The legend of Gardner Minshew
Gardner Minshew II’s only 23 years old, but the Mississippi-bred, Washington-finished, Jacksonville-leading quarterback already has a parade of stories trailing in his wake. You might know about the time he tried to slap a mustache on Mike Leach, or the time he walked off a plane looking like he’d just stepped out of Studio 54, or the time he eluded both J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus in his very first NFL start.
The Minshew stories extend literally from one end of the country to the other, and if we’re lucky, we’ve got years more to come. Here’s a roundup of his earliest hits, courtesy of Woody Rogers, one of his coaches at Brandon (Miss.) High School, and Flint Minshew, aka Gardner Flint Minshew I, aka Gardner’s daddy. These are the kind of stories best told on an aluminum high school bleacher bench on a Friday night, so crack open a cold one and enjoy.
The time Gardner was almost named ‘Beowulf’
Gardner was tapped for greatness even before birth. His grandfather, Flint’s daddy, wanted to name him “Beowulf,” after the old English poem about a warrior who travels to the ends of the earth and beyond, often alone, to vanquish the world’s most fearsome foes. Hell of a legacy to live up to.
“That story’s true,” Flint says. “His grandfather wanted to name him that. But his grandfather didn’t have to live with it every day. So it didn’t happen.”
As badass a name as “Beowulf Minshew” would have been, the family opted to name the boy, born May 22, 1996, Gardner Minshew II.
Why “II” and not “Jr.”? “In Mississippi,” Flint notes, “If you’re a junior, you’re going to be called ‘Junior’ or ‘Bubba.’ ” “Beowulf Minshew” didn’t work, and neither would “Bubba Minshew,” for entirely different reasons.
The time Gardner learned the art of the deke
Gardner grew up in Brandon, just outside Jackson, the most hypercompetitive and talented kid in a town full of them. Long before he committed to football, he ran the typical American youth sports gauntlet, and even in those early days, Flint could see the beginnings of an analytical sports mind.
“He was playing basketball, couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6,” Flint recalls. “He goes driving to the basket on a fast break, and this kid comes up and blocks his shot. The next play, Gardner gets another breakaway. Same kid coming at him. This time, Gardner stops, the other kid goes flying off the court, Gardner’s got an easy shot. He figured that out all on his own, on the court.”
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It wouldn’t be long before Gardner’s church league team was pounding the Jesus out of every team they faced — once, by a score of 60-2. Dominance was to become something of a tradition for Gardner.
“He loved playing basketball,” Flint recalls, “but we were way too competitive. I never knew who was going to get kicked out first, me or him.”
The time Gardner learned about dedication
With talent comes ego, but not necessarily drive. Gardner was good enough to be the star of every team, but not always the star of every league. One year in tee-ball, lil’ Gardner found out that he hadn’t been named to the league’s All-Star team. He’d learn to handle disappointment a little better in the future.
“I was out of town,” Flint recalls, “and he’s stomping all over the house pissing and moaning that he didn’t make the All-Star team. And his mother just chewed him out. ‘You don’t deserve to be an All-Star,’ she told him. ‘Every time Dad tried to get you to do something, you wanted to stay inside and play.’ ”
The cold truth woke up Gardner, flipped a switch somewhere inside him. “He decided it didn’t matter what sport it was, baseball or soccer or whatever,” Flint says. “He was going to be down at the park working, taking extra fly balls, taking extra shots on goal, whatever it was. Gardner always wanted to be that guy.”
You can already see the Legend of Gardner building, can’t you?
The time Gardner got a promotion
By the time he reached ninth grade, Gardner had settled on football as his sport of choice. He had the lineage; Flint was a star at Millsaps College, albeit on the defensive line. Gardner, on the other hand, always liked to be in a position of action on any field. In baseball, that meant catching. In soccer, goalie. And in football … well, you already know.
Flint and Gardner had been running a version of the Air Raid offense since Gardner was in sixth grade. That playbook brought him to the attention of Wyatt Rogers, a coach who’d learned the intricacies of Air Raid by studying aficionados like Mike Leach and Hal Mumme. The Minshews drove an hour each way to work with Rogers, and then, in a strange little twist, Rogers took a job at the very high school Minshew would be attending.
Gardner began ninth grade by quarterbacking the Brandon Bulldogs’ JV team. But in the sixth game of the year, the varsity quarterback got injured, leaving the coaches no choice but to put in a 15-year-old kid.
He wouldn’t give up the ball for another three-and-a-half seasons.
“He and I would stay after school every day throwing,” Rogers recalls. “He would come in every morning at 7. His dad would drop him off at the office, and we’d spend an hour watching football, some days our practice, some days colleges, anything football-related.”
Soon enough, the student had surpassed the master. “It got to a point where I had taught him everything I could teach him in Xs and Os,” Rogers says. “Then the roles reversed a little bit, and I’d be asking him, what did you see? What do you think about this, Gardner?”
Over the course of 52 games, he’d throw for 9,705 yards and 88 touchdowns to guys who are now drafting him for their fantasy teams.
“It did not matter who was playing for him, the ultra-poor kids to the bankers’ sons,” Rogers says. “They all would get in line to follow Gardner Minshew.”
The time Gardner’s phone didn’t ring
Brandon is located within a Minshew throw of half a dozen football-mad schools; Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Alabama and LSU are all close by, and the pool spreads even wider when you step a notch down from the SEC. So it was quite the surprise to the Minshew family when Gardner didn’t get a serious look from any of the big schools, or even any of the smaller schools. Flint suspects his son was one of many recruits getting strung along with promises, but no commitments.
“These coaches play the system,” he says. “A lot of dads call me with the same frustrations. I tell them the truth, in my opinion — when [coaches] tell you they’re ‘still evaluating,’ that’s bull. They’re trying to get you for free as a walk-on if you don’t have any other offers.”
Gardner committed to a backup slot at Troy University, but opted to move to Northwest Mississippi Community College when a starting slot opened up. He threw for 3,228 yards and led NWCC to a junior college championship, and that put him on the radar of East Carolina University. A stretch of three games where he threw for over 350 yards in each only raised his profile further, and when he finished up at ECU, he made his availability known to the world.
“When he left ECU, he sent a release to everybody in the nation that lost a starting quarterback, to draft or graduation,” Flint says. “USC, UCLA, Wazzu, LSU, Arkansas, Tennessee. We talked to a lot of people.” But one particular conversation turned heads … and perceptions.
The time Gardner turned down Alabama
Back in January 2018, Alabama was coming off an improbable national championship game victory over Georgia, pulled off when two different Bama quarterbacks rallied the team. Conventional wisdom was that Bama was now in a loser-leaves-town quarterback situation: Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts would compete for the starting job in the spring, and whoever didn’t win it would transfer.
Nick Saban knew he’d need a backup, and he had an eye on the kid from East Carolina. The only problem was, Hurts didn’t end up transferring — not initially, anyway — which would have left Minshew buried so deep on the Alabama bench he wouldn’t have seen daylight.
Still, Saban’s interest alone was enough to change the narrative around Gardner. “When Saban likes you, everybody likes you,” Flint laughs. “Everybody loved Gardner after he got an Alabama offer. I was like, ‘That’s what I’ve been telling you.’”
It was Washington State’s Mike Leach who got through. Leach, reeling and in need of a quarterback after the tragic death of Tyler Hilinski, found a kindred Air Raid spirit in Minshew, and brought him to Pullman for one glorious season with a single, now-famous question:
“Gardner, how would you like to come out to Washington State and lead the nation in passing?”
At Washington State, Minshew faced an impossible situation — replacing Hilinski — with grace and tact. And the fans and students responded, embracing Minshew while he did, in fact, lead the nation in passing. Under Minshew, Washington State reached 11 wins for the first time, and Minshew himself led all FBS schools in yards per game with 367.6 yards. Minshew broke Jared Goff’s single-season Pac-12 yardage record, and finished fifth in Heisman balloting.
Rogers recalls going to Pullman for one of those 11 victories, and he joined in the masses storming the field. “I see this big crowd, cameras and boom mics,” he says. “In Mississippi, there’s about four or five people who can garner that kind of attention from the press. I’m thinking, Holy [crap], Paris Hilton must have shown up. Then one of the football ops guys pulls me through, next thing I know there’s Gardner in my face, and I’m saying, ‘You’re the one they’re following!’ ”
The time Gardner got into an NFL game
See if this sounds familiar: picked in the sixth round, 178th overall, by the Jaguars, Minshew didn’t warrant much more than a glance from NFL analysts, especially not after the Jags kicked Blake Bortles to the curb and signed Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles. Minshew was the 10th quarterback picked, long after Kyler Murray and Daniel Jones and Dwayne Haskins, and the thinking was that he’d hold a clipboard for a few years and then everyone would see what’s what.
And then Foles snapped his collarbone less than a quarter into the season, and Gardner Time was upon us at last. All Minshew did that first outing was complete the first 13 passes of his career and 22 of 25 overall. Sure, the Jaguars got waxed by the Chiefs, but that was going to happen anyway.
“Everybody asked if, when he went in, I was reflecting on everything that got us there and all that,” Flint says. “Hell no. I was thinking, let’s get a first down. Let’s get down the field. Reflecting? Naw, man. There’s a scoreboard up there.”
After the game, Gardner and Flint split a 38-ounce tomahawk steak and a pile of sides at the Cowford Chophouse not far from the stadium. They exhaled, looked at each other, and had the same reaction: “That was pretty cool.”
The time Gardner got an … interesting sponsor offer
Foles’ injury meant that the Legend of Gardner Minshew had just grown two sizes. Week 2 brought a near-miracle — Minshew led the Jags to a possible game-winning drive against the Texans that fell inches short — and that sent Minshewmania into orbit.
The Burt Reynolds mustache had been Minshew’s hallmark since Washington State. Then last week, a photo surfaced of Minshew looking like he’d fallen through a portal from 1977, wearing a shirt unbuttoned to the waist. Wednesday brought an offer from an adult entertainment site: up to $1 million if he leads a class as part of an online, uh, “fitness” program taught by “adult entertainment” stars, or reps the company’s “knitted intimate apparel” for Halloween. Really best not to ask where that intimate apparel goes.
“Ha. That’s good stuff,” Flint said in a text to Yahoo Sports. “Always good to have options. What’s the saying? ‘The best time to find a job is when you have a job.’”
The time Gardner started a nationally televised NFL game
The outcome’s yet to be determined, but it begins Thursday at 8:20 p.m. Eastern. (NOTE: Minshew went out and threw a pair of TD passes to lead the Jaguars to their first win of the season.)
Gardner Minshew has hit obstacles — huge ones — at every turn of his career, and he’s vaulted over all of them to reach the NFL. You’d think that would put a chip on a guy’s shoulder the size of a suitcase, but Flint says that’s not so.
“For Gardner, it’s not about proving wrong the people who doubted him,” he says. “It’s about proving right the people who believed in him. He’s got a small circle, but it’s a good circle.”
“He’s been told no a hundred times more than he’s been told yes,” Rogers says. “He likes to bet on himself. He does not give a rip what other people think. If you tell him he can’t do it, you sealed your fate.”
And the legend rolls on.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at email@example.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
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