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Brandon man: Gardner Minshew has a whole town behind him as NFL draft arrives

BRANDON, Miss. – From this charmer of a suburb in Central Mississippi, almost every highway out of town leads you to some large college football outpost.

There’s LSU and there’s Alabama, both reachable in less than three hours. Another 1 1/2 hours on the road gets you to Auburn. Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas are each longer treks, but still manageable for the dedicated road-tripper. Within the state of Mississippi, Ole Miss is fairly close in proximity and Mississippi State is closer.

The point being, Brandon, Mississippi, is supposed to be SEC country. So watching a school from the Pac-12 North infiltrate the pecking order last football season had to be unfamiliar and unprecedented – awkward and wholly gratifying – for the southern community of 23,000.

Washington State quickly climbed onto the college football totem pole in Brandon, at times usurping the Crimson Tide and the Tigers (both Tigers) in television ratings, and constantly matching the Rebels and the Bulldogs in general popularity and fanfare.

When WSU’s brutally late Pac-12 kickoffs kept the team’s quarterback up after hours last season, thousands of Gardner Minshew’s town folk back home stayed up with him. Curfews became optional when the Cougars were slated to play on national television, and Brandon churchgoers neglected their Sunday obligations if Minshew’s games bled into the early hours of the next morning – and they often did.

“One time I fell asleep then woke back up and finished watching it,” said Trey Rein, principal at Brandon Middle School. “I think in (Brandon High Principal) Dr. (Bryan) Marshall’s quotes, I think he made one of the papers earlier in the year saying, ‘There were a lot of people that were late for church. Maybe went to the late service a few times.’ ”

If Minshew was a cult hero in Pullman, whatever depiction transcends that one is how the WSU quarterback might be perceived back home in Brandon.

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When Gardner Minshew played football for Brandon High School, his team team played at this tiny field at Brandon Middle School seen on Monday, January 21, 2019, at in Brandon, Miss. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
When Gardner Minshew played football for Brandon High School, his team team played at this tiny field at Brandon Middle School seen on Monday, January 21, 2019, at in Brandon, Miss. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

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Many of the other NFL hopefuls that hope to hear their names called in this week’s draft have been celebrated some way or another, but few of them had their college games streamed on the jumbotrons at their high school stadium, as Minshew’s were last year – twice – following Brandon Bulldog games.

After Brandon High’s homecoming win, Marshall had video technicians patch in the ESPN broadcast of WSU’s game at USC. He and a variety of coaches, administrators and fans stuck around after to watch. When it was time to migrate inside to monitor the homecoming dance, they projected the game onto a large cafeteria screen.

“So, I don’t know how much of the dance I saw,” Marshall said, “but I saw a lot of the USC game.”

As Minshew’s fashion statements became trendy in Pullman, the look’s popularity had already skyrocketed in Brandon. 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.

“There was never going to be a week where there wasn’t some kind of mustache,” Rein said. “… Ten months ago, I’m not sure if people here knew Washington State had a football team. And now all the sporting places around here, they struggle to keep in jerseys.”

Tinges of crimson – Wazzu crimson, not ’Bama crimson – were visible throughout town all season. Steven Wallace, a family friend, hung the Ol’ Crimson flag on a pole in front of his Brandon insurance agency. At least two other local businesses had WSU mementos hanging up.

“Even our rivals, everybody keeps up,” Rein said. “You sit there and you’re seeing Mississippi and all the social media and all the coaches around the state. They’re just bragging about the kid because everybody loved him.”

Minshew, whose humility is served with a plate of self-confidence – and at times, a dash of well-placed arrogance – should see his NFL dreams realized at some point in the next 72 hours, another profound “told ya so” to the dozens of college coaches and recruiters who passed on college football’s leading passer.

He’s widely expected to be drafted by an NFL team – somewhere between rounds 4 and 7, probably – which unfortunately ends Brandon’s infatuation for the Cougars and shifts the town’s rooting interest to whichever pro club picks up the well-traveled QB, the one whose path included stops at Troy, Northwest Mississippi and East Carolina before the football gods finally delivered to him to WSU, which proved a wildly successful plot twist to Minshew’s fascinating story.

While other draftees host small watch parties throughout the week and into the weekend, there had been talks in Brandon of staging a full-on block party for Minshew. A local architect pitched that idea to the Minshew family, suggesting they rope off a small area downtown during Thursday night’s first round of the draft and invite local musicians and food vendors. It was squashed quickly because the Minshews don’t want that much attention around their son until he knows where he’s going. Instead, Gardner and a much smaller group of family members and friends will watch at home all three days, deciding to save the townwide festivities for Saturday night.

“I think it’s a little surreal,” mother Kim Minshew said in late January from the living room of the Minshew family home. “Like watching the (NFL) playoff games yesterday. I was sitting there watching Jared Goff and Pat Mahomes and thinking, just a few years ago they were kind of where he is. And I think, they’re not that much older than him. So it’s just, sometimes I should take a deep breath because it is surreal.

“What’s the saying? You better be ready for the opportunity of a lifetime during the lifetime of the opportunity. And he’s always been ready to take advantage of that.”

By the end of Minshew’s short five-month tenure in Pullman, WSU fans felt they knew the “Mississippi Mustache” as well as any four- or five-year QB who has come through the program. But if you want to truly capture Minshew’s essence, it requires a trip to the suburban Mississippi town that raised him, and conversations with the people that shaped him.

They have plenty to tell you about Brandon’s favorite son.

Church league

Sunday mass isn’t the only thing that goes on at Brandon First United Methodist Church.

For years, before he had to commit to one sport and push all others to the side, Minshew participated in the church’s 5-on-5 traveling basketball league. This was designed to be a fun after-school extracurricular, but Minshew saw it as a weekly opportunity to release his competitive juices – and there wasn’t much that was holy about what Brandon’s team did to the other chapels.

“We went over to kill people,” said Wallace, who coached Minshew’s church league teams. “The best part was when we jump on a team, they call timeout, this lady – momma – stands up. She starts going, ‘It’s church league! It’s church league!’ Anyway, we talked to them, we’re sitting on the bench with them. We talked to them like, ‘Stay after it, stay on it’. Gardner goes, ‘Hey on three, church league on three.’ I go, ‘Nah, nah, you can’t do that. You can’t do that.’ ”

The church director sat squeamishly in a corner of the gym watching it all unfold. “He wouldn’t sit with us,” Wallace said.

Minshew’s team won one of those church league games by a resounding score: 60-2. But the margin didn’t matter when Josh Stowers played suspect defense on a drive to the hoop, giving the opponent a layup for their only basket.

“Obviously, we won by 58 points, but just that ridiculous competitive drive,” friend John Wilson recalled. “He still gives Josh a hard time about that. It needed to be 60-0.”

“Ultracompetitive,” said Wallace, who added he made a tradeoff with Minshew. He’d coach church league hoops if Minshew returned the favor and helped out with his son’s Pee Wee football team.

Which unearths another round of delectable Minshew tales.

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Steven Wallace, right, chuckles as he and Flint Minshew, left, recall Gardner Minshew and his friends playing basketball in a church league on Monday, January 21, 2019, in Brandon, Miss. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Steven Wallace, right, chuckles as he and Flint Minshew, left, recall Gardner Minshew and his friends playing basketball in a church league on Monday, January 21, 2019, in Brandon, Miss. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

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Pee Wee Air Raid

Making good on his promise, Minshew took the headset for the Brandon Warhawks Pee Wee team of 10- to 13-year-olds, convincing an army of Brandon High teammates to round out his coaching staff.

Gardner Minshew (right) posed with a member of the Brandon Warhawks pee wee football team he helped coach. (Courtesy/Steven Wallace)
Gardner Minshew (right) posed with a member of the Brandon Warhawks pee wee football team he helped coach. (Courtesy/Steven Wallace)

“When Gardner was doing it, the only complaint we ever got was the parents going, ‘You’ve got so many high school guys, we can’t see the field,’ ” Wallace said. “We got an O-line coach, we got a D-line coach, secondary, receivers …”

“Slot receivers, inside receivers,” father Flint Minshew added.

By the time Minshew left for Northwest Mississippi, he had two regional “Super Bowls” on his resume – and large groups of opposing parents relieved to see him go. But the Pee Wee scene pulled Minshew back a year later, when his successor tore an ACL, and was unavailable to coach the Super Bowl.

Minshew diligently returned from Senatobia, and NWCC, to lend a hand. He couldn’t deliver a third consecutive championship for the young Warhawks, but Brandon put up a solid fight against a team that should’ve routed them, running a watered-down version of the Air Raid offense Minshew mastered at WSU.

“We threw the ball 34 times, something like that,” Wallace said. “We ran the ball once in the first half.”

Petal to the metal

In Pullman, Minshew’s name will be attached to a few of his most iconic games – a gutsy 28-24 win over Utah, a 34-20 triumph over Oregon and a 28-26 thriller over Iowa State in the Alamo Bowl, just a day after the QB famously proclaimed, “We may have lost two games, but we’ve never lost a party.”

In Brandon, for eternities, they’ll fondly remember his varsity debut against Petal. That’s when freshman Minshew replaced the team’s injured starter, Trey Polk, and coolly threw a 15-yard pass on his first snap. Brandon didn’t win, but Minshew accounted for two touchdowns and effectively etched himself in as a four-year starter. By the next week, Polk was a wide receiver.

“We know he’s going to be a really good player, but as a freshman at a 6A level you always wonder, is he going to be able to handle this kind of atmosphere and it never fazed him,” Brandon defensive coordinator Greg Robinson said. “It was just steady, like a surgeon.”

Over the next 3 1/2 seasons, Minshew was responsible for mountains of passing yards. He worked tirelessly behind the scenes to sharpen his mind and strengthen his body.

Minshew was so eager to learn, he regularly dipped into Robinson’s defensive meetings just to see how things worked on the other side of the ball.

“Coach, why do they do this? What are they looking at when they do this? Why is the safety doing this? What are their reads? What are they looking at?” Robinson said. “Because he wanted to see it from both sides. Just a true student of the game.”

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Greg Robinson, Brandon High School's defensive coordinator, smiles while talking about Gardner Minshew on Tuesday, January 22, 2019, at Brandon High School in Brandon, Miss. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Greg Robinson, Brandon High School's defensive coordinator, smiles while talking about Gardner Minshew on Tuesday, January 22, 2019, at Brandon High School in Brandon, Miss. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

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Robinson also oversees Brandon’s weight training program. Once, during Minshew’s sophomore year, the quarterback performed a one-rep max 265-pound power clean – impressive weight for any high school passer. Minshew had completed the day’s workload, but he wanted another round with the barbell. Robinson had to chase him away.

“I cut him off. He’s like, ‘Nuh uh, I can do more,’ ” Robinson recalled. “I said, ‘No you can’t. I’m not fixing to get our quarterback hurt, especially not in the weight room.’ I said, ‘That’s enough, that’s all you need to do.’ ”

The comedian, the caretaker

Mike Howington wants to share a story about a ski trip. No, wait, multiple stories about multiple ski trips.

Minshew’s former youth pastor, Howington once took a group of high schoolers to the Ober Gatlinburg Ski Resort in Tennessee. The balcony of the hotel room Minshew and his companions were staying in was perched right above a river. There was a plastic chair sitting on the balcony. You can imagine what the mischievous group decided to do next.

“So it wasn’t (Gardner), but one of the other guys threw it in the river and I found out and I went up there and I was getting on them,” Howington said. “I walked in and I said, ‘Hey guys, who threw that chair?’ ”

Minshew’s cheeky response?

“ ‘Well, you know my friends, I’m the only one that could’ve hit that river from here,’ ” Howington recalled Minshew saying. “It ended up not being him. He didn’t do it, but that’s just how Gardner was. He made it a joke, laughed, and sure enough he went down with those guys and fished it out.”

A few of Minshew’s gifts are his humor and wit – both things that can cut the tension in a room at any time. Another would be his compassion.

During the following ski trip, a friend got himself into a hairy accident on the slopes. The wounds didn’t seem too bad at first, so the majority of the group went about their day, planning to check in later. But Minshew vowed to stay by his side – “you would’ve thought Gardner was his nurse,” Howington said – and when doctors eventually discovered the boy was bleeding internally – the result of a lacerated spleen – he was transported to the hospital.

“At that moment, (Minshew) didn’t care about himself or the fun that everyone else was having, he was worried about his friend that was hurting,” Howington said. “He sat there for hours just to monitor him and to make sure he was all right. … Those things just matter to him and he wasn’t going to leave a brother.”

Tennis matches …

John Wilson and Connor Aultman both swung a mean tennis racquet, but the letter jacket-wearing, girl-fetching high school jock subculture was never quite for them.

Aultman confesses, “I’m not a superior athlete by any standard.”

Wilson doesn’t want to portray himself this way, but he does so just to drive the point home: “I’m kind of nerdy, like an intellectual guy.”

Yet both formed tight relationships with Minshew, the rare high school football star who never took the popularity scale into account when selecting his friend groups.

“He knows he’s good. Everyone knows he’s good,” Wilson said. “You’d expect those kind of guys to be standoffish, or not necessarily standoffish but not willing to include and get to know folks. But Gardner is nice to everyone he meets, treats them like they’re the only person in the room.”

“The cooler (people), the status quo,” sister Callie Minshew said. “He broke that.”

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Gardner Minshew, left, reunites with high school best friends John Wilson, center, and Connor Aultman after the 2019 Senior Bowl on Saturday, January 26, 2019, at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Gardner Minshew, left, reunites with high school best friends John Wilson, center, and Connor Aultman after the 2019 Senior Bowl on Saturday, January 26, 2019, at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

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So if Minshew, Aultman and Wilson couldn’t bond over football, what could they bond over? Tennis, for one, and Aultman wants it on the record that he’s the better player. He also knows that will fire Minshew up, arranging their next match.

“If he sees that in writing,” Aultman said, “he’s going to text me and say, ‘Next time I’m in town, we have to play so I can beat you.’ ”

Minshew gave up tennis at the competitive level after middle school, but he’d still come to support his friends at high school matches. That requires some essential context. Never the conventional spectator – or dresser, for that matter – Minshew arrived at Brandon’s varsity tennis matches wearing Rex Kwon Do American flag pants – inspired by “Napoleon Dynamite” – a white cutoff tee and aviator shades. While Wilson and Aultman worked their opponents’ backhand, Minshew tried to rattle them from beyond the fence.

“He was always ready to heckle somebody,” Wilson said. “Support his boys.”

… And panini parties

As Brandon High seniors, Minshew, Wilson and Aultman all took Nichole Robinson’s English composition class, a college course designed to speed up academically inclined high schoolers.

The 10 a.m. class fell right before Minshew’s football lifts and there wasn’t a designated hole in his schedule for a meal. But he had to fuel up somehow, so the three boys convinced Robinson to let them set up a makeshift panini kitchen in the hallway outside of her classroom. They’d scurry from their last class and fire up Wilson’s George Foreman grill, then heat up the day’s sandwich creation.

“I said, ‘You are not eating in my classroom,’ ” Robinson recalled. “(Gardner) found some kind of loophole in the rules and he comes in and he said, ‘Now technically, if we had a club and we were doing it for that purpose.’ … And by the end of this whole fiasco, I allowed them to cook in between classes. As long as it was cooked when I start teaching and the food is on your desk, you may eat.”

Nichole Robinson allowed friends Gardner Minshew, John Wilson and Connor Aultman to cook paninis before her English Composition class at Brandon High. The group called themselves “The Panini Party” – a play on the Democratic and Republican parties. (Courtesy/John Wilson)
Nichole Robinson allowed friends Gardner Minshew, John Wilson and Connor Aultman to cook paninis before her English Composition class at Brandon High. The group called themselves “The Panini Party” – a play on the Democratic and Republican parties. (Courtesy/John Wilson)

“We called ourselves the Panini Party,” Aultman said. “Kind of like the Republican or Democratic Party. … We taped a picture of the American flag and we said the Pledge of Allegiance before we grilled our sandwiches. And we would listen to music and grill our sandwiches while everybody was walking by in the hallway. So it was kind of a big deal.”

Minshew’s sandwich concepts ranged from a six-cheese panini, to the traditional ham and cheese, to a savory chocolate chip-filled sandwich. Most were smothered with a coat of Sweet Baby Ray’s BBQ sauce.

To this day, Robinson guarantees, “No other student could’ve convinced me it was OK to eat in class and get ready for football.”

Aultman and Wilson remain close with Minshew. They traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi, to watch their him win a NJCAA national championship with Northwest Community College. They visited Minshew at East Carolina for his 21st birthday. More recently, they made the short drive to Mobile, Alabama, to watch him play in the Senior Bowl. Wilson also ventured West for WSU’s road game against Colorado in Boulder.

Aultman, a football equipment manager at Mississippi State, couldn’t get away during the football season, but he recalls cleaning up the Bulldogs’ locker room after a loss to LSU and simultaneously watching Minshew and the Cougars finish off Oregon at Martin Stadium.

“I just started crying because it’s just crazy,” Aultman said. “That’s one of my good buddies and just watching him have that success and become a national icon is just something you can’t really put into words.”

Wilson has his own proud moment, watching in Oxford, Mississippi. He too broke into tears when fans scattered down to the field and lifted the QB up on their shoulders.

“I think of all the moments of the season, that was the sweetest,” he said.

Tales of Beowulf

The archaic English poem “Beowulf” was part of the curriculum for Robinson’s English class. Minshew was hooked by the literature for two reasons. One, the story is littered with inspiring quotes and proverbs that could be applicable on a football field.

“There would be times he literally would stop and say, ‘I need to write that line down to tweet. That’s a football line. Why don’t we have that in the locker room?’ ” Robinson recalled.

Robinson had to verify this part, but she has vague memories of Minshew blurting out to the class that his grandfather, Billy Minshew, once voted to name him Beowulf.

“Beowulf is considered one of the greatest warriors because he can achieve anything and won’t let anything stop him,” Robinson told the class. “And (Gardner) said, ‘My granddaddy wanted me to be named that, because that’s what he wanted me to be.’ ”

And if you thought a mustachioed quarterback named “Gardner Minshew” drew enough attention in 2018, just imagine the chaos that would have ensued had the Cougars’ record-setting passer been “Beowulf Minshew.”

Granted, those odds were never great.

“My dad wanted to name him Beowulf,” Flint Minshew verified, “and that’s about as far as that got.”

Gardner graduated from the English class with a “solid A,” Robinson said, but the letter grade still paled in comparison to the impression he left on his pupils.

“If you could have a classroom full of Gardners, it would be wonderful because he made everyone feel like they had a gift or they were special,” Robinson said. “… His energy was contagious.”

Robinson only had one issue with Minshew in their time together. While his classmates were completing writing assignments in Robinson’s room, Minshew occasionally pulled up game film and football cut-ups on a school-administered MacBook because, as he explained to Robinson, he had to get his head straight.

“So we laughed about it,” she said.

Robinson still considers herself one of Minshew’s biggest fans, only to be rivaled by her daughter, Ellen, who as a 6-year-old forged a proposal ring of flowers for Minshew and now says, “I’m pretty sure that proposal sticks, right?”

Gardner Minshew poses for a picture with “Ms. Brandon High School” after winning “Mr. Brandon High School. Family friend Ellen Robinson (bottom) jumped in the photo, claiming “I don’t know why they put that other girl in the picture with him because I am his girlfriend.” (Courtesy/Flint Minshew)
Gardner Minshew poses for a picture with “Ms. Brandon High School” after winning “Mr. Brandon High School. Family friend Ellen Robinson (bottom) jumped in the photo, claiming “I don’t know why they put that other girl in the picture with him because I am his girlfriend.” (Courtesy/Flint Minshew)

An older daughter of Robinson’s played on the same youth soccer team as Minshew’s youngest sister, Callie, so Gardner entertained the much younger Ellen during matches.

“He’s watching her flip and tumble,” Nichole Robinson said. “He even tried to teach her to throw a football and told her, ‘Never try that again.’ But she loved him.”

So the small girl was gutted when Minshew didn’t show up to one of the soccer games because he’d already left Brandon to enroll early at Troy.

“She just started crying,” Robinson said.

When Minshew was named “Mr. Brandon High School,” he was fitted with a sash, a flower lapel and taken to a stage for photos with “Ms. Brandon.” That’s when Ellen, backstage, came dashing out to get in the picture.

“I said, ‘Ellen, come here. What are you doing?’ ” Robinson said. “And she said, ‘I don’t know why they put that other girl in the picture with him because I am his girlfriend.’ ”

#LetsGoScore

Wyatt Rogers is Brandon’s Air Raid-obsessed offensive coordinator. Long before Mike Leach got a hold of Minshew, Rogers was the one marking up greaseboards with Y-corner concepts and mesh routes for the QB.

He became infatuated with the simplistic but productive Air Raid passing schemes while he was the running backs coach at Delta State. Conference rival Valdosta State came to town one weekend and Rogers fell in love with the offense Hal Mumme and Leach were running for the Blazers.

(Rogers was floored when Minshew convinced Leach to send him a personalized video message earlier this season.)

In four years with the Bulldogs, Minshew accumulated more than 11,000 passing yards, threw for touchdowns and, a feat he’d probably say trumps both, he never lost to Pearl – a bitter rival just down the road.

Always in tune with his OC, Minshew and Rogers would communicate through a headset whenever the Bulldogs were in striking distance of the end zone. The famous last words that carried from Rogers’ booth in the press box to the earpiece in Minshew’s helmet never changed.

“Every time we were in a close ball game and he would come off the field and get on the headset – same thing my son’s doing – and we would talk,” said Rogers, whose son Wyatt is Brandon’s starting QB now and a Mississippi State commit. “And before we got off the headset, the last words he and I would say to each other was, ‘Let’s go score.’ And it’s continued. He’ll hashtag it sometimes. #LetsGoScore.”

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Wyatt Rogers, Brandon High School's offensive coordinator pauses while reflecting on his time coaching Gardner Minshew on Monday, January 21, 2019, at Brandon High School in Brandon, Miss. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Wyatt Rogers, Brandon High School's offensive coordinator pauses while reflecting on his time coaching Gardner Minshew on Monday, January 21, 2019, at Brandon High School in Brandon, Miss. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

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Last summer, months before Minshew had taken a snap for the Cougars, Rogers told The Spokesman-Review, “The WSU fanbase will fall in love with him,” and then got a taste of it when he traveled to the Palouse for an October game against Oregon, coinciding with ESPN College GameDay’s inaugural visit to WSU and a party Pullman will long remember.

Minshew buttoned up a 34-20 upset win for the Cougars with a late touchdown to Dezmon Patmon and students sprawled out onto the field, lifting the QB into the air.

“I thought it was damn Paris Hilton walking off the red carpet,” Rogers said. “… I grabbed him and we gave each other a hug. I’ve still got the picture and I just told him how proud I was of him and it was just, ‘Love you, love you.’ ”

Big brother

Meredith and Callie Minshew have adjusted to the gradual escalation of big brother’s stardom, but they both admit that it took awhile.

Meredith, a student at Mississippi State, submitted a paper to her plant science professor last semester – this in the dead center of WSU’s record year. He skimmed over the “Meredith Minshew” on top of the assignment and glanced up at the student.

“He was like, ‘Minshew. Minshew,’ ” Meredith said, recounting the story. “I was like, ‘Yeah, you a football fan?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I am.’ I’m like, ‘Well, Gardner Minshew.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s what it is.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s my brother.’ He just sat back, he’s like, ‘Wow.’ ”

Meredith had to finagle herself out of a statistics final this week. The teacher was accommodating and more than willing to reschedule, but asked why she’d be gone, then agreed returning home to watch your brother get drafted in the NFL is a pretty fair reason to play hooky.

“He’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re excused. You’re good,’ ” Meredith said.

There almost promises to be some kind of wrestling match between the three siblings at some point the next three days – perhaps between one of the draft’s commercial breaks.

“He really loved to wrestle,” Meredith said, “which started as a fun time and he would think we were brothers sometimes and would just play a little bit too hard.”

“Picks on me being the youngest, makes me cry sometimes then he gets in trouble,” Callie said. “Typical sibling stuff.”

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Washington State Cougars quarterback Gardner Minshew (16) celebrates after defeating the Iowa State Cyclones during the second half of the 2018 Alamo Bowl on Friday, December 28, 2018, at the Alamo Dome in San Antonio, TX. WSU won the game 28-26. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars quarterback Gardner Minshew (16) celebrates after defeating the Iowa State Cyclones during the second half of the 2018 Alamo Bowl on Friday, December 28, 2018, at the Alamo Dome in San Antonio, TX. WSU won the game 28-26. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

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But the goofy, goodnatured brother who’d study football training videos while Meredith and Callie watched movies on family roadtrips was also an integral role model for his sisters, showing them the values of perseverance and patience throughout his winding college football career.

“He’s had seasons where he loses almost every game and just to see him go through that broke my heart, but now that he went to Washington State and he’s living it up. He’s the big guy now,” Callie said. “It’s crazy to see how his football career basically flipped upside down and I’m just so proud of him. He deserves all of it because he worked so hard and he never gave up.”

Callie is a two-sport star at Brandon High who committed to Mississippi State for volleyball. Inside the Minshew home, placed between Gardner’s Johnny Unitas Golden Arm and Alamo Bowl MVP trophies are Callie’s Mississippi 6A Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year trophies, from 2017 and ’18.

She claims to be the superior athlete of the family. Anyone you talk to backs that up, even as the eldest Minshew sibling prepares to sign his NFL contract.

“I think we’ll all be on the edge of our seats just listening, waiting,” Callie said. “But we’re all going to be excited.”

Second-grade smarts

It’s no wonder Minshew scored a 42 on his Wonderlic exam, second best among draft-eligible quarterbacks. The test, administered to most NFL prospects, measures cognitive ability and problem-solving – and Minshew has a lot of both.

The woman who taught him second grade saw it from a young age.

“He was a very bright boy and he always wanted to know more,” said Martia West, Minshew’s teacher at Rouse Elementary in Brandon. “We had this little running thing because he was so smart and he’d always ask me questions. So I told him, right now, this year, I’m smarter than you. Now when you graduate, you can come back and you can tell me that now you’re smarter than I am.”

Minshew’s ability to solve problems as an elementary school student might also explain his prowess for diagnosing defenses as a Pac-12 quarterback. West remembers when he and a group of his second-grade classmates asked their teacher how old she was. She wouldn’t give up that information, but they could ask questions that would direct them to the answer.

“Finally, he and another little girl figured out. They asked, ‘Well, would you tell us the year you were born?’ ” West said. “So I told them the year I was born. Well, they were only in second grade so it took them a little while, but by the end of the day they had figured it out.”

In another instance, the school held a penny drive for the local humane society, and ended up with quite the haul when a classmate donated a bucket of rusted coins from his father’s barn. West tasked her students to count up the pennies, so they started setting them aside one-by-one until Minshew finally piped up: “Isn’t there a better way to do this?”

West replied, “Well, you know how many pennies are in a dollar?”

So Minshew began dividing the pennies by 10s and then 100s.

“And I didn’t have to tell them,” West said. “That’s just kind of what they did.”

♦  ♦  ♦

Martia West, Gardner Minshew's Rouse Elementary second grade teacher, poses for a portrait after talking about Minshew on Tuesday, January 22, 2019, in Brandon, Miss. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Martia West, Gardner Minshew's Rouse Elementary second grade teacher, poses for a portrait after talking about Minshew on Tuesday, January 22, 2019, in Brandon, Miss. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

♦  ♦  ♦

West saw the compassionate side of Minshew, too, often illustrated through small gestures at the elementary school. He’d befriended Devin Brezak, a young boy who walked around with a diabetes pump, and saw Brezak fall on the playground one day, presuming someone had pushed him to the ground.

“And I mean he was all there ready to fight him,” West said. “That was not who Gardner was, but he was going to fight for the friend.”

West’s grandson, Trey Sparnecht, was waiting with Minshew after school one day. Flint Minshew arrived to pick up his son, but Gardner insisted they wouldn’t go home until Sparnecht’s ride came, West said, “or we have to take him home, because we can’t leave him here.

“(Gardner) is just one you remember.”

‘Burn the boat’

Minshew might list off hundreds of coaches, teammates, family members and friends that guided him to the doorstep of professional football. Over the last four months, nobody has been as instrumental as Ken Mastrole.

A QB-specific trainer whose clientele list includes the likes of Teddy Bridgewater, EJ Manuel and Jacoby Brissett – and dozens of others – Mastrole has worked with Minshew in Boca Raton, Florida, to clean up his inefficiencies as a passer and prepare him for predraft events that he’s gone through, such as Senior Bowl, scouting combine and pro day.

Through a mutual friend, Minshew reached out to Mastrole for individual help a few years ago, then reunited with him after WSU’s bowl win in San Antonio. Minshew spent long days at Mastrole’s facility in Boca – many of them beginning around 8 a.m. and ending between 3-4 p.m. In line with the stories you hear from coaches at Brandon and WSU, he was always the first there.

“He was beating everybody to the facility – literally,” Mastrole said. “We were putting money on every time somebody would be late and I don’t think he lost once.”

Mastrole’s been at this long enough, he’s usually able to filter out the players who aren’t in love with the game, or in it for the right reasons. So players with the devotion and dedication of Minshew are a breath of fresh air.

“The best part of this is, what I do and the way football is sometimes, Mastrole said. “It’s such a smoke and mirror show, it’s about putting these kids like they’re beauty pageant, all the fluff and all these marketing ploys to get guys to play quarterback.

“I hate all that stuff. I want hard-working, down to earth. So to see a blue-collar kid make it and have the kind of success without all the fluff and all the social media presence, I’m really, really happy for him. That’s the best part about it.”

In January, Mastrole phoned Flint Minshew to relay a story about his son. Mastrole’s quarterbacks had spoken to a group of high schoolers in Florida. Gardner stole the show.

“One of these quarterbacks gets up and gives the generic, ‘Well, you’ve got to make sure you’re …’ – and we know this quarterback and he doesn’t do this – ‘Hey, you’ve got to make sure you go to class and get your degree and this,” Flint said.

Minshew was up next.

“ ‘Man, let me tell you,” Flint said. “ ‘I’m going to contradict this guy a little bit.’ He’s like, ‘I’m like Hernan (Cortes) settling into Mexico.’ He goes, ‘I’m unloading my guys and I’m burning the boat … We’re only going forward, we’re not going backward.’ ”

Mastrole’s heard good things about Minshew from pro scouts on the NFL draft trail. He wouldn’t identify which teams had reached out, but multiple clubs called “to get my two cents,” Mastrole said.

“I think that’s always a positive sign, if you’ve got guys calling me to check in.”

Brandon’s man

College players are given a $700 travel stipend after playing in bowl games, which allows them to return home during the holiday break. Minshew got thrifty, pocketing the money and hitching a ride with a few Brandon-bound buddies who’d made the trip to San Antonio to watch him play.

The group returned Saturday night. The next morning, Minshew was in his church pew, next to family members, at Brandon United First Methodist. The preacher invited him to say a few words and Minshew did, though he was reluctant because that’s something that probably wouldn’t have happened before a fifth-place Heisman finish, a Pac-12 passing record and all the new-found notoriety.

“He goes, ‘I’m Gardner, I’m coming to church,’ ” Howington said. “ ‘I’ve come to this church every Sunday that I’ve been here in my life.’ ”

A changed man in so many ways, but unchanged in so many others.

Later that same evening, Minshew herded a group of friends and saw that someone open up the basketball gym adjacent to the church – the one that’s already sealed with his sweat. They hustled up and down the court for a few hours, exhausting their legs for old times’ sake, until it was finally time to quit.

A few days later, Brandon’s favorite son was gone again. He’s returning this week to take in the draft, but this visit, too, is just temporary. Maybe someday, one of them will be permanent. Don’t put it past Minshew to run this Mississippi suburb somewhere down the road.

“Ideally, he’d love to make enough money in the NFL and come back and coach Brandon,” Flint said.

“That’s what he says,” Kim said. “He and (friend and HS teammate) Tayler (Polk), that has been their goal since high school.”

“Let me tell you,” Flint said, “If they do, you better quit.”

Washington State Cougars quarterback Gardner Minshew (16) signs a young admirer's shirt after defeating Oregon during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, October 20, 2018, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. WSU won the game 34-20. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State Cougars quarterback Gardner Minshew (16) signs a young admirer's shirt after defeating Oregon during the second half of a college football game on Saturday, October 20, 2018, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, Wash. WSU won the game 34-20. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

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