KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A standing-room only crowd fills the sideline bleachers and the hill overlooking the end zones at the practice fields for the opening of training camp for the Kansas City Chiefs, and the tall, lanky young man from Wisconsin watches intently as Alex Smith, a 13-year NFL veteran, steps forward and fires a pass toward the end zone, aiming for an industrial-size trash can.
The throw sails wide of its target, and Joel Stave thrust his arms into the air, celebrating his victory in the latest round of the countless games the uber-competitive Chiefs quarterbacks engage themselves to keep a running score of who’s best.
“We play a lot of different games, not necessarily just football,” Stave said. “We’re throwing Frisbees at the crossbar. Anything to run around and compete and determine a winner.”
During a summer when Chiefs fans flocked to training camp in St. Joseph, Mo., for a gaze at first-round quarterback draft pick Patrick Mahomes, most probably overlooked the 6-foot, 4-inch, 230-pound Stave hovering nearby.
In front of a large crowd on opening day of camp, Stave proved the winner, putting two passes in the trash cans for the title that day.
When you’re the fourth-string quarterback of NFL team, you celebrate your wins where you can get them.
“Reps are tough to come by in that position but when you do get to do something,” Stave said, “you’ve got to go out there and do as well as you can and just do everything you can to enjoy it.”
NFL practices during the regular season primarily accommodate two quarterbacks, the starter and the backup. The No. 2 quarterback runs the scout team, preparing the first-team defense for the upcoming opponent.
Training camp and the preseason gets a third quarterback involved, with expanded rosters allowing for a third-team offense and defense.
But a fourth quarterback? Some practices sail by with Stave simply standing on the sidelines with a football in his hands, waiting for a chance that doesn’t materialize.
It might be the toughest job on the team, according to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy.
“That’s the hardest thing,” Nagy said. “It’s all about opportunities and patience in that position.”
Smith agreed with the challenges facing the fourth-string quarterback.
“It’s a tough position to be in, you don’t get a ton of reps being that fourth guy,” Smith said. “You’ve got to do a lot of mental reps, you’ve got to stay ready. You know your reps are few and far between.”
Staying ready and preparing for an opportunity, however, seems encoded in Stave’s DNA.
The all-state high school football player from Whitnall High in Greenfield, Wis., received just two stars from Rivals.com. His college recruiting profile proved of such little attention that the recruiting service still lists him as “undecided” on where to attend college.
Stave headed to Wisconsin but lost the starting quarterback competition as a redshirt freshman to Danny O’Brien. Turnovers proved a problem for O’Brien, and coach Bret Bielema turned to Stave during the third game of the season. He started six games before a broken collarbone ended his regular season.
Stave returned with a strong sophomore campaign, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten while completing 62 percent of his passes for 2,494 yards and 22 touchdowns. He hurt his shoulder, unfortunately, in the Capital One Bowl following the season. The after effects lingered into a disappointing junior year.
A strong bounce back his senior year, however, tempted NFL scouts. He finished his college career with 31 wins, more than any other quarterback in Wisconsin history. His .756 winning percentage ranks third-best in school history, and no Badgers quarterback owns a better record in Big Ten games.
But Stave found himself overlooked once again on draft weekend in 2016.
He signed as an undrafted free agent with Minnesota. He played in all four preseason games as a rookie, completing 28 of 51 passes for 285 yards and one interception.
The Vikings placed Stave on waivers at the end of the preseason but brought him back on their practice squad. The team released Stave on Oct. 25, and he signed with the Seattle practice squad the next day. The Seahawks released him a week later.
That’s when Stave arrived in Kansas City, signed to the practice squad on Nov. 8. That made him the team’s fourth quarterback behind Smith, Nick Foles and Tyler Bray.
Nagy recalls Stave being thrown in head coach Andy Reid’s offensive midseason with little preparation.
“I remember when he first got here during the season last year, just him trying to digest the verbiage that we have,” Nagy said. “He had a little bit of familiarity with it being in some of the previous offenses. But it took him a little bit, just like it does every quarterback.”
Stave remembers those struggles, too.
“There’s a lot of verbiage,” he said. Once you get it on paper, there’s a lot of ins and outs to it that you need to continue to understand when you’re actually playing and running the offense. It’s not an easy system to learn but once you get it I think it makes a lot sense.”
The offense seems complicated but finding a better training ground for NFL quarterbacks right now than Kansas City stands a tall task. That advantage starts with Reid, a head coach with a proven record of tapping into a quarterback’s ability.
“He really has a good feel for the game, a really good feel for the quarterback position and I think he teaches it really well,” Stave said.
Smith serves a valuable mentor as well.
“He’s a great guy to learn from because he’s been able to use his mental side of the game for going into now his 13th season,” Stave said. “You don’t last that long if you don’t have a really good feel for the game and aren’t prepared every week, so he’s a great guy to learn from, from a preparation stand point.”
Stave envisions himself as quarterback in the mold of Smith with a comparable skill set.
“Play from the pocket, try to make good throws, make good reads, make good decisions,” Stave said when asked how he hopes to play when given a chance. “When you have to, you have to tuck it and run it and things like that. I think that’s the way I would play mostly.”
Former NFL quarterback Michael Vick served as a coaching intern with the Chiefs this summer, and Stave admitted finding himself a bit star-struck.
“He was a guy who when I was a kid, Mike Vick was the coolest thing in football,” Stave said. “Getting a chance to work with him and talk with him a little bit was a really cool experience.”
Then there’s Nagy, who shares much in common with Stave and perhaps understands his plight better than anyone.
“He wants to be great, so that helps,” Nagy said. “He just fits in really well with the guys.”
Nagy also believed he could play in the NFL but scouts overlooked his college success at Delaware. He worked long and hard to prove his worth as a professional quarterback, and believes you never know when you’re going to find a diamond in the rough.
“When you find time to pull him aside and work with him or give him little pointers of advice or you watch some tape with him, you do have a little bit of kinship with him,” Nagy said.
Stave said he learned much from Nagy over the last 10 months.
“He’s played the position and played it at a high level and knows the game very well, knows this system very well,” Stave said, “and I think he communicates with the quarterbacks really well about what we’re looking for and what the reads are and everything like that.”
Like Nagy before him, Stave believes he can play too. Smith also counts himself a big Stave fan.
“Joel is really talented, awesome kid,” Smith said. “I am rooting for him and hoping for the best because it is a tough situation.”
That faith is why Stave bides his time. He believes the Chiefs see something in him, too.
“I’d like to think they brought me here for a reason,” Stave said. “Whether it’s this year, next year, the year after that. I just hope to stick around as long as I can and take advantage of every opportunity I have when I get chance.”
Stave expects to get one of those opportunities during Thursday’s final preseason game against Tennessee. Reid said he plans for Stave to play the entire fourth quarter.
Smith counsels Stave to spend his reps just executing the offense. Don’t try to do too much in too few plays, he says.
“You’ve been waiting on them and you finally get them, and sometimes you can make them bigger than what they are,” Smith said about the limited snaps Stave receives.. “I think human nature is to build those up. You’ve got to try to just go out there and relax and do what you have been coached to do.”
Nagy preaches patience as well.
“When you don’t get the reps, it’s hard,” Nagy said. “I think really patience is one of the biggest attributes you can have in that role.”
Stave tries to stay patient and understanding. He realizes that whether he stays in the NFL for one more game or 13 more years, the time goes by way too fast.
“That’s what everyone says,” Stave said. “You talk to Alex, he’ll tell you 13 years has gone by very fast. You got to just take advantage of all this time you get.”
Stave endures the challenges and obstacles even though alternatives exist. He earned a degree in civil engineering from Wisconsin, which ranks among the top 20 programs in the nation according to U.S. News & World Report. He received Academic All-Big Ten honors a record four times.
He wouldn’t mind putting the degree to use at some point down the road. Far down the road.
“It was a lot of work,” Stave said. “So I think I could find something in the engineering field that I would really like, maybe architecture or something like that. But I could see myself doing that too.”
Balancing big-time college football and a rigorous academic scheduled required sacrifices by Stave.
“There’s a lot of times I thought, do I really want to do this?” he said. “But now that it’s done and I have the degree, I’m really glad I did it.”
Whether his NFL career lasts one more week or 13 more years, Stave knows this opportunity only comes along once, and he’s having fun at one of the toughest jobs in football as the fourth-string quarterback.
“But I’ve got a lot of time to have a fairly certain life ahead of me, so now I don’t mind the kind of just going week-to-week,” Stave said.