In the midst of contemplating his son's ascension into one of the most gifted and polarizing NFL quarterback prospects in recent years, a memory drifts into Mark Herbert's head. It goes back to the time when his son Justin was in middle school, and Mark was coaching his youth football team. They'd won every game they played up to that point, but they trailed late in this one. Mark gathered Justin, looked him in the eyes and said, "It's time for you to lead this team and win this game."
But as Justin led his team on what should have been a prophetic game-winning drive, the end proved deflating.
"We didn't score," Mark says. "We lost."
This is not, then, the typical tale of a young quarterback who embraces his role at a precocious age and rallies his team to victory by sheer force of personality. Justin Herbert has never really been the prototypical natural-born leader we tend to think of at the position. He did not wind up playing quarterback because he was the most charismatic figure on the playground. He was a quiet and cerebral kid who started out at wide receiver and only switched to quarterback after some parents of the other kids on Mark's youth team told him his son had the best throwing arm out of anyone in the neighborhood, and he was crazy not to move Justin to quarterback.
As Mark Herbert leans back in his chair inside the sprawling Oregon football complex adjacent to Autzen Stadium, his son's origin story feels increasingly distant, even if it's not geographically distant at all. The campus is a familiar place; it's less than a 10-minute drive from the Herbert family's house in Eugene. He can walk it in 23 minutes, which he knows because he's done it so often that he has it timed down to the minute. For years, he walked here with his children when they were young fans. Then he walked here with his wife as Justin and his brother Patrick, a freshman tight end, wore Oregon uniforms.
That's part of the reason it feels so strange to be talking about Justin in this way, as a potential NFL commodity ripe to be picked apart by overzealous scouts. To Mark, Justin is still a neighborhood kid who attended nearby Sheldon High School. It hasn't fully sunk in that his son has just completed a career as one of the all-time great quarterbacks at Oregon.