The former quarterback was bitter about football.


“Because I couldn’t continue to play,” he said. “I think every athlete goes through that.”


After a season in the Canadian Football League with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1991, Ron Veal had been cut, prompting early retirement.


He tried to move on to other things. Veal went back to school. He resettled in suburban Atlanta, within a day’s drive from his hometown of Fernandina Beach, Florida. He went into teaching.


A decade passed before he felt the itch to return to football.



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At South Cobb High School in Austell, Georgia, he spotted a teenage quarterback. Veal offered to tutor him. He thought he might help. The kid’s father agreed.


Georgia has morphed into a hotbed for football talent, benefiting from population gains in the South — and that shift has allowed Veal to encounter a wave of promising quarterbacks.


But none were as prodigious as a pair he met in 2012.


At separate summer camps for middle-schoolers, Veal was introduced to Justin Fields and Trevor Lawrence.


Fields and Lawrence are now considered the two best young quarterbacks in college football, sophomores who will be candidates to be selected at the top of the NFL draft in 2021 if they apply for early entry, and who will face each other for the first time Saturday night when Ohio State and Clemson meet in a College Football Playoff semifinal in the Fiesta Bowl.


Their rise as prospects began in north Georgia communities, separated by only 20 miles, where they were influenced by the same private quarterbacks coach.


“He’s helped me for a long time,” Fields said. “I would definitely give him a lot of credit from where my quarterback skills come from.”


Veal recognized them early as naturals.


Lawrence was tall, lanky, a little uncoordinated, but had a throwing motion that looked smooth.


“It’s God’s gift,” Veal said.


The rest of the country saw it last January when Lawrence sliced up Alabama’s secondary to lead Clemson to a national championship.


Fields, in his first season as the Buckeyes’ starting signal caller, had a clean throwing motion then, too, and was accurate. Veal believed it stemmed from his experience as a baseball player. As a former shortstop, Fields had to pinpoint throws across the diamond to hit a first baseman.


Much of their time was spent tightening Fields’ throwing motion or improving his footwork, his balance before delivering a pass.


“Just basic things,” Fields said.


As Ohio State coach Ryan Day recently considered Fields’ development before he joined the program this year, he remarked, “He wasn't, like, raw coming in.”


Veal trained the quarterbacks throughout their high school careers. Most often, it was during the offseason, though Fields also sought help during the fall.


While they shared a private coach, it wasn’t until the summer before they left for college in 2018 that Fields and Lawrence worked out together.


Veal held three sessions for them simultaneously.


Since the early 2000s, Veal has become one of the prominent private quarterbacks coaches around Atlanta. He lists about two dozen clients each year, plus holding larger sessions, and is a counselor at the Quarterback Collective camp in Southern California that has a staff largely with NFL ties.


The early years saw Veal as one of the few private instructors in the area.


When former Alabama and Boston College quarterback Ross Applegate became one of Veal’s first pupils while in high school in the mid-2000s, he did not encounter any similar coaches around Marietta, Georgia, his hometown.


Applegate found it a bonus that Veal had college experience, quarterbacking Arizona for four seasons at the onset of the Dick Tomey era prior to his CFL stint.


While Veal’s client list has grown over the past decades, he no longer teaches, but works as a firefighter and paramedic with the Smyrna City Fire Department.


At times, he still trains Fields. Like when Fields returned to north Georgia this past May and sought to improve his footwork at the encouragement of Day.


Fields went through about a half-dozen sessions with Veal.


“If you need me, I’m here, like a resource, like a library,” Veal said. “If you need something, let’s see if we can work it out and get it right. That’s my philosophy.”


Veal plans to attend the Fiesta Bowl this week to watch the quarterbacks.


Unlike most fans who will be in the stands at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, he won’t carry a rooting interest. It’ll be a moment of pride.


“I feel like it's just an awesome experience,” Veal said, “to watch them on a big stage and play each other.”


jkaufman@dispatch.com


@joeyrkaufman