Gardner Minshew, aka “The Mississippi Mustache,” was an enthusiastic and flamboyant six-month whirlwind in Pullman, Wash., where he came to play quarterback in Washington State’s “Air Raid” offense and surpassed anyone’s expectations, setting school records for passing, winning the Pac-12 offensive player of the year and coming in fifth in Heisman Trophy voting.
He did it with singular style too: a throwback white headband, a big, infectious smile, off-the-field jorts and mirrored shades. More than a few comparisons were made to the character of Uncle Rico, in “Napoleon Dynamite,” a swaggering ex-quarterback (with a mustache) who claimed he could still throw a football “over them mountains.”
Minshew’s mustache itself, right out of the 1970s, became a sensation in Pullman, where fake mustaches sprung all over town, in great numbers. Minshew even famously stuck one on Coach Mike Leach’s upper lip during a raucous post-game interview. The eccentric coach, ever game, left it on.
Minshew is in a far different setting now though: In the NFL, in his first few weeks with his new team, the Jaguars, where he’s a rookie, a sixth-draft pick who’s in competition for a backup quarterback position. The focus now, he says, has to be all on football.
So look for a toned-down Gardner Minshew. At least for a while.
“You get comfortable once you’ve earned the respect of the guys,” he said after an early practice session. “You don’t come in day one doing the things a starter does. You have to earn their respect.”
Even when it comes to mustaches, in Jacksonville his is a distant runner-up in fame to the curly ended glory of the mustache of the man who writes his paychecks, Jaguars owner Shad Khan.
Minshew is modest and polite and gives a grin when that’s pointed out to him. “Came to the right organization,” he allowed.
With the release of Cody Kessler, last year’s backup, he has a strong shot at becoming the number two quarterback behind Nick Foles. Despite his gaudy statistics at Washington State, Minshew had to wait a long time to hear his name called by the Jaguars. He’s OK with that.
“I’m thrilled, man. A dream come true. A long time coming,” he said. “A lot of people said I’d never make it but that doesn’t matter. I always believed it. I had a few coaches who believed in me, a family that believed in me and obviously this organization did, so that’s why I’m here.”
Minshew grew up in Brandon, Miss., where he’d been playing quarterback since fifth grade. His mother, Kim, is a 7th-grade math teacher. His father is also named Gardner but goes by his middle name, Flint, which is also shared by his son (whose football jersey has “Minshew II” above the number 15).
His hometown seems fully behind him. Spokane’s Spokesman-Review newspaper, which puts a heavy focus on Washington State football, sent a reporter to Brandon and found a town in the midst of Minshew-mania. An example: “Two separate dress-up days at Brandon Middle School -- a ‘QB throwback day’ and a ‘college day’-- evoked dozens of young Minshew lookalikes wearing white headbands, mirrored aviator rims and stick-on mustaches.”
The story also noted the town had more Washington State flags flying than you might expect in Mississippi.
Now, Minshew said, people in Brandon are starting to say “Duuuuval.” “Absolutely. I taught ‘em,” he said. “I’ve got a great support system. That’s one reason I’ve made it this far.”
Minshew’s path to the Jaguars has been a winding one. He went to Troy University before going to play football at Northwest Mississippi Community College. He then played two years at Eastern Carolina University before deciding to transfer to the University of Alabama, where he would have been in an uphill battle for playing time. That’s when Leach, in Pullman, asked him if he wanted to come to Washingon State and join his pass-happy attack.
And that’s what happened, gaining Minshew the adulation of eastern Washington state.
Though he was not mentioned among the top tier of quarterbacks in the draft, he did find some supporters. After Minshew was picked by the Jags, Peter Schrager of the NFL Network called him one of two quarterbacks he “fell in love with” before the draft, right up there with number one pick Kyler Murray of the Arizona Cardinals.
“This guy’s got a great mustache, a great journey to the league,” Schrager said. “ ... Shad Khan, if any owner is OK with a great facial hair situation it’s yours. Gardner Minshew going to Jacksonville was destined.”
Minshew wouldn’t argue with that. “I’m here where I’m supposed to be right now,” he said.
Jacksonville’s Southern setting is fine by the Mississippian, too. “It’s my kind of city, lots to do. You got the water all over the place, you can go fish, there’s hunting right up the road,” he said. “It’s definitely Southern, but this is way bigger.”
He said he’s been studying the veteran Foles, how he conducts himself off and on the practice field. “I’m here to play football. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be liked, but I’m here to play football, do the best I can do.”
Though Minshew is not above having a little fun.
On his Twitter page, he adapted a picture from “Talladega Nights” where Will Ferrell is driving around with a cougar (it’s all part of the plot, such as it was, of the movie). In Minshew’s version though, he’s wearing a white headband as he fills in for Ferrell. And the animal sharing front-seat space with him? It’s a big, imposing Jaguar.