American sports are so relentlessly driven by statistics, analytics, predictions, and down-to-the-decimal quality rankings that when a genuine aberration appears on the field, there seems to be nothing else to do but descend into mania. That, at least, has been the reaction to Gardner Minshew II, the backup–turned–starting quarterback who has electrified Jacksonville Jaguars fans — and everybody else — since he came on in a pinch in the first week of this season.
None of this was supposed to happen. Having had a surprisingly impressive season in 2017 — a season in which the team came within one quarter of making it to the Super Bowl (yellow flags and Blake Bortles make an appearance in almost all of my nightmares) — the Jaguars crashed back down to earth hard in 2018, finishing 5–11 and playing some of the least impressive football in recent memory. To avoid a repetition, the team recruited Super Bowl–winning quarterback Nick Foles, signing him to a massive four-year, $88 million deal. And then, in the first quarter of his first game for the Jaguars, Foles broke his clavicle and was replaced by a man who, within a matter of hours, would be the talk of northeast Florida — and beyond.
To say that nothing much was expected of Gardner Minshew would be a dramatic understatement. Indeed, it is little short of astonishing that he is playing in the NFL at all. Having been a distinctly average quarterback at East Carolina, Minshew committed as a graduate student to Alabama, where he was slated to be a third-stringer — primarily so that he could get his foot in the door as a graduate assistant once he became ineligible to play college football. But before he could get to Tuscaloosa, he was called up by Washington State’s notoriously pass-happy coach, Mike Leach, who asked him, “Do you want to hold a clipboard at Alabama or do you want to lead the nation in passing?” Minshew chose the latter, and almost met Leach’s challenge, throwing for 4,776 yards in 2018 — just 52 yards behind Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins. And then, having proven himself in Pullman, he promptly . . . disappeared from the conversation. In 2019, he was a sixth-round draft pick for the Jaguars — 178th overall. Nobody — nobody — saw this coming.
His skill to one side, Minshew strikes an almost impossibly eccentric figure. Had Talladega Nights been a football movie, Gardner Minshew would have been the character played by Will Ferrell. Minshew sports a retro mustache in the mold of Burt Reynolds or Tom Selleck; his clothes make him look as if he plays bass in a Doobie Brothers tribute band; and, irrespective of what he is doing, he is almost never seen without his trademark Uncle Rico–esque headband. To know that Minshew’s grandfather prevailed upon his son to name his newborn boy “Beowulf” is to understand all in an instant.
Of course Gardner Minshew is a guy who wears jorts without irony. Of course he is a guy who waves away questions about alarming tackles with a wry “It’s just football, man.” Of course he is a man who seems genuinely aware of how extremely unlikely it was that he would ever find himself in this position. Midway through the season, Minshew’s mother revealed that her son refused to rent an apartment in Jacksonville before he knew he was safely on the roster, and that even now, amid all the hype and the mania, he insists upon keeping the old, beat-up Acura that his parents bought him in high school. And one can see why: Asked before a recent game whether he was disappointed not to be going up against the injured Drew Brees, Minshew said that he was not, given Brees’s genius, but that if he got the chance, he’d love to meet him someday. He is, as Clay Travis puts it, “like Baker Mayfield, except real.”
Minshew’s statistics speak loudly for themselves. In his first three weeks as a professional quarterback, he put up the highest pass-completion and passer-rating numbers for a rookie since the Super Bowl era began. And since then, he has shown no signs of slowing down. At the time of writing, Minshew had won Rookie of the Week in four out of his first five weeks; had the highest passer rating in the red zone of any quarterback in the entire NFL; and, per CBS, had become “the first quarterback in NFL history to throw for 10 touchdowns and only two interceptions through the first seven games of his NFL career.” None of this year’s first-round quarterbacks are even approaching these numbers.
But in Jacksonville and its environs, those numbers are only part of the reason why Minshew was so instantly beloved. The other part is that he looks as if he might well become the long-term franchise quarterback that the city has wanted for so long. At first, I wondered if all the alliterative talk of “Minshew Mania” was an overstatement. But then I saw the Jaguars hand out 30,000 stick-on Minshew mustaches at TIAA Bank Field and watched as even the women stuck them on. Then I saw his photograph become a permanent fixture on game-day TV. Then I saw the Minshew Macaroons at the local patisserie, and the Minshew cocktails at the local bars, and the six-year-olds at the beach with American-flag bandanas and teal-and-gold #15 T-shirts. Then I saw my neighbor, much to the surprise of his wife, shave his beard down to nothing and leave his mustache long. Football inspires devotion, but this is what people did for the Beatles.
Why has this happened? Why does Minshew fit the bill? Those are always difficult questions to answer — akin to asking what it was in Patsy Cline’s voice that gave it its brilliance — but one possibility does come to mind: Because he seems to exist completely outside of our existing sports superstructure, with its giant corporations and its seven-figure deals and its near-curated unsportsmanlike conduct, and because, his idiosyncrasies included, that makes him the sort of person with whom we can all identify. Ours is an era in which even college athletes seem like professionals (and, to a large extent, in which that is exactly what they are), a development that renders it enormously refreshing to find a professional athlete who, in approach, expectation, and manner, seems more like an offbeat college student.
A phrase has popped up consistently during the wall-to-wall coverage that he has attracted: “the Legend of Gardner Minshew.” And for now, that is what this is: a legend, embryonic in nature, ambitious in tone, and sufficiently vague to allow a ravenous fan base to project its hopes and dreams. But, as Salman Rushdie tells us, “Sometimes legends make reality.”
This article appears as “Minshew Will Convince You” in the November 11, 2019, print edition of National Review.