To fully understand AJ Pule's maturation process, one must first look back more than a year and remember the Hoover High football team's season opener against Sierra Vista.
A knee injury knocked Pule, then only a 15-year-old junior and the Tornadoes' starting quarterback, out of the game. All the shaggy-looking quarterback could do was watch helplessly from the sideline as the Tornadoes were unable to come from behind and defeat Sierra Vista at home.
Some mumbled that Pule should've stayed in the game and played through an injury that was originally feared to be a torn medial collateral ligament that turned out not to be true.
More than a year later, his teammates and coaches rave about his toughness. They talk about his ability to bounce back from a hit. They shower Pule with praise and rant about his willingness to play through an injury, whether it is a sprained ankle or a bruised shoulder that he's suffered this season.
The humble Pule doesn't want to hear much of it days before the Tornadoes (1-8, 0-6 in league) take on Glendale (0-9, 0-6) at 7 p.m. today in the annual "Battle for the Victory Bell."
"I try to play as hard as I can every play," he says. "So does everybody else on the field."
He attributes his toughness to simply wanting to play.
"It's just the love of the game," he says.
To further understand his growth as a leader of the Tornadoes, one must also talk with Coach Chris Long about Pule's willingness to practice.
Two years ago, when he first became the starter in the third game of the season, he was still 14.
"He was still a kid," Long said.
Being a teenager, Pule didn't mind joking around and laughing during practice. Being a teenager also meant being playful and missing a few days of workouts during the spring.
"I didn't take it as seriously," Pule said.
He grew up this year.
"During the spring time and summer time, he was business," Long said of Pule, who has thrown for 1,916 yards, an average of 212.9 per game, and 12 touchdowns.
Already the leader of the offense, Pule was ready to take over the team.
His leadership started off the field. No longer did he miss workouts. He took the lead in the weight room, during stretches and lifting. Being a former receiver himself, he spent time with his wideouts, talking about their routes and the timing of the Tornadoes spread offense.
"He's grown into a leader," says Pule's left tackle, Sergio Arenas, who's played with his quarterback for three years on the varsity stage. "In our sophomore year, he didn't have control of the offense. Now he has control of it."
Another member of Hoover's 2008 team that is still on this year's squad is receiver Devaughn Williams.
Williams, like Pule, was a raw sophomore who simply knew he and his young teammates were facing stronger and faster opponents.
There was fear for Williams and Pule. That fear has since subsided. Williams credits Pule.
"He's a great leader," says Williams, who has caught 34 passes for 595 yards, but is questionable for Friday's game because of a rib injury.
Pule has become a leader who has not been shy to voice his opinions.
"If you make a mistake, he'll tell you about it and he'll help you improve yourself," says Tornadoes sophomore receiver Jesse Pina, Pule's newfound target who has a team-high 46 receptions for 705 yards. "I'm glad I have a quarterback who has shown me how to do a lot of things. He taught me how to look up for the ball and read the linebackers and me my routes better."
Adds Dymond McRae, another one of Pule's receivers who leads the team with seven touchdown receptions: "AJ leadership-wise is a strong leader. He voices his opinions. He'll what you what's right and what's wrong."
Pule learned how to be a better quarterback from learning from other top signal-callers in the country.
In July, he joined more than a 1,000 other quarterbacks to audition for Steve Clarkson's Dreammaker quarterback competition. Competing at the Rose Bowl, Pule went through a series of drills and advanced to the second round of the tryouts in Las Vegas.
Pule said he joined 120 other athletes, competing for a spot in the web reality series "Steve Clarkson Dreammaker." Clarkson is one of the top quarterback coaches in the country, having mentored NFL quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Leinart and Jimmy Clausen, among others.
Even though he didn't advance to Maui for the "Super 7" reality show, Pule learned what he said were "basic fundamentals" in being a better quarterback.
His improvements have been evident this season.
"He got bigger, stronger and faster," Long said. "He's gotten mentally tougher."
In the past two years, he would've felt pressure and taken off for a run instead of being patient in the pocket. This year, he's been patient and the offense has benefited.
"He was too quick before," Arenas said. "He didn't sit in the pocket long enough. Now he makes the right read and the right plays."
He'll have one more chance to shine tonight.
"In my last game," Pule says, "I'm going to do everything I have to do to give us a chance to win, even if I have to put my body on the line."