Killer handshake: How Chargers rookie Justin Herbert learned to cope with losing

Justin Herbert has had a hard-luck start to his NFL career, going 1-7 despite performing at a high level individually. Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports

COSTA MESA, Calif. -- Los Angeles Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert was an 18-year-old freshman the year his college team, the Oregon Ducks, were en route to their worst season in 25 years. He would become the starter after the fifth game that season, but the team finished 4-8 and was left out of a bowl game for the first time in more than a decade.

The losses ate at him. In a big way.

"It was really hard on him," his father, Mark Herbert, said.

Oregon's offensive coordinator at the time, Marcus Arroyo, saw Justin's slumping body language and sulking and decided to take action.

"[Arroyo] said 'Come over here, let's talk and figure out how to work things out,'" Mark said.

And the killer handshake was born.

"I told Justin anytime he gets mad or down about something, to come over and shake my hand as hard as he can and let the anger out," Arroyo said.

Arroyo might have regretted those words at times. Justin has huge hands, his dad, Mark said. "And Coach Arroyo paid the price."

But the tactic worked. Justin was asked about the handshake but said he didn't remember it; although Arroyo still winces when he thinks about it. That Justin says he doesn't remember is a typical teenage move, according to his dad, who said. "You don't know what they remember and what they don't."

But being able to move on past the bad stuff was a huge lesson for Justin which he says has served him well, especially this year with the Chargers, who are 2-7 with all seven of losses coming by one score.

"It's remarkably similar to what he went through at Oregon," Mark said. "And it’s the same with [Justin's] attitude and mindset. He believes with all his heart and soul, that we've got to figure this out together and we will."

Justin now has thrown for 2,333 yards with 19 touchdowns and six interceptions while completing 66.8% of his passes (201-for-301). He has become a favorite to win NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. And he believes his team will get better, win some of these close games, and he will improve in the process.

The sky is not falling. But it's the seven losses that hurt.

He's trying not to think about them, to push forward, look ahead. There was a time when Justin would be "so pissed off in practice" Arroyo worried he would "throw a ball or punch a wall."

Marcus and his wife, Kelly, a psychologist, were quick to provide a family influence for Justin, helping him compartmentalize his on-field frustrations and channel them more constructively. It was just football, after all.

"Not life and death," Mark Herbert said.

"Family has always been important to [Justin]," Arroyo said. "The first time I met his grandfather, I went over to his house and had a beer."

The gesture meant a lot to Justin, who grew up with two brothers (he's the middle child), two loving parents, and two stern-but-fun-loving grandfathers, one who played football for Oregon, the other who ran track for Oregon State.

They helped raise Justin along with the Wilcox family: Justin Wilcox, the current coach at Cal, his brother Josh and their dad, Dave -- who befriended Mark when they attended Oregon in the 1960s, all raised the Herbert boys.

The Herberts still live close to Oregon's home stadium, Autzen Stadium, which that made it easy for Justin because, as his dad said. "(the school) was his home."

And now it's Los Angeles and an apartment he shares with two roommates.

The season has been tough, not that Justin has talked about it much with his father. "We text a lot," Mark said.

The spotlight has been tough as well. Justin is not an introvert, just not talkative, according to his dad.

"He's got everybody looking at him and we forget that he's just 22," Mark said. "My dad very politely reminds me of that I was like at 22. We forget that."

Justin, he added has always been a perfectionist, believing that if he went 50%, they wouldn't win. "He had to play perfect," and if he didn't, would just go "hide in his cocoon and nobody will notice."

But at this level, everybody notices.

Arroyo is now the head coach at UNLV and talks often with Herbert. Justin calls him, "the greatest role model I've ever had."

Hearing that, Arroyo said to tell him the chocolate chip cookies, his wife's specialty and Justin's favorite are "on the way."

Mark Herbert is just happy Justin graduated and found a job. "It's one of 32 of the best jobs in the world. He's in the best place on the West Coast, we can go see him. He has a bright future."

Justin remarkably, has tried to take the season in stride. He might be batting his head against the wall at home at night, but publicly he's said all the right things.

He hasn't let the attention affect him.

"Everything I've been focused on is what's been said inside this building or by my parents or previous coaches," he said. "I've done a good job of staying away from the noise."

Justin's mom, Holly, went to visit him a while back and Mark took the time to clean out and paint the garage. He came across a plaque given to him by the parents of Justin's second grade football team that said, "You never give up." And that's exactly what Justin said after another loss Sunday, this one to Miami in what was Herbert's least productive performance to date.

"You never give up," he said into the Zoom camera being monitored by major newspapers and networks around the country. He didn't flinch.

No handshake necessary this time.