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The magic and mystery of Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert

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Could Justin Herbert be a top-3 QB by the end of the season? (1:14)

Sam Acho makes the case for Justin Herbert to be considered one of the league's top quarterbacks by the end of the season. (1:14)

LET'S TALK ABOUT the haircut.

Justin Herbert looks away, visibly distraught. Not because he's embarrassed by the haircut in question -- in December, he showed up at a Chargers news conference looking less like a golden-haired surfer god and more like a military school cadet, a visually awkward transformation that launched a thousand memes -- but because talking about the haircut means he has to talk about his least favorite subject, the one that he's been trying to avoid ever since we sat down for breakfast: himself.

Herbert stabs his pancakes with a fork. "So John Lott, our strength and conditioning coach ... he said, 'I cut my son's hair all the time.' I was like 'Sweet, you can cut mine.'" He shoves a bite into his mouth. "He cut it in the weight room, and ... that's kind of it."

But why would you let your strength and conditioning coach ...

He shrugs. "I just didn't really want to pay for a haircut, to be honest."

Offensive Rookie of the Year, $27 million contract, face of a newly relevant franchise. And yet.

Herbert's hair has grown back, but he still looks younger than his 23 years, hunching over his plate like the biggest kid at school. He's dressed in a T-shirt and shorts that were probably sent to him by Nike; he drives an Audi sedan that was definitely a gift from an auto dealership here in Eugene (he drove it more than 13 hours from Los Angeles). Later, when I point out a Whole Foods from the car, he says he doesn't shop at the grocery store because it's too expensive. "It's just calories," he explains.

Herbert barely looks at social media. He doesn't tweet, and only joined Instagram at the end of college, when his marketing representatives made him sign up. "I don't really run it," he tells me, a little sheepishly. When I mention his public persona is somewhat inscrutable, he seems pleased. "I think the less people know about me, the better," he says. "I don't want to read an article about myself."

Herbert glances at the tape recorder. We both laugh.

When the quarterback's representative told me we were meeting here, in a crowded breakfast spot on the fringe of Oregon's campus, I was curious to see how he'd handle interactions with fans. But in the hour or so since we've arrived, no one has approached him, save the waitress who keeps wordlessly refilling his coffee (Herbert, polite to a fault, stops midsentence to thank her every time). I ask him if he's surprised he hasn't been bothered, and he shakes his head. "I don't think people care a whole lot," he says.

That is, of course, preposterous. We're in Eugene freaking Oregon; Herbert's origin story is as woven into this college town's fabric (hemp, no doubt) as beer and bicycles and Phil Knight. And unlike Knight, he actually grew up here, in the shadow of Autzen Stadium, attending football games with his grandfather as a boy. Eventually, he'd star there as the school's quarterback, solidifying his local legend by returning for a senior season with the Ducks instead of entering the draft. His picture hangs on the wall of the restaurant where we're sitting, along with Oregon sports heroes like Sabrina Ionescu, Payton Pritchard and Marcus Mariota, all clad in green and yellow.

Herbert is friendly with Mariota; the former No. 2 overall pick, now a backup in Las Vegas, owns a house in Eugene not far from where Herbert's parents live. The two quarterbacks share a marketing agency, as well as a network of Oregon alumni and friends. And while their careers seem to be headed in different directions at the moment, their NFL journeys started in the same place, with the football world questioning their ability to lead.

If the draft is a marketplace of competing ideas, the league's disdain for quieter personalities under center is one of its staler tropes -- an investing principle that persists despite numerous counterexamples, as though introversion is tantamount to sloppy footwork or a wonky release. Herbert, with his generational gifts, could be the star whose success both catalyzes a scarred fan base and shatters the myth of the outspoken Alpha. But he's reluctant to clap back, demurring when nudged for comment on how he has been perceived. So I try a different tack, pointing out that Eli Manning, two-time Super Bowl MVP, was criticized early in his career for his reserved demeanor.

Herbert furrows his brow. "I wish I knew people on the Giants roster that could explain what Eli Manning was all about -- how he acted in the huddle," he says. "I bet when he stepped onto the field, he had control of the offense. Because he had to. And maybe he is soft-spoken off the football field, and maybe he doesn't love all the attention, but I don't think loving the attention and needing it is a requirement to be a good football player."

So, yeah: Justin Herbert doesn't want to talk about Justin Herbert. But that doesn't mean he has nothing to say.

WHEN THE CHARGERS' offense jogged onto the field in Week 2 last season, CBS play-by-play announcer Jim Nantz was stupefied. "Well how about this," he said to his booth partner, Tony Romo. "Justin Herbert's the quarterback on the first snap!" Nantz wasn't the only one surprised to see Herbert instead of Tyrod Taylor, the team's veteran starter. When tight end Hunter Henry saw the rookie in the huddle, he asked him what he was doing on the field. "I was like, just let me call the play," says Herbert, laughing.

The quarterback, like the rest of the world, didn't know at the time that Taylor had suffered a chest injury during warm-ups when the team doctor accidentally punctured his lung ("I felt horrible for him," Herbert says. "I wouldn't wish that on anyone.") Coach Anthony Lynn told the rookie less than 30 seconds before kickoff that he was starting in Taylor's place; as the news trickled through the sideline, star edge rusher Joey Bosa walked over and slapped him on the back.

The first drive was a blur. Because the pandemic had abbreviated the NFL's offseason program and eliminated the preseason altogether, Herbert, who operated exclusively out of the gun at Oregon, was unusually green. He spent part of the summer in Eugene calling plays in an imaginary huddle, his brothers Patrick and Mitchell radioing in messages using a walkie-talkie. Now he was lining up in SoFi Stadium, with the Chiefs' defense bearing down on him like homesteaders descending on untouched land. His teammates were awestruck. Easton Stick, the Chargers' third-string quarterback, recalls watching Herbert flip his protection early in the series and go through his progressions before checking down to running back Joshua Kelley for a 35-yard gain. "He had probably never done that a single time in training camp," Stick says.

Herbert blew everyone away in his debut, but L.A. lost in overtime to the reigning Super Bowl champs. Then, the next week, the Chargers lost again, and again ... going 2-8 over the next 10 games. Some of the losses were chaotic, and others a little freaky -- standard stuff in recent years for the Chargers, a team seemingly subject to the whims of a vindictive special-teams god. Still, optimism abounded. The results mattered less to fans than the performance of their young quarterback, and the early returns were strong. Despite playing behind a leaky offensive line, Herbert dazzled with his arm and his legs, Fred Astaire-ing his way through crowded pockets and launching bombs downfield. He broke Baker Mayfield's rookie passing record with 31 touchdowns, and the team ended the season with a four-game win streak.

While Herbert was taken sixth overall, behind Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, he did encounter a fair amount of skepticism during the pre-draft process. Many analysts admired his physical tools but questioned his decision-making; in his final season at Oregon, where he lacked elite weapons, the quarterback occasionally locked onto his first read before taking off with the ball. Over breakfast, I confess to Herbert that I underestimated him coming out of college, in part because I didn't properly account for the context around him compared to what Burrow and Tagovailoa were working with at LSU and Alabama. "I appreciate you saying that," he says, with a gentle smile. "It can't be easy."

Herbert says he generally tries to avoid consuming analysis or coverage of his career. Last year, the Chargers, along with the Rams, were featured on HBO's "Hard Knocks." Even though the rookie quarterback was featured in a few scenes, he says he skipped the series (Stick tells me Herbert tried to hide from the cameras). His teammates describe him as a homebody, more keen on watching movies -- he loves Christopher Nolan films, especially "Inception" and "Interstellar" -- and playing board games than going out. During camp last year, when the rookies were quarantined together in a hotel, he insisted on buying a copy of Settlers of Catan, the Risk-like strategy game where players gather resources to accrue territory, for the group. Gabe Nabers, the team's fullback, says they played nearly every night. "He loves that game," says Nabers. "He'll do anything to win."

"The first time he lost, he looked at whoever won -- maybe Gabe or me or some other guy -- and said: 'That won't ever happen again,'" recalls Nate Gilliam, a guard on the practice squad. He giggles. "I was like, 'Uh, OK ... I just met you.'"

Before the season started, the three rookies moved into a house near the Chargers facility in Costa Mesa. Herbert's teammates say they quickly learned that their new roommate was a something of a neat freak, with meticulous handwriting, a color-coordinated closet and a thinly veiled distaste for any sort of mess. Nabers says he has seen Herbert's temper flare up only once, when Nabers tried to abandon his grocery store cart in the parking lot. "The first time we went shopping, I was like, 'Eh, I'll leave it right here,'" he says, pantomiming a gentle push. "And he said: 'No. Take it all the way back.'"

Herbert, who lives alone now (he recently adopted a cat, which he named Nova, after a weapon in the video game Call of Duty), doesn't dispute this characterization. "I like things neat," he says. "Things have a place, and they should be put back where they come from." His preference for order extends to the football field, where he loves feeling confident in his ability to sort through the mess on defense and Marie Kondo his way to a first down -- pre-snap recognition, in quarterback terms. One of his favorite moments as a rookie took place on a seemingly unremarkable play, when he recognized a defensive look from the Raiders, killed the call, then reloaded it after Las Vegas adjusted to his adjustment.

"It was like a game of chess," he says. "If you could do that on every play, every drive ..." he sighs a little. "I think that's where success comes from."

Perhaps. But it also came when Herbert was immersed in chaos -- dodging free rushers and hurling passes across his body, breaking the rules that apply to less gifted athletes. His private quarterback coach, John Beck, says Herbert's natural arm talent is what enables him to thrive outside of structure. "I feel fortunate to have been around some really good throwers," says Beck, who has worked with Matt Ryan and Drew Brees. "There aren't that many people on the planet like that."

IF HERBERT WASN'T a professional football player, he'd probably be a doctor or a science teacher. His dad, Mark, taught high school biology; so did his grandfather, who lived near the family in Eugene. Growing up, he and his brothers used to spend hours at the pond by their grandparents' house, chasing snakes and trying to trap nutria, a rat-like species of rodent endemic to the Pacific Northwest. Holly, his mother, says Herbert used to bring home various animals as pets, including one fish that jumped out of its aquarium while the family was out and died. "He was devastated," she says.

After Justin and I finish breakfast, he takes me to his parents' house, a rambler where he and his brothers grew up. One of them, Mitchell, is visiting from New York (he's a student at Columbia medical school), so the two of us sit outside, on a dusty patio set in the backyard. Mitchell points to the stretch of lawn where he used to catch passes from his younger brother when they were kids. "He was just always so athletically gifted," says Mitchell. "Justin would never say this, but people knew he was different. That's just kind of how he's always been."

Earlier in the day, I had asked Herbert how he ended up playing quarterback growing up. In his usual self-deprecating manner, he told me it was probably because his dad was the team's coach; everyone else says he was an obvious athletic prodigy, the sort of kid who could sling perfect spirals when he was barely out of diapers. At 4, he was out-throwing older boys at track and field events. At 5, he was pulling off unassisted triple plays. His high school football coach, Lane Johnson, says he first witnessed Herbert's "Rookie of the Year"-like throwing power at a little league game, when a young Justin whipped off his catcher's mask to field a bunt, barehanded the ball and threw a kid out. At the time, he was in the second grade.

Holly says she has only one memory of ever getting a call about Herbert's behavior, when a teacher phoned her to ask if she could get him to go easier on the other kids at recess. Watching him play youth soccer was a little embarrassing, she says, because her son scored all of the goals. As a boy, she says, Herbert was equally reluctant to tout his own accomplishments. "When the spotlight was on him, it was uncomfortable -- he was not attention-seeking." Holly describes Justin as a classic middle child. "Sort of the odd man out," she explains.

Herbert's aversion to self-promotion explains, in part, why he wasn't more heavily recruited in high school. After breaking his femur at the beginning of his junior year, he shot up several inches, approaching his current height of 6-foot-6. One would think a kid the size of a power forward with a Howitzer attached to his right shoulder would've enticed football programs far and wide, but Herbert wasn't heavily recruited, in part because, well, he rarely left Eugene. He visited only one quarterback camp, at his dad's request, and told his parents afterward he didn't plan on attending any more. "I don't think he fully understood how unique of a talent he was," says Beck, who notes that Herbert also didn't compete in The Elite 11, the throwing event widely attended by the nation's top prospects. "He never knew how he stacked up next to everyone else."

In the end, Herbert ended up at his dream school, Oregon, cracking the starting lineup as a true freshman under head coach Mark Helfrich. Though the team was very mediocre, Herbert was clearly very good. But when Helfrich was fired, the new head coach, Willie Taggart, declined to name the young quarterback as the starter from the jump, kindling a faux controversy when he told the media he was looking for a real leader. From that point on, Herbert was relentlessly critiqued for his understated attitude, figuratively poked and prodded all the way until the Chargers picked him in the draft. The quarterback studied biology and scored numerous academic honors, with near-perfect grades. Was he too smart? An unnamed lineman told a reporter that Herbert was extremely shy. Could he steer a team? Someone wrote a cute story about how he started a fishing club in high school. Did he like fish more than people?! (No one actually said the last thing, but you get the idea.)

It had to be exhausting. Herbert never complained in public, but others did -- teammates, coaches, friends. Joey Harrington, the former Oregon QB who was also panned for his cerebral vibe, tells me he gets frustrated watching history repeat itself year after year. "I think people have an idea of what a quarterback or leader should be," he says. "But a lot of times in the NFL, people just want you to shut the f--- up and do your job. I don't care if you're trying to motivate me -- if you don't play well, you're costing me money."

I ask him if he has advised Herbert to ignore the noise, and he chuckles. "He doesn't really care. He doesn't listen to this s---; he just does him."

It's true that Herbert mostly ignored the discourse ahead of the draft. ESPN's Desmond Howard questioned his ability to win over a locker room compared to Burrow; the quote spread like an oil spill, but Herbert says he didn't hear it until the comments resurfaced this spring, after he won Offensive Rookie of the Year. He insists he didn't care -- but concedes he did have to answer pointed queries from NFL teams, some of whom shared similar concerns. "I'd go to a meeting and they'd say, 'Well, we've heard some issues about your leadership ability,'" he says. "I said, 'Listen, I'm myself. Ask my teammates.' I'd give them examples."

One of the stories he brought up, he says, was a moment from his performance against Washington State in 2019, when there was less than a minute left in the game and the team was down by one. "I remember being on the sideline and saying, 'We practiced this every Wednesday, the 2-minute drill. We're absolutely fine. We'll go out there, we know what we're doing.'" Herbert went 4-for-4 on passing attempts on the final drive, and Oregon won 37-35.

"If you can look people in the eye in the huddle and say we're fine when bullets are flying and things seem bad ... that's my idea of leadership," he says. "Being yourself. Not being a rah-rah guy. Being the same person always."

He doesn't deny that he's an introvert but contends that the label is widely misunderstood. Back in college, Oregon's offensive coordinator, Marcus Arroyo, gave Herbert a book called "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking." Herbert remembers a section about a developmental psychologist who studied hundreds of children, exposing them to stimulating noises and visuals as infants. One might expect the babies who eventually became quiet kids to turtle inward in response to hectic environments, he says, but the future introverts were actually the infants who wiggled and danced the most.

The book's author, Susan Cain, wrote: "It's as if they process more deeply -- sometimes consciously, sometimes not -- the information they take in about the world."

THE DAY AFTER I meet Herbert and his family, his current and former teammates descend on Eugene for a charity golf tournament he's hosting at a local country club, to benefit a nonprofit that funds youth sports programs. As the morning fog rolls off of the pines, Chargers wideout Keenan Allen, conspicuously dressed in a bright violet polo with matching sneakers, is sitting next to a buffet, plowing through a plate of biscuits and grits. I pull up a chair and ask him what it was like playing with a rookie quarterback after seven seasons of catching passes from Philip Rivers. "Phil has the knowledge, the experience," he says. "But as far as athletic ability?" He snorts. "It's not even close. The guy is throwing 70-yard bombs as he gets hit."

The wide receiver points to a play against the Raiders in Week 9 called X Tower. Herbert was supposed to throw the ball to Mike Williams on a post route, with Allen clearing space -- "running for the love of the game," he says. But when the safety abandoned his responsibility and left Allen in space, Herbert, who was looking to his left at a double-covered Williams, abruptly flicked the ball nearly 30 yards downfield to Allen, who was caught by surprise when it spiraled into his outstretched hands.

"Experienced quarterbacks wouldn't even look at that route," says Allen. Herbert's extraterrestrial arm talent has made all of the receivers work harder, he continues, because no one can take any plays off. "Now, when you're the third guy on the team, you can't think ... OK the ball is going to Keenan, so you don't have to run your route. You can always get the ball at any point in time."

Herbert is Rivers' polar opposite in more ways than one. Allen can't remember a single instance of the rookie screaming in his presence; Rivers was, of course, well known for his antics on the field. "Phil's gonna yell every play," Allen says, cackling. "His team, the other team, he don't care. Phil yellin'." But the wide receiver is quick to point out that, for all of their ostensible differences, Rivers and Herbert share the same competitive fervor, it just manifests itself in different ways. During the Chargers' losing streak last year, he says, Herbert used to sit by himself at his locker for hours after games in full pads, eyes straight ahead. "I had to tell him, 'Bro: Let it go,'" says Allen. "'It ain't got nothing to do with you. Leave it out on the field.'"

Allen pauses, then adds: "It's good to have a guy like that. You know he wants to win."

While the Chargers advanced to the playoffs seven times during the Rivers era, the team made it past the divisional round only once and never reached the Super Bowl. Even when the roster was stocked with talent, the organization seemed to be mired in perpetual misfortune, or playing out a Sisyphean drama where Rivers was doomed to lead endless comeback attempts, seemingly always culminating in a shanked field goal. Between the bizarre losses, the pervasive injuries and ownership's decision to skip town, Chargers fans could be forgiven for jumping ship. But then, Herbert entered the picture, and the franchise's prospects flipped overnight. While Kansas City still looms as the favorite in the conference, there's a sense among fans -- and analysts -- that Los Angeles could be a dark horse in the playoffs.

In a league where quarterback play matters more than ever, drafting a game-changing passer is a little like finding a working compass; no matter where you are, or where your team is going, you can always find your way north. Today, the Chargers' compass is posted up on the 10th hole, hitting the same shot over and over, exchanging pleasantries with every group that stops by his tee. Allen does a double take when Herbert smacks a perfect drive over the treetops, shaking his head. "Relax, my guy!"

Herbert grins. "Sometimes you get a good one, sometimes you get a bad one."

A few minutes later, Pep Hamilton, the former quarterbacks coach in Los Angeles, pulls up in his golf cart. Herbert hits an identical shot (I watch him take the same swing about a dozen times, and almost all of them follow a similar arc), and Hamilton, now with the Texans, whistles. "Jesus, Herbert," he says. "You been doing that all day?"

The quarterback shrugs. "I've had some good ones, some not-so-good ones," he says, tossing his driver in his bag.

As Herbert's Chargers teammates pass through, I pull them to the side, looking for insights. "He's like a sponge in the building -- eats everything up, absorbs so much info, wants to know the playbook more than anything. I mean, he's a biology major," says Scott Quessenberry, a backup guard. Herbert sidles up to us, and Quessenberry gestures in his direction. "He's like: 'Do you know the lifespan of organisms in the ocean?'"

"I've never said that," says Herbert.

Groups of golfers cycle in and out; the sun goes down and the tournament ends, giving way to a party next to the green. Hundreds more people show up for the festivities, lining up for barbecue and drinks and a glimpse of Dan Fouts. I spot Hamilton standing alone with a beer and ask him what it was like teaching Herbert last year. "I think he has a lot more in common with Andrew Luck than any other quarterback I've had a chance to be around in the NFL," says Hamilton, who spent just over two seasons as the offensive coordinator of the Colts. "He's a quiet leader -- he leads by example. He has an innate toughness about him, and he garners field credibility and respect as a result."

Hamilton smiles. "You can be tough without announcing you're tough."

We find a table and watch as a small crowd gathers around a makeshift stage, where a hired performer is playing covers of wedding songs. The singer strums the opening bars of "Sweet Caroline," then stops and calls for Herbert to join him. The quarterback shakes his head, but the guy won't take no for an answer, so Herbert trudges up the steps, where he's flanked by a couple of his offensive linemen. Before long, all of the Chargers still at the event have joined them; one of the linemen is belting out the chorus, the kicker is swaying with his eyes closed, and Allen is dancing with somebody's mom. A minute or so into the song, I spot Herbert fading into the background, then trying to slip into the crowd. So do his teammates, who pull him back on stage.