While he makes it look easy, Justin Herbert’s journey to the NFL has been anything but. As a high school junior, Herbert suffered a broken leg that ultimately limited his scholarship offers. At Oregon, Herbert suffered a broken collarbone that prematurely ended his sophomore season. Injuries aside, Herbert had to learn three different offseason schemes while at Oregon. And despite enjoying enormous success at Oregon that included a Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin, unsupported questions about his leadership possibly played a role in Herbert being the third quarterback selected in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Leaning on four principles he learned from his father who also served as his coach growing up, Herbert hurdled those obstacles and is currently living out his childhood dream. As the starting quarterback for the team he grew up cheering for, Herbert enjoyed a highly decorated rookie season that saw him named Offensive Rookie of the Year. The 23-year-old has followed up last year’s success with a strong start to the 2021 season. HIs early success has helped the Chargers get off to a 4-2 start. Los Angeles is coming off its bye week and will look to move to 5-2 with a win over the Patriots on Sunday.
During the Chargers’ break, Herbert sat down with CBS Sports to discuss his journey to the NFL, what sport he would play professionally other than football, and why he grew up a Chargers fan, among other topics. Herbert also spoke about his partnership with Team Milk and the importance milk plays in his life as a professional athlete.
You had not one but two serious injuries during your prep and college careers. What did those experiences teach you about perseverance and overcoming obstacles?
“You learn a lot from not being able to play. Breaking a femur and breaking a collarbone and having to sit on the sideline and not being able to play, not be able to be out with your guys, is definitely tough. But you kind of find out what you have to do to get back. For me personally, I felt like I could be a good coach during those times. I might not be able to play, but I can see on the sideline. I could see the defenses they’re in. Anything that I could offer to the guys that are playing so I could be a good teammate, I thought that was huge. Kind of having to deal with adversity like you mentioned, it’s not easy. To wake up and to have to go to rehab to do those things to get back out on the field, you realize how important sports are to you.”
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Leading up to the 2020 draft, there were unfounded questions regarding your leadership. As you continue to show, your leadership style clearly works for you. What would you say to others who don’t necessarily fit the stereotype that is typically associated with leaders, especially in the sports community?
“I think the most important quality of a leader is being themselves. Being genuine and not trying to be someone that you’re not. For me, it was important to be the same, steady guy all throughout the time. Not get too high, not get too low. I think it’s really important to be able to address your team and be genuine, because when things are good you need to be the same guy, and when things are bad, you need to be the same guy, too. You can never get too down. And I think that’s one of the important parts of being a leader is being able to ride that wave out, and I feel like for me it was just being myself and going out and having fun.”
Along with football, you played baseball and basketball at the prep level. If football was off the table, which of the other two sports would you prefer to play professionally?
“That’s a tough question. I would probably say baseball. It was just so much fun. I just really enjoyed baseball, being out there with those guys and playing. It’s a relaxing game, and you just go out and have fun. So, I’d say baseball.”
Why were you a Chargers fan growing up?
“I had some friends that were Seahawks fans. I think I just wanted to be different. So, my brothers and I picked the Chargers, and that’s when they had Drew Brees and LaDainian Tomlinson. We were big fans of those guys.”
You grew up in Eugene (Oregon) which is the mecca of long-distance running. Did you ever get the running bug?
“No, unfortunately I could never get quite get past a mile or two miles. I’m just not built for long-distance running (laughs).”
I specifically remember an interview you gave after a dramatic win over the Raiders last year where you showed some emotion while talking about how you are getting the chance to live your dream. How hard is it to appreciate where you are while also maintaining focus on the day-to-day work associated with being an NFL starting quarterback?
“It is really difficult. You go there and you realize it’s a game, but you’re playing against the guys that you grew up watching. You’ve got guys like Keenan Allen and Joey Bosa. I grew up watching those guys. Now that we’re teammates, you have to find a way to work together. Even those interviews, talking to the guys that you grew up watching and hearing about. At the end of the day, it’s a game and you have to take a step back and realize that it’s all for fun, and you get to have this great opportunity to go play football. I think it’s been an incredible opportunity that I’ve enjoyed so much so far.”
You are part of a pretty accomplished quarterback class that also includes Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa. Do you follow what they’re doing on a regular basis and what does it mean to you to be linked with those quarterbacks?
“They’re great guys. Fortunately, I’ve been able to meet them a couple of times at the combine and at the Senior Bowl. They’re stand-up guys and I root for them every week. They’re great competitors. They’re great leaders. So, I always try to catch up and watch what they’re able to do, because they’re pretty talented quarterbacks.”
What has been the biggest difference between your first and second NFL seasons?
“I think experience. Just going through it and being able to play through all these reps and seeing these defenses. I think that’s been super helpful. Last year I was new to this whole process and just trying to make sure that I got the play call right. But now it’s more of seeing defenses and trying to play that game of chess that is football. Learning more about defenses, fronts, pressures and all these things and spending time with our coaches to talk about that. I think the mental side of the game of football, I think I’ve gotten better.”
What would winning a Super Bowl mean to you?
“It would mean everything. That’s the entire goal is to get to that point. We’ve spent so many weeks and months preparing and training for this, especially this past offseason. All the guys came in and we had great OTAs, a great camp, a lot of hard work was put in and a lot of preparation. The guys every week show up and they give their best effort. I know that we’re doing the right things to give ourselves a shot, but it’s all about execution when we get down to it. I’m really looking forward to the challenge.”
What’s the first word that comes to mind when I say the name Keenan Allen?
“Competitor. He’s always competing. And I think that’s always one of the best parts about him and what makes him so special. Whether it’s football or it’s golf or it’s ping-pong, it doesn’t matter. He’s going to do everything he can to beat you. I think that’s what’s made him so special so far.”
How about Mike Williams?
“Special. He is one of those guys that can make the plays that I’ve never seen before. He can go up and those 50-50 balls that you give him a shot they’re more like 80-20. What he’s able to do with his routes and how clean they are and how fast he is for as big as he is, there’s no one else like him.”
And what is your take on Austin Ekeler?
“I’d say dynamic. He’s a guy that you hand the ball off to and he’s going to fight for every yard that he gets. In the pass game, he makes a big impact, too. He’s able to do some pretty special things on routes. If you ever put a linebacker on top of him, I think you’ve got a good matchup. You’ve kind of got to find your way to get him the ball because you know if you do, something special is going happen.”
What would you say to young athletes who have their own dreams of reaching similar heights to the ones that you’ve experienced?
“When I grew up, fortunately enough, I had my father coach me through football, basketball and baseball and he taught me and the rest of the team four things: Never give up, always give your best, treat people how you want to be treated and get better. If you can live by those four rules, it doesn’t matter what you achieve, you know you’re going to be able to look in the mirror and be proud of yourself. If you can do those four things, you can look back one day and realize how far you’ve come. If I do those things, I feel good, I feel confident in my performance, and it kind of gives me a sense of comfort going into any game.”
What motivated you to join Team Milk and their initiative?
“I think was a partnership that started well before it was official. I had grown up drinking milk and that’s just kind of what we had with our meals and after all the games that we played. Football, basketball, baseball, didn’t matter. That’s just what we had. I always felt like I was at my best when I drank it. I felt like I performed at my best. When they approached me, I thought it was an awesome opportunity because it was so genuine. It was so real. Being able to be a part of Team Milk is awesome so far. It’s one of those things that I’ve been doing for years, and it’s only helped me so far.”
How important is milk and overall good nutrition as far as having success as an athlete? I know that milk, specifically chocolate milk, is one of the best things an athlete can consume after a workout as far as muscle recovery is concerned.
“There’s so much that goes into athletics. I think nutrition is a big part of that. Taking care of your body and focusing on the needs it. I think milk has done a great job of giving me protein, calcium and all these nutrients that I need, because football is such a physical game that you need to have your body be the best. I think it’s been doing a great job for me, and something I’ll continue to drink and rely on.”
What is your favorite type of milk? I’m a milkshake person, personally.
“It would have to be chocolate milk. Milkshakes are up there, too. … Might have to pick one up after this (interview).”