Sam Borden, ESPN.com’s “global sports correspondent” finds himself in Jacksonville for a long piece on QB GARDNER MINSHEW II. Excerpts below:
SUNRISE ISN’T FOR at least another hour. The air reeks of that sweet, sweet Florida sulfur. The only light comes from the glint of a rusted streetlamp off the community trash compactor, yet still — still — Gardner Minshew is smiling as he pulls out of his apartment complex in Jacksonville on a dank morning last week.
He is talking about escapes.
“I’ve been learning to play the guitar,” he says, gesturing toward the radio that’s playing the Allman Brothers. His grin is wider than his (considerable) mustache. “It’s been going … slowly. But I kind of love it.”
As we cross the bridge into downtown, Minshew asks if I have heard of something called Yousician (I haven’t). He explains that it is an app, created in Finland, that features instrument tutorials and — critically, he says — a virtual instructor that listens and corrects you as you try to play. Each night, after he’s done with football practice and football study and football preparation, Minshew puts in his earphones and slips away from all that is bubbling around him, zoning out with his automated music teacher as he tries to master the chords and frets.
Minshew took up the guitar about a month ago, he says, which makes sense because that is also when the speed of his life suddenly went from a syrup drip to a freight train. There was the injury to Jaguars starting quarterback Nick Foles and coach Doug Marrone calling Minshew’s name. Then came the string of completed passes that first day — 13 in a row to start his career in a 22-for-25 performance — followed by the closer-than-close rally in the second game. Then came Thursday night bedlam against Tennessee. And the fourth-quarter miracle a week later in Denver.
Now there are T-shirts with Minshew’s face on them and beer cans with Minshew’s face on them. There are awards and endorsements. The Jags are selling Minshew-branded ticket plans, and there is a litany of stories about Minshew’s glorious facial hair and his rakish headband and his tattered jean shorts and his (occasional) preference for stretching while wearing nothing but a jockstrap.
In a season that has seen backup quarterbacks dominate the headlines — seven took the field for an injured starter in the first four weeks alone — the fascination with Minshew is its own universe, where interviews and candy deals and so, so, so many memes mesh together with the endless speculation on the radio and the TV and just about every dive bar east of Tallahassee: Can Minshew, who was expected to be little more than a serviceable backup, actually keep this up? Is he for real? And, if he is, what will the Jags do in another month when Foles is healthy and they have to choose between their $50 million franchise player and a guy who looks like Florida Man crossed with Peyton Manning?
All of it would be a lot for anyone to take, let alone a sixth-round draft pick who wasn’t sure he’d even make the team this season. Given the hysteria of his newfound circumstances, then, Minshew knew he needed to find an outlet, which is where the guitar comes in.
His initial goal, he tells me from the same well-worn sedan he drove at Brandon High School in Mississippi eight years ago, is simple: Get good enough to play “Wagon Wheel,” the Southern classic about a man hitchhiking his way toward a woman in North Carolina. He has a venue in mind too: Every summer, Minshew’s family takes over Cabin 1, right by the entrance at the Neshoba County Fair, known more colloquially as Mississippi’s Largest House Party. Minshew loves the fair and giggles like a little boy when I ask what it would be like for him to sit outside of Cabin 1 and strum “Wagon Wheel” while everybody he knows and loves in the world sings along.
His eyes go wide. “Man,” he says as he parks his car and heads into work as a starting quarterback in the NFL. “You know what? Honestly, if I could do that it would really be the pinnacle.”
THERE ARE, OBVIOUSLY, some considerable physical skills that helped Minshew — who is barely 6 feet tall and who attended four colleges in search of consistent playing time — find success. To offset his (relative) undersize, he is so strong he can lift weights with the linebackers, and his intensity during practice runs so hot that one of his old quarterbacks coaches, Alex Williams, remembers Minshew literally hitting himself in the face if he missed an easy throw during a training drill. (“Not hard or anything, but still,” Williams says.)
Nearly everyone who comes into contact with Minshew, however, ends up with the same conclusion: His biggest weapon is his brain. Mike Leach, who coached Minshew at Washington State in his last (and best) college season, tells me, “He has genius tendencies,” and those smarts were a big part of what led the Jags to take a flier on Minshew in the sixth round of April’s draft. Tom Coughlin, the Jags’ head of player personnel, immediately highlighted Minshew’s ability to be “quick” in carrying what he learned in the film room to the field. “He’s very smart; he’s very sharp,” Coughlin said then. “He will suck up all that information, and then, based on what we have seen, he will go onto the practice field and carry it with him.”
Turns out, Coughlin was right — only it wasn’t on the practice field. When Minshew thrived so quickly after taking over in Week 1, Marrone was legitimately surprised, he says, because the playbook had been designed for Foles, not Minshew.
“The game plan is written for a different quarterback and he just goes in there and executes it?” Marrone tells me after the team’s workout one day. “A lot of players don’t have the head to do that.”
Minshew has always had the head to do that, even before it was quite this on-display. After two unremarkable seasons at East Carolina, Minshew had actually agreed to take a job with Nick Saban at Alabama as a graduate assistant, thinking he’d probably get into coaching once his college eligibility was done. Before he made it official, though, Leach recruited him to Washington State, asking Minshew just one question — “How would you like to lead the nation in passing?” — that led Minshew to play one more season (in which he finished the year second in passing) and sent him on his course to the NFL.
Minshew doesn’t have a good explanation for his mental acuity; football plays, and football players, just unspool in his mind. It happens in fantasy sports too: Tre Polk, who is one of Minshew’s closest friends from Brandon, says Minshew stunned their dynasty league this past summer when he opted to redraft nearly his entire team (which is named Trust the Process) and start from scratch.
“It was ridiculous,” Polk says. “He must have known something about Melvin Gordon, and he worked out with Josh Jacobs and liked what he saw so he took him, and he took the Patriots defense, and he grabbed Austin Ekeler …” Polk goes on for a few minutes like this before putting on the bow. “Bottom line: He redrafted, like, his whole team, and he’s tied for first place. He just sees the game in a different way.”
I ask the obvious follow-up: Who is Minshew’s quarterback?
“That’s the thing,” Polk says. “I keep waiting for him to pick himself up, but no one took him. Gardner Minshew is available in Gardner Minshew’s fantasy league.”
Polk laughs. “Gardner actually took Kyler Murray.”
IT SHOULD BE said: Minshew has some experience with sudden celebrity. He became the starter at Brandon during his sophomore year, when Polk, who had been playing in front of him, broke his arm. (Stop me if you’ve heard this before.) Minshew entered, cinched a hammerlock on the starting job and promptly led the team to the state title game twice in three years. “They’ve been putting microphones in his face since before his voice broke,” says his dad, Flint. “He threw for 11,000 yards and 105 touchdowns — he’s used to people knowing his name. But this is on a different level.”
The ingredients, though, remain the same. Sports — particularly high school sports — all but demand conformity, but Minshew’s devotion to being himself is both fierce and endearing. In high school, his closest group of friends included football players, sure, but also John Wilson and Connor Aultman, two “uncool nerds” — Wilson’s words — whom Minshew sat with in an advanced English class. Since Minshew often had to skip lunch for football work, the trio persuaded their teacher to let them grill paninis on Wilson’s George Foreman Grill in the few minutes before the lesson began.
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Outside the team, Jacksonville’s fascination with Minshew runs deep. Part of it, naturally, is what he does on the field: Minshew has thrown nine touchdown passes against only one interception, has won the Rookie of the Week award three times in five weeks, and is the first player in NFL history to pass for at least 200 yards and have a rating of at least 95.0 in each of his first five career games.
That is only a piece of it, though. Dan Hicken, a longtime sports anchor and radio host in Jacksonville, says the love for Minshew is also about what he represents. In a city that has forever been insecure when it comes to the NFL — Is the team going to get moved? Will the Jags ever get any national respect? — the discovery of a seeming gem like Minshew is made even more enthralling because of the litany of nightmares that came before.
“This is a team that took Blaine Gabbert and passed on J.J. Watt,” Hicken says. “We haven’t seen too many quarterbacks who can take the team down the field in the fourth quarter. We haven’t seen too many guys that get the national TV shows talking about us. We like that the mustaches are everywhere; we like that people are noticing Jacksonville. Fans here care about that stuff.”
They care too about that Southern mix of bravado and humility. They like that Minshew was a star in high school but then struggled to find his way. They like that he went to Troy and then a junior college and then East Carolina and then to Washington State, “just searching for an opportunity,” as Minshew puts it. When the story emerged about how Minshew, in hopes of getting a medical redshirt so he wouldn’t lose a year of eligibility after things went sour at East Carolina, actually attempted to break his own hand with a hammer, Jags fans “went nuts,” Hicken says, because it showed that “he just wanted what everyone wants: to never stop playing.”
(That scheme, by the way, wasn’t impulsive; Minshew’s best friend, Houston Smith, tells me that he actually conspired at some length with Minshew on the phone before Minshew attempted it, discussing other ways Minshew might try to hurt himself. “Slamming a car door on his hand was the other top choice,” Smith says, somewhat ruefully. “I wouldn’t say I endorsed the decision, but I also knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop him.”)
Ultimately, all of it melds together to make Jags fans feel like Minshew is one of them. Minshew doesn’t hide his pleasure about playing in the South either — “These are my type of people,” he says — and the fascination with Minshew, Hicken says, might well rival the love Jacksonville had for Tim Tebow.
“He’s even got the look,” Hicken tells me. “Look at him: He’s basically the guy that like 95% of Jacksonville wants to go drink a beer with.”
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Watching from afar, Leach, Minshew’s former coach, says the one thing he isn’t worried about is Minshew regressing because he gets caught up in the blossoming frenzy surrounding him. Minshew had a similar appeal during his time in Pullman, and Leach says that for all of Minshew’s quirks and idiosyncrasies, he always saw Minshew’s love for football over fame as the ultimate trump.
“In varying degrees, everyone in this business and in this world has some phoniness to him, and Gardner’s got far less than most,” Leach says. “All the attention in the world is not more important to him than playing well, and I get the feeling that it has always been that way.”
Minshew says as much during our car ride, even admitting that there are moments when his sudden notoriety is more tiresome than exhilarating. “I’m glad people are excited,” he says, “but I could take it or leave it.” He adds, “I’m a little sick of mustache questions, to be honest. I just want to focus on the stuff that’s real.”
At this point, that isn’t a short list. Real is working on making quicker decisions in the pocket and not dancing around quite as much. Real is the fact that, with O’Shaughnessy out, one of his favorite passing options is suddenly unavailable. And real is the 4-1 Saints, who arrive in Jacksonville this Sunday.
“I have a sense of urgency all the time,” Minshew tells me, “because I’ve never had a reason not to.” And so he grinds and pushes and presses, uncertain and unconcerned about what comes next. It can be stifling sometimes, but when he wants a break, he says, there is always Yousician. Truth is, “Wagon Wheel” still needs work.