COSTA MESA, Calif. — By now, it’s fairly clear what Los Angeles Chargers rookie quarterback Justin Herbert can do with a football. If you want to see him smile, ask him to launch it 70 yards into the waiting hands of a teammate in the end zone or sling a slant to a guy crossing the field.
But if you want to see Herbert beam — really beam — have him cast a line in the ocean and reel in a 22-inch halibut. Then he’s just like a little kid, with a grin from ear to ear. He’s certainly happy about the touchdown pass, but he’s downright giddy when it comes to the halibut.
Herbert was named the Chargers’ permanent starter on Thursday after impressing coach Anthony Lynn with his poise, quick thinking and production (77-of-107 passing for 931 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions) through his first three games. Lynn also likes Herbert’s patience, something he learned by throwing line after line into the pond behind Albertsons on Coburg Road in his hometown of Eugene, Oregon.
It was so much a part of Herbert’s happiness routine that he formed a fishing club at his high school along with a former teammate, Ryan Phillips, whose father, Les, was one of the football coaches.
Herbert played three sports, “but people were kind of more interested in the fishing club than anything else,” Les told the Daily Emerald, the University of Oregon’s student newspaper, in 2016. They even made T-shirts.
Before the country shut down in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, former adversary Michael Pittman Jr. (who played for USC and is now a wide receiver with the Indianapolis Colts) and his girlfriend, Kianna Galli, took Herbert to the Huntington Beach Pier in Huntington Beach, California, where they spent an hour hooking bait while Galli filmed their YouTube TV show.
Chargers tight end Hunter Henry hasn’t heard the quiet Herbert discuss his fishing prowess, though noted that “he’s always got some sort of fishing glove on.”
He had a “Toes to the Nose” hat — a Laguna Beach surfer favorite — on in February as Pittman tried to play his role as the sophisticated Cali kid to Herbert’s more reserved persona. At one point he badgered the chit-chat-challenged Herbert with questions as unknowing fishermen cast lines in between guys who would go on to be the No. 6 and No. 34 picks, respectively, in the 2020 NFL draft.
“So Justin,” Pittman said in his not-so-shy outside voice, “how was it winning that ROSE BOWL?”
Pittman: “You know the Rose Bowl? When you guys beat Wisconsin, like a month ago?”
Pittman: “And then you went to the Senior Bowl and had the MVP honors?”
Pittman: “Top-10 draft pick?”
Herbert: “WILL YOU SHUT UP?”
Pittman: “Yes, yes sir.”
As loud and chatty as Pittman can be (they were taping for his YouTube channel, Michael and Kianna, which now has more than 296,000 followers) Herbert is the nearly the exact opposite — at least in public — and always makes sure to say the right thing
“Over the past couple of months,” he said a few weeks ago, “I’ve come to realize that there’s nothing else that I’d rather be doing. Playing football for the Chargers is something that I’ve dreamed about. If I go out there and do everything right, study and work hard, good things will happen.”
It’s part of the way he was raised, the middle child of three boys, one of whom is in school to become a doctor, the other a tight end at Oregon. They are sons of a former athlete and grandsons of another Duck.
They live a stone’s throw from Autzen Stadium, where they went to as many Ducks games as possible growing up, marveling at quarterbacks such as Joey Harrington and Marcus Mariota.
Herbert was a 4.01 biology major and a teaching assistant for one of the toughest biology classes — Bio 212, organisms — and came back to school his senior year to finish what he set out to do when he was named the starting quarterback as a freshman in 2016: win a Rose Bowl and avenge a 4-8 freshman season.
But Herbert has never been one for small talk. Yes, he’s a rookie, and rookies have to be wary. Whenever Herbert talks to the media these days, it’s always honest and with a deference most aren’t used to.
Herbert is already beloved in Los Angeles and by a fan base starving for a star, a process that started earlier than almost everyone expected.
Herbert was the backup quarterback in Week 1 and was expected to fill that role again in Week 2 as the Chargers prepared for their SoFi Stadium opener against the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
Suddenly, starter Tyrod Taylor was the victim of a pregame “blind” injection, causing his lung to collapse, and Herbert was thrown into the starting spotlight. It was so sudden that Lynn didn’t know about Taylor’s injury until after the coin flip. Herbert’s mother, Holly, missed the first few plays because she was sure that her son wasn’t going to see action.
Herbert barely blinked, leading the Chargers to a touchdown on his first NFL drive (which he ran in) and throwing for 311 yards and another score as L.A. took the Chiefs to overtime.
He got stronger the next week, nearly leading a come-from-behind victory over the Carolina Panthers with a final play he says “they practice every day,” the hook-and-ladder that Austin Ekeler wasn’t able to secure from Keenan Allen.
He improved even more in Week 4, staking his team to a 24-7 first-half lead against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tom Brady. Herbert went 20-for-25 for 290 yards and three touchdown passes against the Bucs — including 53- and 7-yarders, respectively — before throwing a late interception to Carlton Davis as he was trying to lead the Chargers to a game-tying score.
“Despite the loss it was an awesome experience,” Herbert said. “Just to be out there playing in Tampa Bay alongside my teammates, it doesn’t get any better than that. Yeah, we lost, but we’re going to learn from it, and I know I’m going to get better from it.”
And now it’s on to New Orleans to face another legend, the Saints’ Drew Brees, on Monday Night Football.
Maybe the Chargers will get over the hump this time and get Herbert his first NFL win as a starter. Just don’t ask him to talk too much about it.
But he did speak up after catching the halibut with Pittman, the biggest of the day.
“Gonna need some help with this one,” he said to Pittman as he lay the fish on the sand.
Not that Herbert is a weakling — just the opposite. But halibut have teeth. That’s all he needs — teeth chomping into his million-dollar fingers.
That wouldn’t be good at all.