The magic and mystery of Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert

The magic and mystery of Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert
The magic and mystery of Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert

The Los Angeles Chargers are set to make their first trip to the NFL Playoffs this season. While they have struggled early on, they have turned it around, and are now undefeated at home. A big reason for their success has been their new quarterback, the rookie quarterback, the rookie quarterback, Justin Herbert.

If you are a San Diego Chargers fan, you are probably already familiar with the team’s rookie quarterback, Justin Herbert. But are you aware of what makes him so special?

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Justin Herbert is clearly upset as he looks aside. Not because he’s embarrassed by the haircut in question — in December, he showed up at a Chargers press conference looking less like a golden-haired surfer god and more like a military school cadet, a visually awkward transformation that spawned a thousand memes — but because talking about the haircut forces him to discuss his least favorite subject, the one he’s been trying to avoid e.g.

Herbert uses a fork to stab his pancakes. “‘I trim my son’s hair all the time,’ remarked John Lott, our strength and conditioning coach. ‘Sweet, you can cut mine,’ I said.” He takes a bite and shoves it into his mouth. “He ripped it up at the gym, and… that’s about it.”

Why would you, on the other hand, allow your strength and conditioning coach to…

He just shrugs. “To be honest, I didn’t really want to pay for a haircut.”

Rookie of the Year, $27 million deal, and the face of a resurgent club. Nonetheless.

Herbert’s hair has grown back, but he still seems to be younger than his 23 years, hunched over his plate like the largest child in class. He’s wearing a Nike T-shirt and shorts, and he’s driving an Audi vehicle that was most likely given to him as a present from a Eugene car dealership (he drove it more than 13 hours from Los Angeles). Later, when I point out a Whole Foods from the vehicle, he claims that food shopping is too costly for him. He says, “It’s just calories.”

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Herbert spends very little time on social media. He doesn’t tweet and just joined Instagram at the end of college after being forced to by his marketing reps. “I’m not the one who runs it,” he admits, a bit hesitantly. He appears delighted when I remark that his public image is rather enigmatic. He adds, “I believe the less people know about me, the better.” “I’m not interested in reading an essay about myself.”

Herbert takes a quick look at the tape recorder. We both burst out laughing.

I was interested to see how the quarterback’s agent would manage encounters with fans when he informed me we’d be meeting here, in a busy breakfast place on the outside of Oregon’s campus. But no one has approached him in the hour or so since we came, save the waitress who continues refilling his coffee without saying anything (Herbert, polite to a fault, stops midsentence to thank her every time). He shakes his head when I ask whether he’s surprised he hasn’t been harassed. “I don’t believe people are very concerned,” he adds.

Of course, this is ridiculous. We’re in Eugene, Oregon, and Herbert’s backstory (hemp, no doubt) is as ingrained in the fabric of this college town as beer, bicycles, and Phil Knight. And, unlike Knight, he grew up in the shadow of Autzen Stadium, going to football games with his grandpa when he was a kid. He’d eventually become the school’s quarterback, cementing his local mythology by returning to the Ducks for his senior season rather than joining the draft. His image, along with those of Oregon sports legends Sabrina Ionescu, Payton Pritchard, and Marcus Mariota, sits on the wall of the restaurant where we’re seated.

Mariota, the former No. 2 overall selection who is now a backup quarterback in Las Vegas, has a home in Eugene not far from Herbert’s parents. Both quarterbacks work for the same marketing firm and have a network of Oregon alumni and friends. While their careers seem to be diverging at the moment, their NFL paths began in the same spot, with the football world doubting their leadership abilities.

If the draft is a marketplace of competing ideas, one of the staler clichés is the league’s distaste for quieter personalities at quarterback — an investing concept that endures despite many counterexamples, as if introversion is synonymous with poor footwork or a wonky release. With his generational talents, Herbert may be the star who catalyzes a shattered fan base while also shattering the notion of the outspoken Alpha. But he’s hesitant to clap back, and when pressed for an opinion on how he’s been viewed, he shrugs. So I take a different approach, reminding them that Eli Manning, the two-time Super Bowl MVP, was ridiculed for his restrained attitude early in his career.

Herbert’s brow furrows. “I wish I knew Giants players who could describe what Eli Manning was about and how he behaved in the huddle,” he adds. “I’m sure he had command of the offense as soon as he walked onto the field. He had no choice. And although he may be soft-spoken off the field and may not like all the attention, I don’t believe that enjoying and requiring attention is a prerequisite for being a successful football player.”

So, Justin Herbert isn’t interested in talking about himself. That isn’t to suggest he doesn’t have anything to say.

“I don’t believe that liking and wanting attention is a prerequisite for being a successful football player,” Herbert adds. ESPN’s Aaron Okayama

Last season, CBS play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz was stunned when the CHARGERS’ offense ran onto the field in Week 2. “How about this,” he suggested to Tony Romo, his booth companion. “On the first snap, Justin Herbert is the quarterback!” Herbert was not the only one who was shocked to see him instead of the team’s experienced starter, Tyrod Taylor. Hunter Henry questioned the rookie what he was doing on the field when he spotted him in the huddle. Herbert laughs as he adds, “Just let me call the play.”

The quarterback, like the rest of the world, had no idea Taylor had had a chest ailment during warm-ups when the team doctor inadvertently pierced his lung (“I felt terrible for him,” Herbert recalls.) “That’s not something I’d want on anybody.”) Coach Anthony Lynn informed the youngster less than 30 seconds before kickoff that he would start in Taylor’s place, and star edge rusher Joey Bosa came over and patted him on the back.

The first drive went fairly quickly. Herbert, who worked solely out of the gun at Oregon, was particularly green since the epidemic had cut the NFL’s summer program in half and canceled the preseason entirely. His brothers Patrick and Mitchell radioed in signals using a walkie-talkie while he spent part of the summer in Eugene calling plays in an imagined huddle. He was now lined up at SoFi Stadium, with the Chiefs’ defense descending on him like homesteaders on uncharted territory. His teammates were blown away. Herbert flipped his protection early in the series and went through his progressions before checking down to running back Joshua Kelley for a 35-yard gain, according to Easton Stick, the Chargers’ third-string quarterback. Stick adds, “He had probably never done it a single time throughout training camp.”

In his debut, Herbert blew everyone away, but the Rams were defeated in overtime by the defending Super Bowl champions. The Chargers then lost again the next week, and again the following week, going 2-8 in their next ten games. Some of the defeats were bizarre, while others were chaotic — typical fare for the Chargers in recent years, a club apparently beholden to the whims of a vengeful special-teams deity. Despite this, there was a lot of hope. Fans were more concerned with their rookie quarterback’s performance than with the final score, and the early returns were promising. Herbert impressed with his arm and legs, Fred Astaire-ing his way through packed pockets and unleashing bombs downfield while playing behind a shaky offensive line. With 31 touchdowns, he surpassed Baker Mayfield’s rookie throwing record, and the club finished the season on a four-game winning streak.

Herbert was selected sixth overall, behind Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, although he faced some criticism during the pre-draft process. Many observers praised his athletic abilities but questioned his decision-making; in his last season at Oregon, when he lacked great weapons, the quarterback would sometimes lock into his initial read before rushing with the ball. Over breakfast, I admit to Herbert that I misjudged him coming out of college, in part because I didn’t take into account the environment in which he was working compared to what Burrow and Tagovailoa were dealing with at LSU and Alabama. With a soft grin, he adds, “I appreciate you saying that.” “It’s not going to be easy.”

Last September, Herbert scored his first NFL touchdown throw against the Chiefs. Peter Joneleit/AP Photo

Herbert says he tries to stay away from career-related analyses and coverage. The Chargers and the Rams were featured in HBO’s “Hard Knocks” last year. Despite the fact that he appeared in a few episodes, the rookie quarterback claims he didn’t watch the series (Stick tells me Herbert tried to hide from the cameras). His colleagues characterize him as a homebody who prefers to stay in and watch movies (particularly Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” and “Interstellar”) and play board games rather than go out. When the rookies were sequestered at a hotel during camp last year, he insisted on purchasing a copy of Settlers of Catan, a Risk-like strategy game in which players collect resources to gain territory. The team’s fullback, Gabe Nabers, claims they played almost every night. “He’s a huge fan of that game,” Nabers adds. “To win, he’ll go to any length.”

“The first time he lost, he looked at whomever won — Gabe or myself or some other guy — and said, ‘That won’t ever happen again,’” Nate Gilliam, a practice squad guard, remembers. He laughs. “I was like, ‘Uh, OK… I just met you,’” says the author.

The three rookies moved into a home near the Chargers’ Costa Mesa facilities before the season began. Herbert’s colleagues claim they soon realized their new roommate was a clean freak with immaculate handwriting, a color-coordinated closet, and a barely disguised dislike for any kind of clutter. Herbert’s anger flared just once, according to Nabers, when he attempted to leave his grocery shop cart in the parking lot. He adds, pantomiming a slight shove, “The first time we went shopping, I was like, ‘Eh, I’ll leave it right here.” “‘No,’ he said. ‘Retract your steps all the way back.’”

Herbert, who now lives alone (he just acquired a cat called Nova after a weapon in the video game Call of Duty), agrees with this assessment. “I like things to be tidy,” he adds. “Everything has its place, and it should be returned to its original location.” On the football field, he enjoys feeling secure in his ability to sift through the chaos on defense and Marie Kondo his way to a first down — or, in quarterback words, pre-snap awareness. One of his favorite rookie moments occurred on a fairly ordinary play, when he identified a Raiders defensive look, canceled the call, and then reloaded it when Las Vegas reacted to his change.

He compares it to a game of chess. He sighs a bit and says, “If you could do that on every play, every drive…” “I believe that is the source of success.”

Perhaps. But it also happened when Herbert was engulfed in pandemonium, evading free rushers and flinging passes across his body, violating the rules that apply to less talented players. Herbert’s innate arm skill, according to his private quarterback coach, John Beck, is what allows him to flourish outside of framework. Beck, who has worked with Matt Ryan and Drew Brees, adds, “I feel lucky to have been around some very excellent throwers.” “There aren’t many individuals like that on the world.”

Herbert as a child wears a Chargers jersey from the team’s early days in San Diego, where his grandpa grew up. Thank you to the Herbert family for allowing us to use their photos.

HERBERT WOULD BE A DOCTOR OR A SCIENCE TEACHER IF HE WASN’T A PROFESSIONAL FOOTBALL PLAYER. His father, Mark, and grandpa, who lived near the family in Eugene, also taught high school biology. He and his brothers used to spend hours chasing snakes and attempting to catch nutria, a rat-like rodent native to the Pacific Northwest, at the pond near their grandparents’ home when they were kids. Herbert used to bring home different creatures as pets, according to his mother, Holly, including one fish that leapt out of its tank while the family was away and perished. She describes him as “devastated.”

Justin drives me to his parents’ home, a rambler where he and his brothers grew up, after we eat breakfast. Mitchell, one of them, is visiting from New York (he’s a medical student at Columbia), so the two of us are sitting outdoors on a dusty patio set in the rear. Mitchell gestures to the spot on the grass where he and his younger brother used to catch passes as youngsters. Mitchell adds, “He was always so athletically talented.” “People knew Justin was odd, even though he would never admit it. That’s simply how he’s been all his life.”

I had asked Herbert earlier in the day how he ended up playing quarterback as a kid. Everyone else claims he was an apparent athletic prodigy, the kind of child who could throw flawless spirals when he was barely out of diapers; he told me it was probably because his father was the team’s coach in his typical self-deprecating way. At the age of four, he was outthrowing bigger boys in track and field competitions. At the age of five, he was executing unassisted triple plays. Lane Johnson, Herbert’s high school football coach, claims he first saw Herbert’s “Rookie of the Year”-like throwing ability during a little league game, when the young Justin ripped off his catcher’s mask to field a bunt, barehanded the ball, and threw a child out. He was in the second grade at the time.

Holly says she only remembers receiving a call regarding Herbert’s conduct once, when a teacher asked if she could persuade him to be gentler with the other kids during recess. She admits that it was a bit humiliating to see him play young soccer since her kid scored all of the goals. Herbert, she claims, was similarly hesitant to brag about his own achievements when he was a kid. “He felt uncomfortable when the spotlight was on him; he wasn’t looking for attention.” Justin, according to Holly, is a typical middle kid. “I’m a bit of an outcast,” she says.

Herbert’s dislike of self-promotion helps to explain why he wasn’t widely recruited in high school. He sprang up several inches after fracturing his femur at the beginning of his junior year, reaching his present height of 6-foot-6. A boy the size of a power forward with a Howitzer strapped to his right shoulder should’ve piqued the interest of football teams all across the country, but Herbert was overlooked, in part because he seldom left Eugene. He only went to one quarterback camp, at his father’s request, and then informed his parents he didn’t intend on going to any more. “I don’t believe he realized how special of a talent he was,” Beck recalls, noting that Herbert also skipped The Elite 11, a throwing competition attended by the nation’s best prospects. “He had no idea how he compared to everyone else.”

Herbert and his family are overjoyed that he was selected sixth overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. Getty Images for the NFL

Herbert eventually landed at Oregon, where he made the starting lineup as a true freshman under head coach Mark Helfrich. Despite the fact that the squad was poor, Herbert was obviously exceptional. When Helfrich was dismissed, however, Willie Taggart, the new head coach, refused to designate the rookie quarterback as the starter right away, creating a phony controversy when he told the media he was searching for a true leader. From then on, Herbert’s modest demeanor was constantly chastised, and he was metaphorically pushed and tormented all the way until the Chargers selected him in the draft. The quarterback majored in biology and received a slew of academic awards, including near-perfect marks. Was he too intelligent? Herbert was very timid, according to an unidentified lineman. Is he capable of leading a group? Someone posted a sweet account of how he founded a fishing club in high school. Did he prefer fish over people?! (Of course, no one really said that, but you get the point.)

It must have been tiring. Herbert never expressed his dissatisfaction in public, but others did: teammates, coaches, and friends. Joey Harrington, the former Oregon quarterback who was similarly chastised for his intellectual demeanor, tells me that seeing history repeat itself year after year frustrates him. He adds, “I believe people have a notion of what a quarterback or leader should be.” “People in the NFL, on the other hand, often simply want you to shut up and do your job. I don’t care if you’re trying to inspire me; you’re wasting my money if you don’t perform well.”

He laughs when I ask whether he has told Herbert to disregard the noise. “He doesn’t seem to mind. He doesn’t pay attention to this nonsense; he simply goes along with it.”

True, Herbert mostly disregarded the debate leading up to the draft. Desmond Howard of ESPN questioned Herbert’s ability to win over a locker room in comparison to Burrow; the remark went viral like an oil leak, but Herbert claims he didn’t hear it until after he won Offensive Rookie of the Year this spring. He claims he was unconcerned, but admits he had to respond to tough questions from NFL clubs, some of whom had similar worries. “When I’d go to a meeting, they’d say, ‘Well, we’ve heard some concerns about your leadership abilities,’” he recalls. “‘Listen, I’m myself,’ I replied. ‘Ask my colleagues.’ I’d use examples to demonstrate my point.”

One of the tales he told was about a play he made against Washington State in 2019, when the team was down by one point with less than a minute remaining in the game. “‘We rehearsed this every Wednesday, the 2-minute exercise,’ I recall saying from the sidelines. We’re just fine. We’ll go out there and do what we’re supposed to do.’” On the last drive, Herbert went 4-for-4 in passing attempts, and Oregon won 37-35.

“My notion of leadership is to be able to look folks in the eye in the huddle and say we’re OK when bullets are flying and things seem to be terrible,” he adds. “Being who you are. Not being a rah-rah-rah-rah-rah-rah-rah-ra Being the same person all of the time.”

He admits to being an introvert, but believes the term is commonly misunderstood. Marcus Arroyo, Oregon’s offensive coordinator, gave Herbert a book called “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” while they were both in college. Herbert recalls reading about a developmental psychologist who examined hundreds of youngsters as newborns by exposing them to exciting sounds and sights. He claims that although one would anticipate future introverts to turn inward in reaction to stressful circumstances, the future introverts were the newborns that squirmed and danced the most.

“It’s as though they digest more profoundly — sometimes consciously, sometimes not — the knowledge they take in about the world,” Susan Cain, the book’s author, wrote.

This summer, Herbert’s colleagues and family joined him in Oregon for a charity golf event to support child sports initiatives. Photography by Amanda Meg

THE DAY AFTER I MEET Herbert and his family, his current and past colleagues come on Eugene for a charity golf tournament he’s organizing at a nearby country club to benefit a foundation that supports child sports. Chargers wideouts widen as the morning fog lifts from the trees. Keenan Allen is seated next to a buffet, tearing down a plate of biscuits and grits, clad in a bright violet polo with matching shoes. After seven seasons of receiving passes from Philip Rivers, I pull up a chair and ask him about playing with a rookie quarterback. He adds, “Phil has the expertise and the experience.” “However, what about athletic ability?” He snorts and laughs. “It’s a long way off. As he is hit, the man is hurling 70-yard bombs.”

The wide receiver recalls a play named X Tower that he saw against the Raiders in Week 9. Allen was intended to create space for Herbert to deliver the ball to Mike Williams on a post route, with Herbert “racing for the love of the game,” as he puts it. When the safety failed to do his job and left Allen in open space, Herbert, who was looking to his left at a double-covered Williams, suddenly flipped the ball almost 30 yards downfield to Allen, who was taken aback when it spiraled into his extended hands.

“Experienced quarterbacks would never choose that approach,” Allen adds. Because no one can take any plays off, Herbert’s otherworldly arm ability has forced all of the receivers work harder, he says. “You can’t think, “OK, the ball is going to Keenan, therefore I don’t have to run my route,” when you’re the third man on the squad. At any moment in time, you can always grab the ball.”

In more ways than one, Herbert is Rivers’ polar opposite. Allen can’t recall ever hearing the rookie yell in his company; Rivers, of course, was well-known for his on-field antics. Allen laughs as he adds, “Phil’s going to scream every play.” “He doesn’t give a damn about his team or the opposing team. Phil is yellin’ again.” Despite their apparent differences, Rivers and Herbert have the same competitive zeal, which expresses itself in various ways, according to the wide receiver. Herbert used to stay alone at his locker for hours after games in full pads, gaze straight ahead, during the Chargers’ losing run last year, he claims. ‘Bro: Let it go,’ I had to tell him,’ recalls Allen. “‘It has nothing to do with you,’ says the narrator. ‘Just throw it out on the field.’”

Allen pauses before adding: “It’s great to have someone like that on your team. You can see he’s desperate to win.”

Despite making the playoffs seven times during Rivers’ tenure, the Chargers never progressed beyond the divisional round once and never made it to the Super Bowl. Even when the roster was loaded with skill, the team appeared to be trapped in a never-ending cycle of bad luck, like a Sisyphean narrative in which Rivers was destined to lead countless comebacks that inevitably ended with a shanked field goal. Chargers supporters might be forgiven for abandoning ship after a string of odd defeats, widespread injuries, and ownership’s choice to leave town. But then Herbert came along, and the franchise’s fortunes changed suddenly. While Kansas City remains the conference favorite, there is speculation among fans and experts that Los Angeles might be a dark horse in the playoffs.

In a league where quarterback performance is more important than ever, finding a game-changing passer is like to discovering a functioning compass: you can always find your way north, no matter where you are or where your team is heading. Today, the Chargers’ compass is stationed on the 10th hole, playing the identical shot over and again while greeting every group that passes by his tee. When Herbert knocks a beautiful drive over the trees, Allen takes a second take and shakes his head. “Take it easy, my man!”

Herbert cracks a smile. “Every now and then you get a good one, and every now and then you get a terrible one.”

Pep Hamilton, the former quarterbacks coach in Los Angeles, arrives on his golf cart a few minutes later. Hamilton, now with the Texans, whistles when Herbert makes an identical shot (I watch him take the same swing about a dozen times and nearly all of them follow the same arc). He says, “Jesus, Herbert.” “Did you do it all day?”

The quarterback just shrugs his shoulders. He tosses his driver into his suitcase and adds, “I’ve had some excellent ones, some not-so-good ones.”

I pull Herbert’s Chargers teammates to the side as they pass by, searching for insights. “He’s like a sponge in the building, soaking up everything, absorbing so much information, and wanting to know the playbook above all else. He’s a biology major, after all “Scott Quessenberry, a backup guard, agrees. Quessenberry makes a motion at Herbert as he approaches us. “Do you know how long creatures in the water live?” he asks.

“I’ve never said anything like that,” Herbert adds.

Golfers come and go in groups; the sun sets and the competition finishes, giving place to a celebration on the green. Hundreds more people attend the party, queuing up for barbeque, beverages, and a chance to see Dan Fouts. I see Hamilton alone with a drink and inquire about his experience teaching Herbert last year. “I believe he has a lot more in common with Andrew Luck than any other quarterback I’ve had the opportunity to be around in the NFL,” Hamilton, who was the Colts’ offensive coordinator for little over two seasons, says. “He’s a modest leader who models what he preaches. He has a natural hardness about him, and as a consequence, he gains field credibility and respect.”

Hamilton cracks a grin. “It’s possible to be harsh without proclaiming it.”

We sit down at a table and watch as a small crowd forms around a makeshift stage where a hired artist is performing wedding song covers. The singer begins strumming the first few notes of “Sweet Caroline,” then comes to a halt and invites Herbert to join him. The quarterback shakes his head, but the man won’t say no, so Herbert trudges up the stairwell, accompanied by a few of his offensive linemen. Soon, the rest of the Chargers have joined them; one of the lineman is screaming out the chorus, the kicker is swaying with his eyes closed, and Allen is dancing with someone’s mother. I see Herbert receding into the background and then attempting to blend with the throng around a minute into the song. His colleagues feel the same way, and they drag him back onto the stage.

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