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.