Cade Klubnik surveyed the field. This was the quarterback’s last chance, with 1:47 left on the game clock on 4th-and-goal from the one-yard line.
Klubnik led his Austin Westlake Chaparrals to the Texas state semifinals, but found his team trailing North Shore high school, 21-17. The winner would advance to the State Championship game for a chance to cement their names in the Texas high school football history books.
Klubnik just handed off to running back Grey Nakfoor, who attempted his seventh carry of the game, but he failed to get into the end zone on 3rd down. Westlake's last chance was in their star quarterback’s hands with the game clock winding down. A moment like that might sound stressful and too big for some. Not for Cade.
“I’ve really never dealt with stress,” Klubnik calmly said. “I just haven’t. Especially in the game of football like… I love it. I’m not nervous because my team’s put in the work and our coaches have prepared us and I know my teammates are ready. That’s the time we get loose and just go and have fun with it. And it’s just kinda my mentality. I wake up Friday morning knowing that it’s game day. It's time to go and have fun.”
Cade Klubnik faked the hand-off to Nakfoor, tucked the ball inside his left elbow, and took off for his sixth rushing attempt of the night. Leading with his shoulder, Klubnik barreled through the cornerback and into the endzone.
Austin Westlake took a 24-21 lead after the extra point, a lead they wouldn’t relinquish, and advanced to the state title game, where they crushed Southlake Carroll High School, 52-34.
Klubnik finished his fantastic junior season producing 3,495 passing yards and 35 touchdowns while completing 67.7 percent of his passes in 14 games. He also added 583 rushing yards on 98 carries and 15 rushing touchdowns.
While the 2020 season ended on a strong note for Klubnik and his team, he didn’t have the easiest path to the success he’s already experienced at 18 years of age.
The coronavirus pandemic slowly started making its way from China to the United States in January and February 2020. By March, the NBA shut down its doors just one month before the start of the playoffs. The NHL followed suit. The MLB delayed the start of their season. It wasn’t ideal, but everyone figured those leagues would be back eventually.
What about high school sports though? What about college sports?
The pandemic, which has taken over 5 million lives to date worldwide, put a giant question mark on high school and collegiate athletics. Many student-athletes pursuing futures in professional sports saw their journeys come to a screeching halt.
Cade Klubnik believes the timing of the shutdown allowed his team to heal and refocus ahead of the 2020 season, which would be his first as a full-time starter.
“We had running backs coming back and we had one receiver coming back. And my mentality was over COVID I’m not gonna let this stop us from getting better.”
Klubnik organized group workouts with some of his receivers throughout the week to make sure they stayed on the same page.
“I was getting my receivers, seven or eight guys, and we will go four or five days a week for two or three hours during the summer -- the entire summer since March. That chemistry, those reps went on and on and on, like they weren’t wasteful. It showed during the season that we didn’t have a lot of missed throws or missed timing.”
The chemistry, trust, and vision built with his receivers showed as he went on to complete 67.7 percent of his passes en route to the championship later that year.
Getting through the months leading up to the season was tough due to the completely unpredictable pandemic.
“We showed up at fall camp on a Monday and we didn’t know if we would practice the next day,” Klubnik said of the day-to-day start to the season. “Our mentality for the whole year is to take advantage of the day because we literally aren’t guaranteed next week’s game.
“Just enjoy every bit, love the game as much as you can because you never know when it might be taken away from you. They could shut us down any moment and we have no control over that. That just grew our hunger so much over that time we had to work to get better.”
Klubnik and Austin Westlake’s hunger to win amid the pandemic was only heightened after experiencing the mountaintop just a few months prior. The school won the 6A-Division 2 state championship in 2019, when Klubnik was a sophomore.
Prior to that, the school’s only other state title came in 1996, when a young man by the name of Drew Brees was Austin Westlake’s starting quarterback.
As a sophomore, Klubnik was in a QB battle all season with senior Kirkland Michaux. Unfortunately, a thumb injury late in the season took him out of the lineup for a few weeks, and when he did return, he wasn’t featured nearly as much as he was before his injury. That only fueled Klubnik heading into his junior season as the clear-cut starter.
“Getting through being the backup [was the hardest],” Klubnik said of his sophomore season. “I was backing up a senior. We’d been competing the first seven or eight games of the season and I ended up tearing my thumb up. I was out for maybe three or four weeks.
“That just kinda taught me that you don’t go out and just have a half-day. Every single rep and every single play matters in practice. Practice is everything. You prove who you are in practice, not in games.”
Klubnik was right. Practice is everything. It’s where he’s learned to perfect his craft. Practice was also where he met the teammate who will influence the rest of his life.
Jackson Coker was a senior at Austin Westlake when Cade Klubnik entered his sophomore year. The two met for the first time on the practice field, where Coker initiated a conversation.
“What’s up, bro?” Coker said. “Just want you to know I really believe in you. I think you can be a star.”
Klubnik was taken aback. “Who does that?” he recalls immediately thinking.
Jackson did that, and not just with Cade.
By all accounts, Coker was the type of person and player that developed a bond with everyone on the team. It didn’t matter if you were the starting quarterback, the fourth-string kicker, the waterboys, the teachers that come out to watch the games or the janitor that cleans up the locker room after them.
“He brought that relationship to everybody. He was just everybody’s best friend. He knew how to bring the team together and he was really the quarterback of the offense when it comes to being the leader.
“But it wasn’t just in football. He treated everybody like gold and he showed me the way on how you’re really supposed to live life and treat people.”
Coker, who went on to play wide receiver for Columbia University, continued to be a strong supporter of Klubnik, continuously calling, texting, encouraging, and following the games back home when he could.
On March 10, 2021, the community tragically lost Jackson Coker to a single-vehicle rollover crash in Austin, Texas along the same path Klubnik routinely takes to get to the church.
“He was probably one of my best friends throughout the past two years and just constantly even after he went on to college, he would call me weekly just constantly texting me and just checking how I’m doing, checking how my life is.
“That was just so important to me. I’m gonna step on the field on Fridays and he’s not gonna be there. It's gonna be sad. As soon as I step on the field, I’m gonna be thinking about him.”
Jackson tried to leave his impact on whoever he could. He wanted to show compassion and bring guys together to fight for something bigger than any one individual. When his time as a receiver was coming to an end, he didn’t want it to mean change for some of the third and fourth-string players. Coker wanted to create a revolving door that allowed the next guy in line to take his spot to show the next guy after him, and so on.
On the same day of the sudden loss of his best friend, Klubnik walked up to his bedroom mirror, a permanent marker in hand. Three words were written on the glass in big, black letters.
‘Live Like Jackson.’
Live like Jackson the leader, Jackson the friend, and Jackson the person.
“I think it’s all about your actions and not about words. He was the perfect team over me mentality.
“He was it all.”
The 18-year old Klubnik plays in one of the most competitive divisions in high school football down in Austin, Texas. It’s a region that eats, sleeps, and breathes football. The state of Texas has produced, by far, the most professional football players of any state in the United States.
It’s the state where Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray, Ryan Tannehill, Nick Foles, and Baker Mayfield all grew up and went on to have successful NFL careers. Brees, Foles, and Mayfield grew up right in Klubnik's hometown in Austin.
Drew Brees attended Austin Westlake high school where he led the Chaparrals to the 1996 title. After that, he just spent a few good years in the NFL, racking up monster accomplishments like most career passing yards (80,358) (since eclipsed by Tom Brady), most career completions (7,142), and the best career completion percentage in a single season at 67.7% completion.
Having since retired, Brees is among those quarterbacks playing the part of mentor to Klubnik at his alma mater.
“I think one of the most important traits as a quarterback is being a leader,” Klubnik said of his conversations with Brees, Nick Foles, and Sam Ehlinger. “They definitely just helped me with that. There’s not a lot of just mean quarterbacks out there. If you think of the NFL, there’s not a bunch of selfish, just kinda rude players that play quarterback in the NFL. I don’t personally know anybody, but there are a lot of rude teammates and quarterbacks that play high school football.
“I think the higher up you go, the more those guys kinda filter out, because their mentality of ‘I want what I want’ on a team instead of ‘what I want for my team,’ coaches don’t like that. And that kinda flushes out, it’s kinda a natural thing. I think just learning from them, how great and amazing people they are, they’re three of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”
Klubnik looked back on all the Sundays he spent with his family watching Brees continue his historic career with the New Orleans Saints.
While Cade says he models his game after 2021 No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence, it comes with little surprise that Drew Brees is his favorite player of all time.
“I was really sad to watch him retire, but if Drew Brees is still playing I would say Drew Brees. I’m trying to cheat the question right there and still say him. I love watching him play because of the leader that he is, the fighter, just the person on and off the field. It’s just the grit of this guy in the position, his toughness. He’s kind of one of a kind. So I just really enjoyed watching him.”
As Brees got closer and closer to retirement, the game changed a bit. Quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson came in and brought a bit of a shift.
Mahomes showed his cannon of an arm and awkwardly thrown passes that seem like they have no chance. Jackson defied the naysayers, bringing an arguably never-before-seen speed and elusiveness to the position.
Klubnik has tried to incorporate bits and pieces of the new style of play into his game. For the most part, it's worked.
As the full-time starter his junior year, Klubnik averaged nearly just under 15 yards per completion and finished with a 35:3 touchdown to interception ratio. He also averaged 41.6 yards per game on the ground, finishing with 98 carries, 583 rushing yards, and 15 rushing touchdowns.
“Arm slots with Patrick Mahomes in the past two years have been huge and very, very lethal,” Klubnik explained, proceeding to show me the different throwing motions depending on where his receivers are. “Patrick Mahomes is crazy about it and nobody else is like him in the country right now...in the world.
“I’m not trying to be Patrick Mahomes, but it’s just the little things we never think about or repetition, or little things like short routes. I don’t need my full motion out there. Sometimes just split out, be accurate and practice on that.
“I would say the speed of the game has really picked up. When it comes to run-pass options and play actions, stuff like that have really picked up. You hear everybody talk about it and it’s moving away from true under-the-center stuff. It’s moving a little away from the Patriots and a little bit more of the Chiefs.”
Cade Klubnik has a chance to follow in the footsteps of some of his idols. Following his stellar junior season, he accepted an offer to play football at Clemson University. He announced the decision to join his dream school in March 2021 via an Instagram video thanking his family, coaches, mentors, and friends along the way.
The first scholarship offer made its way from Baylor University in January. Soon after, that one turned to 19 Division I football scholarships. Klubnuk remembered a conversation he had with his mother once offers started consistently coming his way.
“Cade, all craziness aside, if you can pick anywhere, where do you want to play?” his mom asked.
Without hesitation, Klubnik responded.
“‘Clemson! Have you seen their head coach?’ And that was even before Clemson was even a thought in our minds.”
He won’t immediately get a chance to take the field under head coach Dabo Swinney, but Klubnik is looking forward to taking advantage of the opportunity he’s been presented with.
“It was the easiest decision I’ve ever had to make,” Klubnik revealed with a smile. “It was a long process when it came to the recruiting and all of that. It was awesome. It’s definitely something that I’m so thankful for, but when Clemson offered me, I knew that’s where I’m supposed to be. I had been talking to them for probably eight or nine months before they offered me. We had built probably the strongest connection out of any coaching staff that I’ve built relationships with.
“So when my offer finally came -- they’re just a little slower than other people, not because they’re slow, but they just love to take their time and make sure they’re getting the right guy because they only take one every year.”
With the scholarships and the recognition came the recognition nationally.
Cade Klubnik has been named USA TODAY's High School Offensive Player of the Year, MaxPreps 2020 Junior All-American, and 2021 Elite 11 MVP.
Klubnik followed up his successful 2020 campaign with a third-consecutive state championship for Austin-Westlake in 2021, knocking off Denton Guyer 40-21 in the Texas Class 6A Division II title game. He put up incredible numbers once again for the Chaparrals, completing 189-of-265 passes on the season for 3,251 yards and 43 touchdowns. He added an additional 471 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.
Both 24/7 Sports and Sports Illustrated ranked Klubnik as the top quarterback in the 2022 class, and he’s currently ranked third on ESPN’s quarterback recruitment pages.
“It’s a huge honor, definitely. It’s surreal right now. Kinda just mind-blowing to think how fast it moved. I remember sitting as a freshman and sophomore like that'll be pretty cool to have like on 24/7 like your own page about me like an account where they make something and it’s like...I don’t know it’s crazy.
“You just come and enjoy it, you know my team’s gotta put in the work so have fun with it, just enjoy.”
Receiving the accolades in such a short time hasn’t added any additional pressure on Klubnik.
“I’ve seen guys love it too much and the process too much. I think I just kinda learned from that it’s not the peak of your life to be the number one ranked quarterback in the nation. There are way more important things coming first of all. There are bigger things in life. Number one ranked quarterback in the nation is pretty cool but there’s bigger things in life that mean a whole lot more.”
Now in his senior year, there are three words he feels best to encapsulate who Cade Klubnik is.
Selfless is the first.
“I know that’s kind of a selfish word to say,” Klubnik said. “But I think I just kinda learned from Jackson and other people that it’s not all about me, no matter how good I am it’s not about me. I’m not very good if they’re not very good. It’s all about raising everybody else up.
“At the quarterback position it’s...you get too much love whenever you win. You get too much hate whenever you lose. It’s all about spreading love to as many people as you can.”
Faithful in the second.
“That’s kind of a huge thing for me is to live in Christ everyday. We have an amazing football Bible Study.
“We normally have 15 guys at the Bible study every Tuesday in my house. We got together, got a bunch of freshmen, sophomores and juniors -- we had 60 guys the other night to kind of just introduce the guys to different leaders. I like using this platform to share the words.”
Fun is the third.
“I love having fun. Not stupid fun, but just...I like living. I don’t like being bored. Just living and making memories with my friends and my family. Just enjoying life. Having fun is not just goofing around the locker. Having fun with me is like living in the moment and just playing football. That’s fun to me.
“Just getting to do pre-game, getting to walk on the field with the red ‘W’ on your helmet that’s fun. Just enjoying every single moment I’m dreaming my whole life. Just enjoying it all. Just go have fun with it and not tense up. Go relax and enjoy it.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that Cade Klubnik’s favorite superhero is Iron Man.
“I don’t know why,” Klubnik immediately responded. “He doesn’t really have superpowers. He’s just a super cool dude.”
An Iron Man is exactly what you’d have to be to get through a week in the life of Cade, especially during the season.
Mondays start with 7 AM scouting reports of the team they’ll play Friday, film sessions during football period, and after-school practices.
Early morning practices start at 5:30 AM on Tuesdays and Wednesdays for two hours before school. Then, the team lifts some weights, watches more film, and gets some on-field work done after school.
Thursdays are for helmet and pads walkthroughs. The team goes over X’s and O’s, makes some necessary tweaks, and spends the day getting mentally right. The 40-minute practice also features some drives on air and goal-line plays.
Fridays are game days. It’s another opportunity for Cade Klubnik to step on the field, put on a show, and try to lead his team to victory.
Klubnik doesn't really use social media apps, let alone his phone, much at all. He doesn't watch a lot of tv shows or movies. He doesn't usually have much time to play video games throughout the season.
His hobbies away from football mostly include fishing and playing board games whenever friends or family are over. Now that college football season is here, Klubnik is regularly making the trip to Clemson home games, where he’ll be this time next year.
Where does Cade think he’ll be in five, six, or even ten years?
“I have no idea, playing in the NFL would be awesome. That would be super cool and I think that’s something that’ll kind of take care of itself. If I have a great college career, that’ll take care of itself. That’s every kids’ long shot and crazy dream to play in the NFL one day. Also just to be in a great family and a great community where I can build off other people. Somewhere I can just feel at peace in life and not be struggling a ton.”
If the last year has taught him anything, Cade Klubnik knows the next day, the next week, and the next month aren’t promised. Having experienced what happened to his best friend Jackson as well as the deadly coronavirus pandemic that shut everything down for months, Klubnik approaches every day as an opportunity to better himself and leave a positive impact on someone else.
“I want to leave that mark on someone every opportunity I get.”