Gibbs scanned the seats and spotted Gardner Minshew II, sure enough, eating peanut butter with a spoon straight from the jar. Gibbs would eventually come to call Minshew a football teammate at East Carolina and one of his best friends. Growing up in Brandon, Miss., they were rivals from pre-adolescence, always on opposite soccer, baseball and high school football teams. For some reason, watching Minshew devour his gooey snack made him dislike Minshew even more.
“Just eating in the sun,” Gibbs said. “Just eating a jar of peanut butter casually.”
Minshew’s journey — from collegiate nomad to Washington State cult hero to sixth-round draft pick to emergency starting quarterback of the Jacksonville Jaguars to the NFL’s rookie of the month — has introduced the NFL to his compendium of wonderful eccentricity. He stretches in nothing but a jockstrap in the locker room, grooms his mustache with utmost care and regards shirt buttons as optional. He pairs Technicolor headbands with jean shorts. His grandfather wanted him to be named Beowulf. His parents instead chose Gardner Flint Minshew II, even though there is no Gardner Flint Minshew I.
Minshew replaced free agent splash Nick Foles midway through Jacksonville’s opener, and he provided the Jaguars a capable passer and a breath of fresh air. Rather than wallowing in Foles’s injury or star cornerback Jalen Ramsey’s trade request, Jacksonville has reveled in its mustachioed hero. An advertisement stripped across the top of the Jaguars’ website offered a ticket deal called the Minshew Mania Mini Pack, which includes a headband and a fake mustache.
Underneath the legend of Gardner Minshew lies the reason Minshew arrived here. All the Uncle Rico comparisons and disco-ball fits belie his seriousness of craft. He is a football junkie who refused to accept the evaluation of coaches who thought him too short and slow for big-time college football or not strong-armed enough for the NFL. Those who knew him before his national starburst call him a weight-room freak, film nerd and practice field rat. At Brandon High, his father, Flint, dropped him off an hour before the first bell, five days a week, so he could break down film with his offensive coordinator. At ECU, he could out-squat offensive linemen. His parents bought him a passing target, and within two months it broke from overuse.
“I’m not surprised,” said Wyatt Rogers, Minshew’s high school coordinator. “If you told me in 10 years he was going to be the president, I would not be surprised. He is the most focused person I’ve ever been around. They could cut off his arm tomorrow, and he would find a way to play left-handed.”
Consider the peanut butter story. It can play for laughs — a high school, pre-mustache Minshew chomping on peanut butter while watching his pals play baseball. As Gibbs later realized, he only wanted to add more protein to his diet after his morning weightlifting session. It was a means to improve, performed with no regard for how others viewed him.
“He wasn’t doing it for any purpose other than for the betterment of himself,” Gibbs said. “To others, it just looks kind of strange.”
Sunday afternoon in their living room, Rogers and his son, Will, a Mississippi State quarterback commit, watched Minshew’s Jaguars play at the Denver Broncos. On third and five from inside the Denver 10-yard line, Minshew took a shotgun snap. He evaded a pass rusher by shuffling right. He darted forward to avoid another. He sprinted and bobbed through a claustrophobic gaggle, all the while keeping the ball tucked to his chest, before he found an open receiver in the end zone.
“Dad,” Will said. “That’s the ‘Avoid’ drill right there.”
At Brandon, Minshew would take a three-step drop while Rogers held five tennis balls. Rogers would rifle the tennis balls at Minshew, and Minshew had to dodge them before firing a pass at a target.
“Normally, we don’t do it with Von Miller rushing,” Rogers said, laughing in reference to Denver’s superstar pass rusher.
Rogers met Minshew when he was in fifth grade. He had developed a reputation as a local expert on the Air Raid offense, and Minshew’s father wanted to learn more about it for the Pop Warner team he coached. Father and son drove 75 minutes to where Rogers lived at the time, and Rogers saw an unusual football intelligence in Minshew, even then.
By the time Minshew had reached high school, Rogers had become Brandon’s offensive coordinator. An injury opened the way for Minshew to start as a freshman, and he never relinquished the position. Minshew honed his accuracy with endless repetition. Minshew’s family bought a $2,500 throwing target about half the size of a soccer goal, with three cutouts filled with catch nets. It could be folded up and transported on a trailer hitch.
Minshew used it every day after school, even in the offseason. When Rogers learned the extra practice violated Mississippi rules, he knew Minshew would refuse to stop, so he moved the drills inside the P.E. gym so nobody could see them. After two months, the target broke from overuse and had to be fixed.
“He wore it out, man,” Rogers said.
Minshew carried a gallon jug of water with him everywhere to stay hydrated. He was the first player in the weight room and the last one to leave, always loading up squat bars and leg presses. The constant work and study made him a prolific star, posting absurd statistics and playoff victories against Mississippi’s best competition. But he stood only 6 feet tall, and his raw speed impressed no one. The biggest colleges in the state passed him over.
“They damn sure missed out on him,” Rogers said. “I can tell you that.”
Minshew enrolled at Troy and immediately found it a poor fit. He transferred to Northwest Mississippi Community College and won the junior college national championship. From there he went to East Carolina, where a brutal schedule and a coaching transition led to constant losing over his two seasons as a part-time starter.
Even as the Pirates lost, Minshew won over teammates. Gibbs, a linebacker and his roommate, knew if Minshew was in the room, even in the summer, he would either be reading the Bible, a novel or his playbook. He arrived at preseason practices in white T-shirts and overalls while carrying a lunch pail, to send the message he had come to work. At a team talent show, Minshew performed the entire dance sequence from the end of “Napoleon Dynamite.”
“As soon as he started dancing, we all started cracking up,” said ECU offensive tackle Garrett McGhin, another former teammate who considers Minshew a best friend.
Teammates there marveled at Minshew’s energetic competitiveness. He treated table tennis as a life-or-death struggle. When other teammates wanted to rest, he would send group texts to organize Spikeball games. He befriended the entire team — offensive and defensive players — and wore the same Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt to team functions, practice and class. On nights out, he would dance and sing along to everything between Alan Jackson and Lil Boosie, in between orders of vodka waters.
“Let’s just say he knows what he likes when it comes to liquid encouragement,” McGhin said. “It’s his own personality, just amplified. He’s a dancer. He’s definitely got some moves when he’s out on the town. … He had that energy you just kind of gravitate to. He’s the epitome of, you treat the janitor the same way you treat the CEO.”
After he graduated from ECU, Minshew still had one year of eligibility. Alabama offered him the chance to be a backup, and Minshew nearly accepted for the chance to start his career in coaching under Nick Saban.
In the northwest corner of the country, tragedy happened. Washington State quarterback Tyler Hilinski, who had been expected to become the Cougars’ starter, committed suicide. One ripple effect, as meaningless as it seemed, is that Coach Mike Leach had a quarterback opening. He called Minshew and famously asked him, “You want to come lead the nation in passing?”
Turning down Alabama was hard. But Rogers knew right away Minshew would choose Washington State. He had wanted to play in the Air Raid since middle school, and now he could quarterback for the man who mastered it.
“I think that kind of rang a bell,” Gibbs said. “Like, ‘I may have a few snaps left in me before I chase this coaching thing.’ ”
In one year in Pullman, Minshew became a cult figure. He did lead the nation in passing. The school passed out mustaches for students — men and women — to wear in the stands. After Washington State beat Oregon, fans carried Minshew off the field.
Rogers still chokes up when he recalled the moment, thinking back to the Mississippi college programs that turned him away, to all the worn-out equipment and the nomadic path required to reach the tops of those shoulders.
As Minshew became a star, his persona grew larger than his football acumen. Last year, when pictures of Minshew’s mustache first appeared during the summer, Rogers called his former quarterback.
“What in the world are you doing?” Rogers asked. “That thing looks terrible. Shave that crap off your face.”
“Man, I can’t,” Minshew replied. “It’s kind of taken on a life of its own.”
Minshew has embraced stardom without losing his devotion to football. “One of those worlds will never cross into the other one,” Rogers said. In an NFL locker room, things like the rookie quarterback garnering attention for his quirky looks can rankle veterans. But Minshew’s focus and sincerity have prevented that. After the Jaguars drafted Minshew, he called team officials less than an hour later to request a playbook.
“That’s one reason why wearing a mustache and things like that are okay, because he doesn’t let it get to him,” second-year Jaguars wide receiver D.J. Chark said. “He just likes to play football. You can’t ask much more of him than that.”
In Jacksonville and across the NFL, Minshew Mania will continue, and not because of how he stretches or his facial hair or an uncommon name. It will continue because he expects more of himself than anybody else and has the drive to prove himself right.
“The Gardner you see for the Jags is the same Gardner he’s been since I’ve known him,” McGhin said. “He’s always been his own person. He doesn’t care. Those aviators, I think he’s had the same single pair of aviators for five years. It’s funny, because they don’t even sit right on his face.”