In the face of duress, the job calls for a clear mind and strong sense of purpose. The outcome will depend on how Towson University quarterback Sean Schaefer steps into the breach. One bad move could mean disaster.
And we're not talking football.
Sometime in the future, Schaefer is going to step away from the playing field and heed his inner voice, the one that says he needs to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. They are, or were, firefighters in Washington.
Paul Schaefer, 79, is a retired battalion chief. John Schaefer, 49, is lieutenant on Truck 3, the D.C. unit with the tower ladder, whose foremost responsibility is to cover the White House in an emergency and rescue the president.
For six years, John Schaefer's sole job with the rescue squad in Anacostia was going into burning buildings to find victims. He did it, he said, hundreds of times.
"That's probably the toughest thing I've had to do, go into a very dark environment where you can't see anything and try to find people," Schaefer said. "You don't always find them."
What Paul Schaefer started in 1950 has become a family obsession. The Schaefer firefighting genealogy covers three generations and counts 12 firefighters, nine still active, more on the way. Chris Schaefer, Sean's 25-year-old brother, joined the D.C. fire department last spring. There is little doubt Sean, soon to be 21, will follow.
"There's no doubt in my mind," said Kim Schaefer, his mother. "Sean will probably run the fire department one day."
Only now we're talking football.
What is perhaps the most eagerly anticipated football season in Towson history - one that starts tonight against Central Connecticut State - likely will come down to how well Schaefer steps into the breach in big games against Massachusetts, Maine and James Madison.
"He's got to get us to that level to be able to compete with them," coach Gordy Combs said. "Anytime you have a guy who has 21 starts under his belt, you have an expectation level. And because of what he's been able to accomplish, it's very high."
Schaefer has thrown a touchdown pass in 20 of those 21 starts. He has thrown for 39 touchdowns in two seasons, broken Towson's single-season completion record twice already (including .684 last year) and led Division I-AA with 303.3 passing yards a game in 2006.
In recognition of those accomplishments, he is the school's first junior elected co-captain since All-America quarterback Dan Dullea in 1975.
Started with coach
Not bad for a quarterback who completed a mere 31 percent of his passes as a sophomore at Northern High in Calvert County - but indicative of a player who took Northern to the state playoffs for the first time in 13 years as a senior, hitting 68 percent.
His turnaround was ignited with the arrival of Jerry Franks at Northern. Franks left UConn's staff late in the summer of 2002 and became offensive coordinator under A.J. Berberian at Northern. What he found in Schaefer was a talented quarterback who often threw on the run and always threw deep.
What Franks did depends on the point of view. Kim Schaefer said Franks "made Sean who he is" as a player. Schaefer concurred: "He pretty much taught me everything. He taught me all about mechanics and made me a more accurate thrower."
Franks, a former coach at DeMatha and Navy and now head coach at Huntingtown High in Calvert County, said there's more to it.
"I appreciate people saying I helped, but Sean did it for himself," Franks said. "I told him what to do and he did it. ... This will be my 40th year coaching and I've had some good quarterbacks [including UConn's Dan Orlovsky, backup with the Detroit Lions]. Sean's been the best quarterback that I've had. He had it all."
Schaefer had the intelligence to learn Franks' complex offensive system, plus the skill and dedication to make it work.
The dedication started early. When he was a child, his mother remembers, Schaefer would awaken every morning at 5:30, bang on the door and head outside to play. When it rained, he'd run through the house yelling "mud bowl." When it snowed, he'd holler "snow bowl." There are still ball marks on the ceiling in the family's Dunkirk home that underscore his youthful exuberance.
The dedication continued into high school. Franks recalled how Sean would throw through the winter in the family barn.
"There wasn't anything I would say to him that he wouldn't go out and try to do," Franks said. "I just think that's tremendous dedication. He's throwing in the winter instead of watching TV or playing video games."
That dedication continues today.
"He dedicates himself year-round," John Schaefer said. "He was at school all summer except for one week for vacation. He's very mature, a very good listener and follows directions."
But even though he passed for 45 career touchdowns and more than 4,500 yards at Northern, he wasn't offered a Division I-A scholarship. Too small, the big colleges said. Towson, a I-AA school, had no such reservations.
"He was 6-1 1/4 and the [big] colleges didn't want him," Franks said, still irked at the snub. "They didn't feel he was as mobile as they wanted. A lot of people are kicking themselves in the butt right now."
The only game Schaefer, listed at 6-1, has missed in two seasons at Towson was because of the mumps. In his first college start, he threw four interceptions in the first half against Morgan State, but won, 29-26.
"What I love about him are the intangibles," said Phil Albert, the Tigers' offensive coordinator. "That's what you don't know when you recruit a kid. He's tough, he takes responsibility, he's never going to point a finger, he's going to play hurt, he's going to lead. That's what our offensive guys love about him. They know he's not going to alibi."
Albert also loves Schaefer's ability to distribute the ball in Towson's spread offense. Four receivers caught at least 35 passes last season; five grabbed at least 20. Seven caught a touchdown pass.
Schaefer, a redshirt junior, has gotten to the point where Albert gives him two plays at a time so he can check off according to what he sees.
"Where we go from here is really dependent on his ability to get us out of plays that we need to get out of," Albert said.
Wide receiver Marcus Lee said Schaefer is as competitive off the field as on, whether it's video games - he finds time now - or summer workouts.
"When we were running in the offseason, he'd be the first one to challenge people to beat him," Lee said, "because he can run for days. He's in great shape."
It's another quality Schaefer can use when he's done with football.
Tigers at a glance
Coach: Gordy Combs (16th season)
Last year: 7-4
Conference: Colonial Athletic Association, Division I Football Championship Subdivision (the former Division I-AA)
Radio: 1570 AM
Stadium: Johnny Unitas Stadium
Tickets: $12 advance adult ($15 game day), $8 advance youth ($10 game day)
Parking: $5 per space
Outlook: There are a few cosmetic changes for Towson this season. After three years in the Atlantic 10 Conference, the Tigers will play in the Colonial Athletic Association's first football season. The CAA absorbed all 12 A-10 football teams. And the NCAA has renamed its football divisions; I-AA is now the Football Championship Subdivision. The Tigers are shooting for a playoff berth with a veteran team that has 11 senior starters plus one of the CAA's best quarterbacks in junior Sean Schaefer. Eight starters return on offense, including wide-outs Marcus Lee and Demetrius Harrison. RT Dan Bridges and RG Jeff Tyler anchor the offensive line. Seven seniors start on defense, led by linebackers Brian Bradford, an All-CAA preseason pick; John Webb; and Maurice Wilkins. Junior LB Jordan Manning, who led the Tigers in tackles in 2005 and 2006, is the fourth starter. The Tigers are finally playing at their scholarship limit of 63 this season.