The wild life of Gardner Minshew

Richardson and Minshew to split first-team reps (0:47)

Stephen Holder details the Colts' quarterback battle between Anthony Richardson and Gardner Minshew. (0:47)

GARDNER MINSHEW IS SITTING in a high-back chair in the outdoor seating section of a restaurant in Indianapolis, and he's trying very hard to not cry as he stares at a phone. It's not working, though. The dam is breaking.

On this Wednesday afternoon in late May, there's only one couple nearby at Rick's Café Boatyard. But they're so busy day-drinking and making out -- like, really making out -- that they seem to have no idea that a guy who has a very good chance of being the Colts' Week 1 starting QB is five feet away getting choked up thinking about a hug.

At this 90-minute lunch, he's a little misty as he watches a video of himself and his dad embrace in The Hug. You probably remember The Hug. The Jaguars traded Minshew right before the start of the 2021 season to the Eagles to back up Jalen Hurts. But when Hurts went down in Week 13, Minshew came in and was damn near perfect (20-of-25, 242 yards, 2 TDs) to beat the Jets and keep the Eagles in the playoff picture.

After the game, in near darkness beside the team bus, Minshew and his dad shared a visceral, aggressive embrace that has all the feels. Love. Warmth. A little bit of sadness. Maybe a hint of bottled-up frustration. It's the kind of hug that hits because you can just tell they've been waiting a long time for this. It's the kind of hug we could all use, and that's probably why video of it went viral.

The Hug lasts 30 seconds, and as Minshew watches it now, he laughs and cries, and laughs and cries some more. "You have no idea," he says. "No idea. Man, that's just like..."

He drinks some water and dabs at his eyes. He doesn't speak for 30 seconds. Minshew fidgets with his lobster tail, and then he works over the edges of his mustache for awhile. "I don't know, man. That was just a combination of so much s--- we've been through. He feels the lows just like I do. Same with the highs. To have him there to celebrate together..."

He stops talking again. The emotion after the game makes sense. But why does it hit so hard a year-and-a-half later?

Minshew is saved by the wind. It blows his menu off the table, landing near the couple at the next table. The menu is standing on its edge, pinned against a chair leg by the wind gust, and the couple seems annoyed by an interruption to their PDA. By the time he returns, Minshew has gathered himself and is ready to finish his thought. "To have him there to celebrate together, it's really cool," he says.

But his whole story isn't as simple as that summation. The conversation goes on for another hour, through the long, winding road of one of the strangest, most inspiring journeys in football. It's taken him from Brandon, Mississippi, to four colleges, two NFL teams, and now to the single best opportunity he's had as a pro: competing this year for a starting job in Indianapolis.

By the end of this meal, when he's told the totality of a sequence of events that has led him here, The Hug makes perfect sense in 2021 -- and so do the tears in 2023.

TWENTY MINUTES BEFORE he talked about The Hug, Minshew arrives at the restaurant after an OTA practice. Minshew, 27, may not be a Pro Football Hall of Fame football player. But he is a first-ballot pro football character.

He's led a wild, nomadic football existence that has built to this moment in Indianapolis, where he'll compete with No. 4 overall pick Anthony Richardson for the job. Indy is coming off a 4-12-1 season, and Caesar's has the Colts as the third-worst odds of winning the Super Bowl. In other words, this has all the makings of Minshew Mania III.

Minshew pulls into the lot in a 2011 Acura that his parents gave him for high school graduation. He occasionally upgrades to first class on flights. But otherwise, you'd have no idea that an NFL quarterback who's earned $5.1 million the past four years is standing there in shorts and a T-shirt of blues singer Derek Trucks.

As Minshew talks about growing into a terrific high school athlete in Mississippi, he settles on ordering the grilled fisherman's catch. "A little salmon, lobster, shrimp with scallops with some rice. That's not bad. Gluten sensitive," Minshew says.

Minshew's mom played basketball at Mississippi State, and Flint was a former D3 football player. But Minshew is not particularly big, or fast, or much of anything else they measure at the combine. He is a solid athlete, very smart, works hard and he's feistier than the McConaughey vibes let on. "Gardner is Gardner and that's how he rolls," says Colts GM Chris Ballard. "But he's highly, highly intelligent. His IQ is at an extremely high level. He's also very curious, and he's not afraid to challenge you."

When his fisherman's platter arrives, Minshew grabs silverware and transitions to talking about his meandering college football years. He always knew he was good enough to play QB in college, and maybe the pros, too. But recruiters didn't really see it. He ended up playing a year at Northwest Mississippi Community College, then transferring to Troy, then to East Carolina. The whole time, his dad just kept saying that it would work out.

"I believe in you," he told Minshew, over and over again.

At East Carolina, he was supposed to redshirt for a year, then have three full seasons to compete for the starting job. But late-season QB injuries led the coaching staff to ask Minshew to come out of redshirt, something he adamantly didn't want to do. In an act of desperation, Minshew got drunk one night, grabbed a hammer and started hitting his right hand, three shots at a time. He'd hit his hand, bang-bang-bang, then pause as the pain washed over him. Then he'd take another drink and hit his hand three more times.

Minshew gets animated telling this part of the story, and he pushes his fisherman's catch away for a minute to demonstrate how he tried to destroy his own hand.

He shows how he eventually started to focus on hitting his pinky, and he dangles his smallest finger off the side of the table and swings an imaginary hammer down on it. Even the re-creation of the moment is hard to watch. After a few minutes, he gave up. He was drunk and demoralized but had a functional hand. "Probably would have been easier to fake a hamstring injury," he admits now.

Minshew ended up playing seven games that year, starting two. His redshirt was officially burned. Minshew is about halfway through his scallops when he gets to the 2017 season, a seminal moment of his life. He won the starting job, beating out Duke transfer Thomas Sirk. But he felt like it was a tenuous win, like he was hanging on by a piece of floss.

He was right. Minshew struggled in the season opener, and coaches told him at halftime he was benched. He shakes his head to this day about how much that halftime conversation gutted him. He was right back where he'd been in high school and early in college, with just about nobody but him and his dad believing in him.

That's a recurring theme for quarterbacks with Minshew's skill set -- guys who don't have any single thing that is so seductive that scouts and coaches look past their downsides until they absolutely can't anymore. The Minshews of the world can't throw a ball through the uprights from the 50 on one knee, and their 40 times start with a 5. They're just good at their jobs, with regular-sized hands and slightly above-average height. Belief can be only as sturdy as the last underthrow for guys like Minshew.

The rest of the year was torture, cycling in and out of the lineup. He'd come all that way and then his confidence was just... poof, gone. "Made me have to look over my shoulder every single snap," he says. Minshew even does a little fake look over his shoulder as he says it.

He never really recovered at East Carolina. He decided late in the year that he was going to try to finish off his communications degree and leave as a grad transfer. He found lukewarm interest... until one day a Tuscaloosa number popped up on his phone. "Would you want to come to Alabama and be our No. 3 quarterback?" Nick Saban asked.

The Tide had Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts, so Saban cautioned him that there was a good chance he'd probably never see the field. But he said he liked what Minshew would bring to the QB room for Tagovailoa and Hurts, and he mentioned that Alabama could be a great place to launch a coaching career. It wasn't belief in him as a quarterback, but at least Saban had belief in him.

Minshew was ecstatic. He filled out the transfer paperwork and waited. But then his phone rang again. This time, it was Mike Leach, and the more Leach talked, the more Minshew didn't even know what to do with all the confidence he had in him. At the end of the call, Leach said, "Do you want to hold a f---ing clipboard? Or do you want to come to Washington State and lead the nation in passing?"

He started packing for Pullman -- and he didn't include a clipboard.

MINSHEW ARRIVED AT WAZZU a month later without a place to live or any furniture. He slept in the living room of new teammate Andre Dillard's apartment for a few weeks, then they moved into a duplex together before the season. Minshew's furniture budget? $15. He spent $5 on a side table, $10 on a dresser, and he found a box spring and mattress beside a dumpster. "It's just to lay on and sleep," he says.

Leach didn't name a starter until a few days before the opener. But he kept winking at Minshew that he was the guy, and that he just liked messing with the media. There was something about the rest of the world being unsure, while Leach was absolutely devout in private, that lit up Minshew, then and now.

In late August, Leach made it official: Minshew won the starting job, and Minshew's words begin to slow down a bit. He puts his fork down for this part of the story. He's getting emotional. "Gimme a second," he says.

He needs more like 20 seconds to gather himself, to describe his first game with Leach. Again, it's hard to understand the level of emotion years after the fact. But then it clicks into place. Minshew talks about how he struggled in the first half of the opener. And on the walk into the locker room, he started to get jittery -- he was having flashbacks to getting benched at East Carolina and nonstop looking over his shoulder. This is where it could all fall apart again, and at that point, Minshew had to wonder if he could ever put himself back together again.

He had a shaky voice as he asked Leach, "Coach, am I going back out?"

Now Minshew starts to laugh as he thinks back on Leach's reaction. "He looked at me like I just said the dumbest thing ever," Minshew says. "And since then..." Long pause. "And since then, I've never looked back."

He starts to try to drink his water, but Minshew's hands are shaking and he breaks down. "He just really believed," Minshew says. "Since then, I've just been so free, having that belief. It changes how you feel as a player."

About 30 more seconds go by. In the silence, it's easy to see what Leach had unlocked for him. He'd tried so hard to get a coach who finally saw what the Minshews had seen. Washington State went 11-2 and got as high as No. 8 in the country as the whole world enjoyed Minshew Mania I.

But the bigger thing was, Leach had generated a sliding-door moment in Minshew's life, first keeping his football dream alive and then re-igniting Minshew's own confidence in himself. "I think about Coach Leach every once in a while..." he says. "I was about to go be a GA."

Instead, he's still "playing ball," as he calls it. He takes a deep breath and starts to laugh. There's something about Minshew's personality that is 1-of-1, almost impossible to describe or teach. It'd be easy to characterize him as a goofball, and he certainly hams up some of the fun parts of his personality. At Washington State, for example, he became infamous with teammates for doing workouts in the locker room in just a jock strap. Dillard remembers after one brutal August practice when teammates all collapsed in the locker room, exhausted, and in rolled the new transfer QB, Minshew, on a battery-powered scooter wearing nothing but a jock strap.

Minshew smiles at lunch as he thinks about some of the jock strap chronicles from his own life. He explains that he likes to do some shoulder exercises using bands after practices and games. So he'd come in and start to strip down, and at some point he'd remember to do his bands.

"Usually I had something on," he says. "Usually."

Before the year at Wazzu, Minshew had begun to think he had one last run at quarterbacking in him. Then he'd go be a coach. Hell, maybe even at Alabama. But by mid-season, he'd started to wonder if maybe he had a little more football in him. Leach stoked that idea, and in the runup to the draft, he was telling every scout and coach who would listen that Gardner Minshew could play in the NFL. The Colts and Chiefs both brought him in for visits, and on draft week, he felt pretty sure some NFL team would call his name.

Sure enough, on Sunday afternoon, the Jaguars took Minshew in the sixth round. At lunch, Minshew howls as he plays videos from that day. He's at his parents' house, and there are dudes in shorts and no shirts, yelling, dancing, singing. "Look at us, cutting up!" he says.

He went to a Jacksonville team that had signed Nick Foles to start. But Foles got hurt 12 plays into the season, and Minshew was suddenly in at QB for a woeful Jags team.

Against all odds, Minshew rallied the Jags to a 2-2 start, causing Minshew Mania II. Fans chanted his name and wore mustaches and bandanas. The magic eventually wore off, and when Foles was ready to return in Week 9, Minshew was back to the bench.

The day the Jags announced the change, Foles asked to address the team. "Can we have a moment to appreciate everything Gardner has done and how amazing he has been?" Foles said. "I certainly appreciate it."

The team clapped and Minshew felt stunned. "Most guys would go up and say, 'Hey everybody, I'm back.' But that's special. That means so much. He has no reason to do that other than it's the right thing to do and he's a good person."

That was a critical moment for Minshew. He really saw in Foles the ideal way to float between starter and No. 2 with grace -- to somehow compete hard but not look over shoulders himself. The Jags traded Foles to the Bears and went to Minshew as their starter in 2020, and that season was a dumpster fire as the Jaguars limped toward drafting Trevor Lawrence No. 1. Minshew played okay until a thumb injury ended his season seven games in.

The next summer, the Jags traded Minshew to Philly to back up Jalen Hurts in 2021. Hurts had the job in Philly but, back then, he was no guarantee. Minshew backed him up, offering support when asked. It's not an easy position to be in. Minshew thinks he's good enough to be an NFL starter, at a time in football history when a good No. 2 quarterback can be more trouble than he's worth. The days of Montana/Young and Favre/Rodgers are a relic of a different time.

Minshew didn't sniff the field until an ankle injury sidelined Hurts in Week 13. The Eagles needed the game, too. Philly was a wobbly 5-7 and on the playoff outs. Cue the Minshew magic.

Against the Jets, Minshew was almost flawless in a 33-18, season-saving win. After the game, Minshew was on his way to the bus when he heard a familiar noise. His dad has a whistle he does with his lips that he's always done to get his kids' attention. It's less a whistle and more like a blast of loud breath, through pursed lips. But it's their blast of loud breath, and all the Minshews know it. When Flint does it on a recent Zoom, even his two golden doodles hustle to him.

He did it that evening, and Minshew came over for a hug. At that moment, Minshew thought about all the times his career looked like it was MIA, how he should have probably been holding a f---ing clipboard instead of his father, and his heart collided with his dad's chest. They'd both known forever that he could do it. Sometimes they might have been the only two in the world. "We always hug," says Flint. "We're a hugging family who tells each other we love each other all the time. That's just who we are."

Hurts returned after their bye week, and Minshew realized quickly the job was Hurts' and would remain so. Last season, Hurts missed two games and Minshew was solid in relief. He went 0-2 (663 yards, 3 touchdowns, 3 interceptions). Offensive coordinator Shane Steichen mostly just needed Minshew to manage the offense as the 13-1 Eagles tried to ease into the playoffs as the NFC's No. 1 seed.

He entered free agency this February not sure what laid ahead. At lunch, he mentions briefly wondering if maybe it was, finally, over. But he shakes his head. He knew he'd shown enough to get another job -- not many mid-20s quarterbacks with a career 44-15 TD-INT ratio end up unemployed.

That's about the time he got a call from new Colts coach...Shane Steichen.

BEFORE THIS PAST DRAFT, Steichen had told his new GM, Ballard, that he wanted competition at quarterback, and he advocated signing Minshew. He didn't have to push hard. Ballard was the Colts' GM when the team brought in Minshew before the 2019 draft.

"I've always been an admirer," Ballard says. "I always thought he was made of the right stuff. He's going to fight and scratch and claw and make it a hard decision for everybody. But on the flip side, if he's not the starter, he's going to do everything he can to get the other guy ready and be ready himself."

That's really the biggest thing he took away from Leach, and then The Hug. It will crush Minshew not to be an NFL starter... but he'll never need it to know his own self-worth. The success is nice, but the belief is better. "I know what I can do," he says as he chews. He finishes what he is chewing and takes another bite. It seems like he might say more. But that's all he has to say about that. He knows what he can do. That's it. End of sentence.

Minshew is the ideal guy to put in the room with a future franchise QB like Anthony Richardson. Minshew raves about Richardson's talent and work ethic, and Richardson seems to like having Minshew alongside him, even in competition. Richardson is 21, with undeniable upside but only one season as a college starter. He will get the job someday, maybe even against the Jaguars. But until then, it's the best version of a head-to-head QB battle in 2023. "If we're in a quarterback competition, I'm playing against you as a quarterback," Minshew says. "I'm not playing against you as a person. There's a big difference."

When the check arrives a few minutes later, he's flipping through pictures of Billy Minshew, his grandfather, when he comes upon one of himself holding a sword. It was a gift from his grandmother. "That's my home defense," he says with a smile, and then he gets up from his chair to leave.

He makes his way off the deck and out the front door, holding it for a man and woman standing nearby. It's the same couple from earlier who'd been getting after it at the next table over. Now they're puffing well-deserved darts outside. Minshew never seemed to notice them during lunch, and they certainly had been too preoccupied to have been thinking about him much, either.

Minshew nods his head to acknowledge them, and lets the door close behind him. He walks off into the distance, through the lot toward his car. As he gets near the Acura, he never turns his head but says, "Hey, don't make me look like an a--hole, ok?" He opens the car door, waves goodbye and gets in, and he never once looks back over his shoulder.