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Hard work paying dividends for Cardinals quarterback

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

CALISTOGA — Michael Dunsford held out his hands, fingers slightly splayed.

Cardinal Newman quarterback Keaton Dunsford led the Cardinals to an 11-2 record last year, passing for 2,406 yards and 24 touchdowns, with only five interceptions. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Cardinal Newman quarterback Keaton Dunsford led the Cardinals to an 11-2 record last year, passing for 2,406 yards and 24 touchdowns, with only five interceptions. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

“I can’t even catch a football anymore, because my knuckles, the arthritis from catching passes,” he said. “We spent thousands of hours playing catch.”

Many things were sacrificed to mold Keaton Dunsford into an elite quarterback, his father’s fingers being just 10 of them. Keaton wasn’t necessarily born to be a great passer. He is the product of an ambitious 10-year plan and countless hours of training, tutoring, film study, weightlifting and, more than anything, throwing a ball back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

It has all combined to propel Dunsford to where he is now: starting under center as a Cardinal Newman senior, and clearly on the radar of several prestigious college programs.

Keaton Dunsford was 7 years old when he decided he wanted to be an NFL quarterback. It started with a simple game of catch after the boy found an old football in the garage.

“It was like from that point forward, every single day he wanted to go throw the football,” said Michael Dunsford, a longtime Calistoga city councilman and co-owner of the Calistoga Inn. “We just got really consumed and passionate about learning how to throw the perfect spiral. It was something the two of us could do together. We would go and throw under the street lights here in Calistoga, sometimes at midnight. … If we traveled, no matter where we would go, we always had a football in our bag.”

Keaton began playing youth-league football for the Windsor Knights at the age of 7, and didn’t stop (though he moved to different teams, in different towns) until his freshman year at Cardinal Newman. He was always a quarterback, of course, though at first he rarely started. Dunsford was tall but gangly, and did not run particularly well. He could throw the ball better than his teammates, but how many pass plays do you install for 7-year-olds?

At the age of 9, Dunsford began working with Roger Theder, the legendary Bay Area “quarterback guru” who was head coach at Cal from 1978 to 1981 and has improved numerous NFL arms. Michael Dunsford says Keaton was the youngest student ever trained by Theder. More recently, Keaton began working with a younger passing coach, Will Hewlett, an Australian who played at the University of Nevada and in the Arena Football League.

Hewlett, who also works with Casa Grande’s JaJuan Lawson, is known for his exacting video breakdowns of the throwing motion.

“So instead of having a frame of your golf swing overlaid to Tiger Woods’, where you can clearly see the similarities and differences, now that same application is being applied where you’ve got (New Orleans Saints quarterback) Drew Brees overlaid with Keaton’s mechanics,” Michael Dunsford said. “You’re all working toward getting the ball out faster — quick release, not having wasted motion, and power and velocity.”

Michael spent several years trying to become a professional golfer, and he brought that same intensity to Keaton’s athletic development. Michael declined to guess how much money he has spent on Keaton’s private lessons, saying only that Theder and Hewlett are “very affordable” considering their level of expertise.

Along the way, something clicked for Keaton Dunsford. His body finally caught up with his mind, and when it did, the thousands of mental and physical repetitions suddenly found an outlet. Dunsford became the quarterback he’d always wanted to be.

As a junior at Cardinal Newman last year, he won the starting job in preseason and led the Cardinals to an 11-2 record. Dunsford passed for 2,406 yards and 24 touchdowns, with only seven interceptions.

“He’s a big, strong guy, and he’s a really smart football player, a student of the game,” said Newman coach Paul Cronin, also considered a superb quarterbacks coach. “And where he really does well, he’s extremely accurate. … He can make pretty much all the throws.”

Dunsford is 6-foot-5, 225 pounds. “He got the Livermore height gene,” Michael Dunsford said. His ex-wife, Keaton’s mother, is Sara Livermore.

The colleges have noticed Keaton’s size and accuracy. Harvard has already offered Dunsford, who carries a 4.2 grade point average, a roster spot. (Ivy League schools do not award athletic scholarships.) And he has visited Cal, Stanford, Michigan and Penn State, personally working out for coaches like Stanford’s David Shaw and Penn State’s Bill O’Brien.

Despite the interest, Dunsford plans to spend one year at a New England prep school. He is young for his class — he turned 17 on Wednesday — and he and his father think he will benefit from a year of maturation. Part of that is continuing to improve as a quarterback.

“You can always shorten your release,” Keaton said. “You can always get better feet, improve your footwork. You can always work on getting more power behind the football, you know, bigger velocity on your throws. The quarterback training process is never-ending.”

If anyone has proved that, it’s Keaton Dunsford.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.