn a lot of his footwork in his first summer as a pro. It's been only a little over three years since Lynch was playing quarterback and safety on a team of 22 kids who dressed for games in a trailer; now the Auburn defense will look slow compared to what he's about to see. He just turned 22 on Friday.
"It's crazy, but it's enjoyable," he says. "Whenever I feel like I'm overwhelmed, I need to relax, I sit back and think about how blessed I am to be here."
Lynch's father says that one of his son's goals for his first pro year is to start a camp for two-star players who might have been overlooked. Regardless of his success after getting drafted, he is a shining example for late-bloomers and small-school stars. For every Cam Newton and Peyton Manning, there's a Paxton Lynch, waking up on the day of a big high school game and wondering if anyone out there will ever notice him.