Nothing has changed for Justin Herbert except for bank account and expectations

A photo collage of Justin Herbert
(photo illustration by Ross May / Los Angeles Times; photos by Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times; Jed Jacobsohn / AP)

The contract extension — and all its zeroes, history and possibilities — never came up.

The NFL’s biggest deal in history was so close to being reality that the quarter-of-a-billion-dollar beast might as well have been sitting right there with them at the charming eatery in equally charming Florence, a town of 9,500 tucked along the Oregon coast.

Instead, the two longtime friends — Justin Herbert and Jack Johnson — sat with fathers Mark and Lane and soaked up the atmosphere of the 1285 Restobar and one another over laughs and plates of pasta.

“It was like the football game at the local high school just got over and we’re sitting there shooting it, talking about normal, everyday life,” Jack recalled. “If I had to put a word to it, it was serendipitous.”

In just a few days, Herbert would return to Southern California and the Chargers and sign his name to the five-year, $262.5-million deal that made him the league’s highest-paid player in average annual salary.

Fans clamor for an autograph from Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert.
Fans clamor for an autograph from Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Then he’d keep signing — footballs, posters, those mini helmets, anything the squirming, squealing masses thrust toward him after another training camp practice. Herbert, dripping with sweat and adulation, would work his way down the fence line, giving away his wristbands, his hair ties and, more than once, his cleats.

Giving away himself, that’s what he really was doing, a young superstar athlete trying to find comfort in feeding his public without also starving his desire to remain private.

All of this for the Eugene kid who didn’t play varsity football in high school until his junior year — then immediately broke his leg — who thought he’d eventually excel more in baseball, who wasn’t supposed to start as a college freshman or an NFL rookie but did anyway.

All of this for the Eugene kid who arrived in the league facing questions about his accuracy, touch and leadership and then buried all those doubts and others under a mountain of yards, highlights and records.

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“The whole thing has kind of been, ‘Has this really happened to Justin Herbert?’ ” said Lane Johnson, who coached Herbert at Sheldon High. “It’s mind-boggling to me. I just sit back with pride and say, ‘Yeah, that’s our guy.’ ”

Our guy.

That’s what the Chargers said, too, when they gave Herbert all that money and, along with it, the reins of a 64-year-old franchise still searching for its first Super Bowl title.

At age 25 — yeah, he just turned 25 this offseason — Herbert most definitely holds this organization in his right hand, the same right hand that has spiraled footballs to heights and depths previously unseen for a player so early in his career.

Now, the Chargers are asking Herbert to be just as prolific as a leader, as a unifying force. The franchise’s face? Of course, but the Chargers hope Herbert is just as productive as their voiceThe Chargers want him to earn every cent of his new deal with his play and his way.

Wide receiver Keenan Allen, who is entering his 11th season, said Herbert indeed has been more vocal and comfortable this summer — at the line of scrimmage, in the huddle and on the sidelines.

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert gives directions during a camp practice.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert gives directions during a camp practice. (Kyusung Gong / For the Times)

The player who has been a Charger longer than any of them said Herbert has “found his spot,” explaining that the quarterback even has taken to sharing a few encouraging words before breaking down the team, something that in the past wouldn’t have happened.

“You have to earn your way in this league,” head coach Brandon Staley said. “He has definitely earned his way. He has made this his football team.”

This is growth — something people most certainly do in their early to mid-20s — and just the latest example of it since Herbert trotted onto the field three Septembers ago as a last-second replacement to start for the injured Tyrod Taylor, surprising everyone in SoFi Stadium, including those standing in the huddle with him.

No one at the time was sure if Herbert belonged, his admission months earlier at the NFL combine that he wasn’t certain he could play in the league because he never had — still scorching the ears of some naysayers.

Even as he performed so well that Taylor never started another game for the Chargers — hell, poor Tyrod played only one more snap for the team — Herbert, after absorbing a few particularly jarring hits, still faced critiques as basic as, "He played baseball, right, and he doesn’t know how to slide?"

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During his second season — his most productive to date — Herbert quieted doubts about his ability to win amid hostility, leading the Chargers to victories at Kansas City, Philadelphia and Cincinnati.

He made his first Pro Bowl, but the Chargers made a mess of everything at the end, losing their final game on the final play of overtime in Las Vegas to miss the playoffs with miraculous misery.

Then last year, more growth — Herbert playing through damaged ribs, an offense shredded by injury and, finally, an achy shoulder — to push his team into the postseason.

Along the way, the story of his continued development cited new evidence of Herbert’s leadership, the quarterback with the vanilla public personality suddenly oozing emotion — at precisely the right moments — on the field.

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert gestures after running for a first down against Miami.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert gestures after running for a first down against Miami. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The peak of the highlights came against Miami in Week 14. After converting a third-and-eight with a 10-yard scramble in the final five minutes to seal victory, Herbert slid — yes, a perfect baseball slide — got up and emphatically signaled first down, holding the ball in his extended right arm.

This was growth, sure, but this was not the Sheldon High way, not the Justin Herbert way. At least not the younger Justin Herbert way. At Sheldon, the players were told to play and leave the signaling to the officials.

“Before I taught him that, that was kind of his personality anyway,” Lane Johnson said. “He wasn’t going to bring attention to himself. When he did that, I was shocked and kind of expected a message from him.”

First thing the next morning, a text from Herbert arrived on Johnson’s phone. “Sorry about the first down celebration,” it read. “The guys needed to see it though.”

Herbert’s no winner, his teams only one game over .500 in his starts. He threw so many dinky passes last season what’s the point of having a big arm? If he were a playoff quarterback, Jacksonville wouldn’t have happened!

All of that analysis and so much more just as biting is why Mark Herbert didn’t want to hear the news from his son when the contract extension was completed. No, he wanted to read about it on Twitter, one factual post taking a blow torch to all the blathering opinions.

“To turn on your phone and read that your son is the highest-paid player in the NFL … could you read something cooler?” Mark said. “I got to do that.”

He did, sort of. In Las Vegas on that late-July Tuesday for a trade show, Mark turned off the ringer and stuck his phone in his back pocket so as not to disrespect any customers visiting his company’s booth.

He knew the deal was close to done because Justin had texted him and Mitchell and Patrick, Mark’s other two sons, with the briefest of updates on that Saturday.

“Herbie, the coolest thing about this is it hasn’t changed you a bit.”

Lane Johnson, Justin Herbert's high school football coach, on the quarterback's success and contract

Nearly two-and-a-half hours after going silent, Mark pulled out his phone and noticed a missed call from Herbert. A minute later, a text had arrived. “No need to call me back,” Herbert had written, “just wanted you to know it’s official.”

No need to call me back?! For the NFL’s fattest contract of all time?! So Mark texted his congratulations and, about 30 minutes later, Herbert’s agent, Justin Schulman, called.

Not until that conversation did Mark know the specifics of the extension, father and son never once talking about the quarterback's golden-goose future in such precise terms. “That’s his business,” Mark explained, “not mine.”

Jack Johnson read about the extension on his phone, as well. He said he first felt joy and then thought about all the time he and his buddy from middle school had spent throwing the football on Sheldon High’s practice field.

He said he and Herbert also never dove into how much the deal could be worth. And when Johnson did see the numbers, the $133.7 million fully guaranteed and $60 million more guaranteed for injury?

“I thought, ‘Holy crap,’ for lack of a better term,” Johnson said. “I mean, it’s not real. What does that look like if you actually put it in paper bills? It would fill a house.”

Chargers owner Dean Spanos greets quarterback Justin Herbert during training camp.
Chargers owner Dean Spanos (left) has made a huge investment in quarterback Justin Herbert. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Johnson texted Herbert with congrats and made a joke about the taxes in California. Herbert responded with a text that included a reference to “93 Pass,” one of the first football plays the two of them learned. In fifth grade.

Square-ins on the outside and corner routes on the inside — “93 Pass,” Herbert-to-Johnson, perhaps the most lethal play in the history of Pacific Northwest little league football.

“Nobody in the Eugene area ever seemed to figure out how to cover a corner route,” Johnson said, “and he and I took advantage.”

After a laugh, Johnson added: “I mean, I think about that stuff every now and then, too. The fact that it’s still in his mind and he’s this guy you see on TV or on your phone all the time, it’s almost hilarious.”

Along with the buzz on Twitter, Instagram mummed with the news of Herbert’s new deal. Below a post announcing the extension on Herbert’s account was a comment that read, “I can put in an order for about 3.7 million Fatty Benders, if you’re interested.”

Charlie Landgraf played football with Herbert at Oregon, where the two also lived together. Every chance they get, they go back to Killer Burger and load up on Fatty Benders.

They also still play golf as much as possible and the board game “The Settlers of Catan.” At least they do when they aren’t fishing Oregon’s Umpqua River for smallmouth bass.

Landgraf said Herbert is the most prepared person he has met, recalling the detailed notes filled with Xs and O’s and impossibly precise squiggly lines, as if Herbert’s mind itself was a white board. He remembers going days without seeing Herbert at home because the quarterback “lived at the football facility.”

Landgraf thought about all that after Herbert’s deal was official. He also thought about how little his former Ducks teammate has changed.

A mural of Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert decorates the exterior of a neighborhood market in Inglewood.
Justin Herbert's popularity led to his likeness on a mural in Inglewood. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“I watch the content the Chargers put out and I just laugh,” Landgraf said. “That’s Justin. What you see from him down there is what you see from him up here when we’re hanging out in my living room.”

A few days after Herbert signed, his father and brother Mitchell drove to Southern California for a visit. Dad wanted to treat the boys to something special to mark the occasion.

So the three of them headed to Dairy Queen, went through the drive-through and placed an order that has been something of a Herbert family tradition.

Then they sat in the car and ate their Blizzards.

A quarter of a billion dollars can buy a lot of things, even freedom. Hours after signing his deal, Herbert explained hecould focus solely on football, his future neatly plotted out in black and white for all to see.

Allen, who signed an eight-figure extension in 2020, said “your nerves leave you a little bit” with the arrival of such security. Edge rusher Khalil Mack, with two years remaining on his $141-million extension, explained that Herbert does seem happier.

“Why?” Mack asked. “I feel like you all probably can guess why. You can tell that he’s maturing and growing. He loves football. We love him because he loves the game.”

“Wired for the work” is how Staley described Herbert, adding that the quarterback labors “fiercely” over football. Staley called Herbert’s commitment his “secret,” even if everyone around the Chargers knows.

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The prospect of an unleashed Herbert, one equipped with a newfound fearlessness, bears watching given how this is a quarterback who, through his first three NFL seasons, threw for more than eight miles of offense.

The Chargers have a new play caller this year in Kellen Moore, a coordinator forecast to bring creativity and explosiveness. If Moore has a trigger man who feels just as ready to launch, well, what might Herbert’s next level of performance look like?

“I can’t think of someone I would rather have play fast and free than him because the quarterback has so much pressure on him,” Staley said. “There's so much day-to-day and game-to-game, season-to-season.

“The fact that he feels that way, that’s exciting for me. I think that shows his experience. It shows what he’s putting into his game and the fact that he feels that confidence, not only in himself, but in his teammates and his coaches.”

Yes, a quarter of a billion dollars can buy a lot of things but no amount of money can bring the sort of power Herbert’s performance has manifested since he joined the Chargers.

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert signs autographs for fans.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert signs autographs for fans. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Near the end of camp, after the first of two days of joint practices with the New Orleans Saints, Herbert was back standing along that fence line, scribbling autographs and modeling for selfies.

One of last things he did was to bend down and untie his cleats. He grabbed a Sharpie and signed the toe end of both shoes before handing one to a kid named Samuel Spencer and the other to Spencer’s friend, Trevor Scott.

The boys, ages 13 and 12, were part of the Lynwood Jr. Knights, a youth program that emphasizes academics and sports. Spencer said he was in “disbelief” when Herbert offered him the cleat.

Then he explained why having another player’s shoe — having this player’s shoe — meant so much.

“I wanted something to remember this day,” Spencer said, “so when I’m in the NFL, I can think back to when he was my idol and the reason I made it to the league.”

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Yes, a quarter of a billion dollars can buy a lot of things, though Herbert apparently hasn’t bought anything particularly notable yet.

Center Corey Linsley joked about Herbert purchasing “a jet boat.” Running back Joshua Kelley said Herbert should buy “stocks, real estate and a Rolls-Royce, too, custom made.” Several Chargers said Herbert owes them dinner, “them” being the entire team.

Mark Herbert said life for the family hasn’t changed so far, explaining that he’s still working, walking the dog and driving his 2004 Ford pickup “with the paint falling off.”

“I think Justin’s embarrassed by it, to be honest with you,” Mark said. “He said it to me. He said, ‘Dad, nobody deserves this much money.’ And he’s right. But, you know, somebody feels like he’s earned it.”

The Chargers, for instance, the team going all out to go all-in on a quarterback who has accomplished so much with so much more still to do.

The measurables for Herbert are all there. The 14,089 passing yards. The 94 touchdowns. The 13 game-winning drives.

Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert throws as Easton Stick watches.
Easton Stick (2) is the Chargers' No. 2 quarterback behind Justin Herbert (10) this season. (Associated Press)

Next, all the things not so easily quantified. Said backup quarterback Easton Stick, “He’s taking command, and it’s been really cool.” And quarterback coach Doug Nussmeier, “He’s dedicated to having it perfect.” And wide receiver Mike Williams: “Calm, cool, collected. That’s him. It don’t matter. No pressure. No matter the situation, he’s always going to rally us.”

Herbert is the Chargers, his presence becoming the very franchise the moment he signed his extension. He is the Los Angeles Chargers, playing in the footlights of Hollywood on a roster that’s dwindled to just two holdovers from the San Diego days.

The hype. The hope. What’s real. What’s possible. So much of it can be traced to No. 10 in powder blue.

“He's going to have to continue to prove it every single year and every single day he’s out here — that he is that,” running back Austin Ekeler said. “I think that he's done a good job with that. I’m really excited to see him continue to do it."

They’re just as excited in Oregon, where the 6-foot-6, 236-pound Herbert can fill the doorway of a place such as 1285 Restobar and still be allowed to slip through largely unnoticed.

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So there he sat, a little more than a month ago, laughing about the Sheldon days and what used to be without a mention of what was to come. Just shooting it. Uninterrupted — the conversation and the good feelings.

When dinner ended, Lane Johnson said he and Herbert hugged, the old high school coach telling him, “Herbie, the coolest thing about this is it hasn’t changed you a bit.”

“He gave me that sheepish grin that said, ‘It hasn’t’ because it really hasn’t,” Johnson said. “He’s still just Justin.”

Just Justin. Yeah, Herbert’s still the same and, the Chargers sure hope in 2023, a lot more.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.