SALT LAKE CITY — Before Jim Harbaugh revived the career of Alex Smith, before he honed the talents of Andrew Luck, before he put Josh Johnson on the NFL radar, there was Todd Mortensen, the kid from BYU — aka Harbaugh's First Quarterback.
Remember Mortensen? Probably not.
He played quarterback at BYU on and off for four forgettable years. After seeing spotty action in a few games each season, he reluctantly bolted in 2004 to the University of San Diego, a Division I-AA school that had a new football coach — Harbaugh, a former Michigan and NFL quarterback who was making his debut as a head coach.
Under Harbaugh's guidance in their one and only season together, Mortensen transformed from a clipboard holder at BYU to a professional prospect and turned the Toreros into winners. Harbaugh has worked the same magic ever since then, with San Diego, Stanford and the San Francisco 49ers. This weekend Harbaugh's 49ers will meet the New York Giants in the NFC championship game.
"I'm not surprised at what he's done," says Mortensen. "Enthusiasm and sound game planning in Xs and Os is a good combination."
Harbaugh is on a hot streak. He concluded his three years at San Diego by winning 27 of his last 29 games. He concluded his four seasons at Stanford with a 12-1 season, transforming a losing program into a national title contender. In his first year with the 49ers, a team that was 6-10 last season and in complete disarray, he has won 14 of 17 games and is one win away from the Super Bowl.
Each step of the way, the hallmark of Harbaugh's teams has been the development of the quarterback. He transformed Smith from NFL bust into one of the league's steadiest quarterbacks, one who led two stunning touchdown drives in the last four minutes of Saturday's playoff win over the New Orleans Saints. Harbaugh helped Andrew Luck become college football's best quarterback and likely the first choice in this spring's NFL draft. He coached the unknown Johnson at San Diego into a fifth-round draft pick and a backup for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Before that, he turned Mortensen, who languished at BYU, into an NFL free-agent signee.
Not that Mortensen didn't bring something to the table for Harbaugh to work with. Mortensen could be the poster boy for the NCAA's student-athlete concept. Motivated and intelligent, he won the Gordon B. Hinckley Presidential Scholarship — the most prestigious scholarship awarded to a BYU student. The requirements for the scholarship are a minimum composite ACT score of 33, a minimum combined SAT score of 1460 and a minimum 3.85 GPA — and then selection gets really difficult, based on academic qualifications, leadership, service, and recommendations.
Mortensen received the award for four years.
He was valedictorian at Tempe (Ariz.) High School, with a 4.0 GPA. He was valedictorian in the humanities college at BYU, with a 4.0 GPA. He earned his undergrad degree at BYU in three years and worked on his master's degree while playing a fourth year of football.
He was also a serious musician. He began playing the piano at 5, then took up the trumpet in junior high. He played in jazz and symphonic bands. He composed music, as well. He once presented his band teacher a box filled with 50 pages of his compositions, which the band performed. He continued to play in jazz combos in college and cut a CD of his piano music.
If that weren't enough, Mortensen was an all-state quarterback at Tempe High. At 6-foot-4, 225 pounds, he threw for 4,950 yards and 60 touchdowns and led his team to the state championship. His coach was his father, Fred, a former star quarterback at Arizona State who played in the NFL and USFL.
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