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Here's the surprising reason why top NFL prospect Justin Herbert returned to school

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EUGENE, Ore. – In Room B009 in the basement of the Science Research Library at the University of Oregon, the posters illustrating photosynthesis and stomata openings decorate the wall. They’re flanked by white boards with detailed diagrams of cell structure magnified under a microscope.

Students cram into B009 for the office hours of Biology 212, which senior instructor Mark Carrier humblebrags is “one of the hardest courses on campus.” Less than 15 percent of the students receive A’s in Bio 212, and students having to retake the course are as common as a rainy December in Eugene.

On Tuesday mornings in the spring quarter of 2018, any Oregon students stumped by how insulin gets made by the pancreas would wander into the Bio 212 office hours in B009. A shaggy-haired sophomore undergraduate tutor waited with answers. His name is Justin Herbert, and he just happened to spend his fall Saturdays as Oregon football’s starting quarterback.

Some Bio 212 students knew that Herbert projected as a Heisman Trophy candidate. Others just needed to understand iron regulation in animals, and their homework was due the next day.

At 6-foot-6 and nearly 240 pounds, Herbert is more the archetype of an NFL quarterback than the stereotype of an undergraduate biology tutor. Yet as his football profile rose at Oregon, Herbert relished his secret life as a biology TA – one of the highest academic recognitions in his major – as much as his public life as a starting quarterback. “He could have that part of his life where he wasn’t Justin Herbert the quarterback,” said teammate Calvin Throckmorton, who shared multiple science classes with Herbert. “That meant a lot to him.”

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This fall at Oregon, Herbert enters his senior season amid a different kind of experiment. He’s the rare potential No. 1 NFL draft pick who turned down tens of millions of dollars to continue playing college football. He follows the gilded path of elite players like Stanford’s Andrew Luck, USC’s Matt Leinart and Tennessee’s Peyton Manning, who all chose the allure of one more year of college over the aura of the NFL.

For Herbert, the decision came down to his dual devotion to team and science: He threw 29 touchdowns last season and is on the cusp of graduating in biology with a 4.01 grade-point average. The result is a player whose coaches rave about – “He’s a different animal,” says Ducks coach Mario Cristobal – with the same fervor as his teachers. “He’s an amazing student,” said Steve Stolp, Oregon’s director of academic support. “He’s as competitive in the classroom as he is on the field.”

Herbert has completed his core science courses and is taking only an online course this quarter. If the NFL didn’t loom as such a certainty, he’d be applying to medical schools to study orthopedics like his older brother, Mitchell Herbert, who played at Montana State.

When Justin Herbert decided to return to Oregon in the spring, it prompted a ripple of shock through the football world. Around his hometown of Eugene, however, they know Herbert grew up with a family that fostered his dual passions.

Top NFL prospect Justin Herbert is as fond of biology as he is of football. (Yahoo Sports illustration)
Top NFL prospect Justin Herbert is as fond of biology as he is of football. (Yahoo Sports illustration)

Along with the poster on his wall paying homage to former Ducks quarterback Joey Harrington, Herbert spent countless afternoons raising quail, frogs and butterflies in his paternal grandparents’ backyard. He even helped start a fishing club at Sheldon High School in Eugene. When he decided to return to Oregon last winter, Herbert still had two jobs to finish – winning the Pac-12 for his childhood team and graduating with his biology degree. “I would have been shocked if he left,” said Lane Johnson, his football coach at Sheldon. “I know how important this is to him.”

Herbert isn’t on any social media and relentlessly deflects attention to his teammates. Fittingly, he flashes a mischievous grin when asked if he appreciated the dazed underclassmen struggling with stomata having no idea about his football career. “They just asked me science questions,” Herbert said with a shrug. “So, it was fun.”

After growing up both a Duck and raising ducks, Herbert’s bold experiment isn’t that hard to, well, dissect.

A lifetime of experiments

Herbert’s immersion into the sciences at Oregon can be traced back to a childhood that his older brother, Mitchell, deems a “constant biology project.” They grew up in an environment where examining mice skeletons in owl pellets with their grandfather was considered fun. “You take tweezers and wear gloves,” Justin says with a grin. “Obviously.”

His final project as a Biology 212 student merged his two worlds, as he measured how ice baths impact blood pressure. Naturally, Herbert needed what he calls “guinea pigs” for his project and used teammates Jacob Breeland, Cam McCormick and his “little” brother Patrick Herbert – a combined 755 pounds – to conduct his experiment. He concluded that their blood pressure rose when submerged in ice and got an A on the project and in the class.

How was Justin Herbert one of five students among the 320 in his Biology 212 class to become an undergraduate tutor? You can start with his grandfather, Roger Herbert, who spent 34 years teaching biology at Sheldon High. Then continue with his father’s stint teaching science and biology early in his career.

Roger and Judie Herbert lived out the biology, as their home included an acre of land and a pond in the back. Herbert’s late maternal grandfather, Rich Schwab, starred for the Ducks in the early 1960s and has long been associated with Justin’s career at Oregon. His other grandfather, Roger, can take some credit for the science bug, as he had access to an assortment of catalogs and a budget to match Justin and Mitchell’s fascination with science.

The Herbert boys raised everything from parakeets to hermit crabs in their grandfather’s backyard. The boys studied and experimented with everything from larva to luna moths to swallowtail butterflies. They’d watch them grow, examine them under microscopes and essentially lived out years of Bio 212 – the study of organisms and systems – in the wild before taking it in the classroom.

“Some of the most competitive things I’ve seen with [Mitchell and Justin] was when they were chasing frogs or butterflies or snakes,” Roger Herbert said with a laugh in the Herbert family kitchen recently. “They were competitive in nature, and it was pretty intense when they were out hunting for things.”

And, yes, there were ducks. Young Justin was known to attempt to teach the ducks to fly, the science version of a Hail Mary. When the ducks couldn’t soar on their own, he’d carry them around the neighborhood in a bucket. “We were young, and they would just kind of follow us around,” Mitchell said of the ducks, “like we were their parents.”

Patrick, Justin and Mitchell Herbert play with ducks at their family home. (Photo credit: Herbert family)
Patrick, Justin and Mitchell Herbert play with ducks at their family home. (Photo credit: Herbert family)

It was no surprise to Roger that Justin Herbert returned from an African mission trip to Uganda in 2018 with a sample of water to study. The water wasn’t drinkable, so Justin borrowed a microscope from his grandfather to examine the bacteria. Long before the NFL became an option, Justin Herbert thought about following his father and grandfather into teaching high school science. “I think they’re both two of the best men that I’ve ever known, ever will know,” he said. “I’d like to think I make them proud.”

Sharing his passion for science led to Herbert tutoring his peers in room B009 last year. Carrier, his instructor, said he’d invite Herbert back “indefinitely” to help. Carrier said Herbert’s position holds a 100 percent medical school acceptance rate and many go on to Ivy League graduate schools.

A fellow undergraduate tutor, Lisa Huynh, admired Herbert’s ability to tease the answers out of students by helping them think through the material. “He was good guiding them in the direction where they had to work toward the answer,” Huynh said in a phone interview. “There’s certain TA’s who’d give them the answers. He’d make sure students would learn the material.”

That intuitive knowledge from a lifelong biology project, not surprisingly, made Justin Herbert a natural.

Growing up as a Herbert

Visitors to the Herbert household in Eugene are greeted by an Oregon-logoed doormat. The well-appointed ranch house is where Mark and Holly Herbert raised three boys, all of whom went on to earn football scholarships.

Mark Herbert’s tour includes explanations of mini-goalposts erected in the living room, trees doubling as wiffle ball foul poles and a yard that magnetized neighborhood kids for impromptu games of every sport imaginable.

The duality of Justin Herbert’s athletic and academic options are positioned on the house’s two biggest tables. Off the living room, 23-year-old Mitchell Herbert hunches over his laptop to lock in on his medical school essays. He finished playing receiver at Montana State in 2017 and is working at a local orthopedic surgery center. The other table, off the kitchen, holds the colorful folders and thick handouts of NFL agent presentations and predraft pitches, piled with possibility for Justin.

If the whole local-kid-grows-up-to-be-the-quarterback storyline sounds a bit saccharine, that’s because it is. The Herbert boys were raised with four guiding principles in school and life: 1) Treat people the way you want to be treated. 2) Do your best. 3) Get better. 4) Never give up.

Justin Herbert remembers getting scolded around age 4 or 5 for not looking someone in the eye when they shook hands. Mark and Holly Herbert’s boys couldn’t play any video games until they finished their homework. If they agreed to be somewhere at a certain time, they needed to get there early. Results weren’t expected to be celebrated on the field, as Mark taught the boys: “You're supposed to make baskets, you're supposed to play defense, you're supposed to get the ball.”

In what could embody the family’s peak earnestness, Mark Herbert summed up raising his boys this way: “If you're going to make a peanut butter sandwich, make the best gosh darn peanut butter sandwich you could possibly make.”

Mark Herbert appeared destined to follow the footsteps of his father, Roger, who also carved a niche as a legendary track coach and assistant football coach while teaching for three decades at Sheldon. Roger Herbert ran track at Oregon State, rode his bike across the country twice and arose before dawn on many days to fetch the morning paper to scour for information that could help his coaching.

Mark got gigs at two local schools teaching biology and science and began coaching, but realized that he wanted to coach his own boys in youth sports. He took a job with Timber Products selling particle board – think plywood with veneer – and became a prolific youth coach to three sons who all ended up with college scholarships. (Patrick is a freshman tight end for the Ducks.) “I recognized early on that had I stayed teaching and coaching,” he said, “I'd have no family life because I'd be with other people's kids.”

There is an endearing Disney dad feel to Mark Herbert, a genuine appreciation of how the quarterback who grew up next door to Autzen Stadium became a Heisman candidate there. As he grew older, Justin Herbert would respond to his father’s queries about homework with a question-and-answer routine that became a running gag: “Dad, have I ever let you down?” Mark would respond: “You haven’t.”

That’s occurred, Mark Herbert fully believes, because of the manifestation of combined advice from Justin’s grandparents, parents, teachers, youth coaches, high school coaches and college coaches.

These ideals were instilled and reinforced along the way until, all of a sudden, Mark Herbert is having a chat with the king of quarterback dads, Archie Manning. (Peyton spoke to Justin about his decision to return.)

And each of the mile markers along the way – the Oregon scholarship, the first true freshman to start there since 1983, the starring role – has been greeted with a fresh wave of awe.

Mark Herbert has stayed a safe distance, as he can see the team hotel from the family’s home but has never stopped by. He estimates he’s been to only 10 Oregon practices since Justin arrived in 2016. Mark has focused on appreciating all the ancillary thrills along the way. “Every single day we feel like ...” he searches for words with a trace of wonder in his voice. “I don't know what happened.”

There may be no higher compliment to the Herbert name in Eugene than the unexpected honor the Herberts learned about in July. A local couple, Ian and Stephanie Peterson, named their son Herbert. Ian loves the Ducks and Stephanie ran track for Roger at Sheldon. Their 1-year old goes by Herbie, and Cristobal told Ian, a bartender at local institution Beppe & Gianni’s: “You name him Herbert, I’ll sign him the day he’s born.”

Maybe that’s the start of the next Eugene-based Disney story.

A Eugene couple, Ian and Stephanie Peterson, named their son Herbert after the star Oregon QB and due to their ties with the family. (Credit: Peterson family)
A Eugene couple, Ian and Stephanie Peterson, named their son Herbert after the star Oregon QB and due to their ties with the family. (Credit: Peterson family)

All steak, no sizzle

In nearly every way possible – academics, persona, recruitment and career arc – Justin Herbert has defied the conventions of a blue-chip quarterback. He came to Oregon an under-recruited afterthought, started at the depths of the depth chart and chased team and academic glory over NFL cash. Herbert is shy enough that his offensive coordinator, Marcus Arroyo, bought him a book this offseason: “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” (He hasn’t read it yet.)

For all of Oregon’s florescent Nikes and dizzying uniform combinations as they’ve emerged as a national power the past two decades, Justin Herbert likely would have committed to Oregon if they were sponsored by K-Swiss and still coached by Rich Brooks. Herbert grew up walking to games at Autzen Stadium, sitting in Section 12 with his family and committing to then-coach Mark Helfrich with an appropriate lack of fanfare.

Mark Herbert recalls Justin calling him into his room in the fall of 2015 to discuss his college choice.

Justin: “Dad, I’m thinking about going to Oregon.”
Mark: “Great! Awesome! They’ve got a great biology program.”
Justin: “No, to play football.”
Mark: “Are you serious?”
Justin: “They offered me a scholarship.”

Before the Ducks offered in October of his senior year, Justin Herbert had offers from Nevada, Northern Arizona, Portland State and Montana State. Justin Herbert never went on the summer quarterback camp circuit, where recruits typically gain notice, as he didn’t want to miss out on high school workouts. “When he was a freshman here, I would bet my last dollar that he did not view himself as an NFL quarterback,” Mark Herbert said.

While his NFL promise appears obvious now that he’s grown into a college star, there’s a reason why medical school and teaching science loomed as serious options.

Herbert’s career hasn’t unfolded in linear fashion on the field, as he arrived as a sixth-string afterthought in 2016. He emerged as the backup in camp and then started seven games while the Ducks sputtered to a 4-8 record that led to Helfrich’s firing. Herbert went 6-2 as a starter as a sophomore, missing five games with a broken collarbone.

Last season, Herbert soared into the national consciousness by leading Oregon to a 9-4 record and throwing for 3,151 yards. He maintains the same meticulous nature in the quarterback room as the science lab, as Arroyo points to notes in football meetings that look “like they were taken in a drafting class.”

One reason to expect a leap this season is that Herbert’s limited academic demands mean all his brain power is channeled toward football. “Instead of going to class, I just go to the fourth floor and just watch film,” Herbert said. “I'm still going to class, it's just a different class.”

Quarterback-needy NFL franchises will be studying him closely. Former NFL executive Mike Tannenbaum calls Herbert the top quarterback right now on his board. “He has prototypical size,” said Tannenbaum, now a draft analyst for ESPN. “In a perfect world, you want a quarterback who looks like Carson Wentz, Tom Brady or Ben Roethlisberger.” A veteran NFL scout adds: “There hasn’t been a quarterback like him in a few years. He’s like a more accurate Josh Allen.”

Improvement isn’t a certainty, however. No. 11 Oregon opens with No. 16 Auburn in Week 1’s showcase game, which will either expose or catapult the Ducks. Oregon’s veteran offensive line – boasting 153 combined starts – will get a stout test against Auburn’s defensive front, which is considered the best in college football.

Much of that game will come down to Oregon’s inexperienced and unproductive receivers, as Oregon had an astounding 52 dropped passes last year. Herbert’s completion percentage dipped from 67.5 in 2017 to 59.4 in 2018, in part because of the drop parade. If Oregon wins Week 1, they’d instantly become Pac-12 favorites.

The true Disney ending for Justin Herbert’s story would be him becoming a doctor while playing in the NFL. But that’s not happening, as he’s locked in completely on the NFL as his next step. Herbert remains open to medical school after the NFL, but has recently admitted to his family that’s less likely because of the basic math. If his NFL career ends at 35, he wouldn’t be a doctor until 45. He hasn’t ruled it out, but admits it’d be difficult.

Of more immediate academic intrigue is the individual honor that coalesces his public life as a college athlete and his secret one as a science tutor. Herbert loathes individual attention, but perked up in a recent interview when the William V. Campbell Trophy – known as the academic Heisman, presented annually by the National Football Foundation – came up. “That would be really cool,” he said. “Anytime someone’s academic achievement gets highlighted, I think that’s really cool.”

Cooler than the regular Heisman? “It might be for some,” he said. “I think it’d be up there. I don’t know if I could pick one or the other.”

Perhaps there could be a commemorative poster in B009 of Oregon’s Science Library, right next to the stomata openings.

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