He’s got next: Cal quarterback Kai Millner is waiting in the wings

Photo of Cal football player Kai Millner
Vanessa Lim/Senior Staff

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The quarterback position is arguably the most important role in all of sports. Anyone can play Monday morning quarterback, but until you are in the huddle and responsible for handling the ball on every snap, you’ll never quite understand the pressure that comes with being the face of a football team.

But what about the backup quarterback?

He certainly isn’t the one collecting all of the praise after a game-winning drive, nor is he the one bearing the backlash from an entire school after a costly interception. It’s a different type of pressure. The backup quarterback must always be waiting in the wings, prepared to embrace the moment whenever the football gods look down upon him.

For Cal football’s Kai Millner, his moment is coming. Should redshirt senior Chase Garbers depart after this season, Millner will presumably be one of two scholarship quarterbacks competing for the starting position next fall.

“Continuing to learn is the biggest thing, and I’m just staying ready at all times,” Millner said. “My goal is not to be the face of Cal. My goal is to be a good quarterback for the team and a good leader to my teammates.”

As a freshman, Millner is already well on track to achieve his goal of becoming a Division I starter in a Power Five conference. But when an 8-year-old Millner knew he wanted to be a quarterback someday, his father, Dwayne, was not so sure that was the best path for his son.

It wasn’t necessarily the pressure that comes with playing the quarterback position that gave Millner’s father hesitation, but simply an understanding of how the football business works. A former athlete and NFL scout, he knew the level of dedication needed to successfully compete — and win — at the position. After all, every kid wants to be a quarterback growing up.

“There’s only one quarterback, right? There’s only one position on the field,” the elder Millner said. “I wanted to make sure that Kai understood what it was going to take to really play that position.”

Millner’s determination to play quarterback started at a young age. From the moment he was able, Millner began picking up and tossing around whatever ball he could find. His father jokingly recalled how he refused to sit still, insisting that they play catch even while the two watched football together. That love for the game was forged at the Pop Warner level and ironed out on car trips back from tournaments when Millner and his father would analyze what the former did well and, more importantly, what he could do better.

As he became more serious about athletics, Millner began trying his hand at basketball, baseball and lacrosse. Even in football, he played all over the field, succeeding in nearly every position at which he was placed. But by the time Millner reached high school, it was clear where he was meant to be.

“Every year, they kept putting him at quarterback, even on teams that I was helping coach,” his father said. “At some point, my friend Kelvin Fisher said, ‘Hey dude, just let it be. Let it happen. He’s a quarterback.’ ”

With his father now firmly behind his dreams, Millner went to work. He enrolled in Elev8 Sports Academy, co-founded by his father and Fisher, the latter of whom has served as the Buffalo Bills’ player personnel adviser since 2013. The academy, located in Scottsdale, Arizona, is not far from Millner’s hometown of Gilbert. And it was here that Millner began to see his dreams become a reality.

Elev8 is responsible for sending several high school talents to the next level, including Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler and Purdue starting quarterback Jack Plummer. During his childhood summers, Millner participated in speed, agility and strength and conditioning training camps hosted by his father and Fisher. Under the tutelage of Mike Giovando, director of the Elev8 QB Academy, Millner saw his technique and ability to process defenses skyrocket. All of this eventually paved the way for him to claim the starting quarterback job at Higley High School his junior year.

But high school isn’t the easiest, even for the starting quarterback of the varsity football team. Although Millner found success both on the field and in the classroom, the time he spent working at his craft meant less time socializing, going to parties and living the life of a normal teenager.

“There’s so many people that say they want to do this, but they really don’t want to do this. They don’t understand the sacrifice it takes to do this,” Millner’s father said. “That path is very lonely for athletes that play at the Division I Power Five level. There’s just not that many kids around them that understand and are going through the same types of things that they’re going through.”

Millner himself was keenly aware that the road he was choosing was not the easiest. But his decision to pursue football despite how demanding it can be speaks volumes. During one Thursday night under the lights, his love for the game was matched by the biggest crowd he’d ever played for.

He just didn’t know it yet.

Brandon Large, Millner’s offensive coordinator at Higley, approached his quarterback at the Monday practice before that week’s game with a plan. On Thursday, Higley was going to deploy a trick play that Large had run in a college scrimmage. The play involved Millner faking two handoffs and throwing a no-look backward pass over his shoulder into the end zone. As if he had eyes on the back of his head, Millner executed the play to perfection for a touchdown.

But more exciting than the play was what followed. Millner’s blind dime went viral online, blowing up on social media and even making an appearance on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.”

“I get out of the game, and everybody is texting me, and people have seen the video,” Millner said. “I had a bunch of people reaching out and just saying how crazy it was. It was definitely super fun.”

Sitting as the No. 7 player in the state of Arizona by the time his senior season rolled around, Millner had to start thinking about where to continue his football journey. A visit to UC Berkeley right before quarantine began in the Bay Area sealed Millner’s desire to leave the Grand Canyon State. Millner is credited as the first student-athlete to be recruited by Cal offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, and Musgrave’s experience in the NFL was ultimately a major factor in Millner’s decision to commit.

“It was the best overall fit, and it was a great opportunity to come play for Musgrave. With all of his experience and him playing the position, he has a lot of knowledge,” Millner said. “I knew that I would have access to that knowledge, and I’m definitely loving it.”

The transition to Berkeley has brought a lot of changes for Millner. On the football side, Musgrave’s offense is completely different from the one Millner learned at Higley. While Higley ran a spread offense that was completely reliant on hand signals rather than huddles between plays, Musgrave’s pro-style offense is more complex and requires a wristband to master the expanded playbook. To help ease the learning curve, Millner and his father broke down film from Musgrave’s days with the Denver Broncos before the freshman even arrived on campus.

Yet beyond football, Millner is encountering the changes experienced by so many other college students. He has had to get used to living in a city. He’s also had to learn how to live with a roommate. But Millner has found ways to relieve the pressure that comes with confronting both adulthood and the possibility that he could be the next face of Cal football.

“You need something outside of football and school,” Millner said. “You put a lot of time and space and energy into those parts of your life, and everyone needs something to just relax.”

For Millner, de-stressing comes in a few forms: bingeing HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” solving any and every iteration of a Rubik’s Cube and completing puzzles with his mom and younger brother. Millner is a self-proclaimed Jon Snow fan, taking inspiration from the perseverance and resilience Snow exudes throughout his journey of self-discovery. And whether or not Millner ends up being the missing puzzle piece for Cal’s football program, like Snow, he’ll continue to bet on himself.

“He’s so confident in his ability to change the world, in his ability to change the path of a football team,” his father said. “He’s very confident that he can make a difference, you know?”

He still has a long climb ahead before being crowned “King of the Pac-12 North,” but one thing is certain: Kai Millner is well on his way.

Kabir Rao covers football. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @kabirr26.