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Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert (10) looks up, taking a breather before being interviewed. Oregon Ducks football takes on Wisconsin for the 106th Rose Bowl Game at Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif. on Jan. 1, 2020. (DL Young/Emerald)

Justin Herbert’s rise to prominence in the football world feels like a sports movie script: The hometown kid who became a football star at his local university. 

However, most Oregon fans don’t know that Herbert’s attendance at Oregon was far from guaranteed. In fact, it wasn’t until the waning weeks of Herbert’s senior season at Sheldon High School that Oregon began to recruit him. 

One of Herbert’s biggest obstacles was geography. It seems counterintuitive, since he played in Oregon’s backyard and grew up minutes away from Autzen Stadium. But college scouts, even Oregon’s, don’t heavily recruit within the state as there is a perceived lack of talent, especially with the talent-laden state of California just south. Herbert flew under the radar at Sheldon. 

“Oregon is very underrecurited and underappreciated,” former Sheldon head coach Lane Johnson said. 

Sheldon is classified by the Oregon School Athletics Association as a 6A school, which are the largest high schools in the state of Oregon. Most of the 6A schools are in the Portland metropolitan area. Sheldon plays in the southwestern conference, competing against teams that are in the Eugene, Grants Pass and Medford areas, hundreds of miles from the greater Portland metropolitan area. 

The 2015 Oregon Rivals recruit rankings include many familiar names. The top two recruits, Brady Breeze and LaMar Winston, both played together at Oregon and Central Catholic High School, in Portland. Out of the top ten recruits in Oregon in 2015, seven were from Portland-area schools. 

By his senior season in 2015-16, Herbert began to turn heads. After injuring his leg during his junior campaign, Herbert proved himself in his senior season, displaying both the incredible arm strength and mobility that many scouts overlooked. 

“The thing that jumps out is watching him throw the ball,” Johnson said. “The ball comes out his hand differently than any other QB that we have had at Sheldon.” 

Herbert’s high school highlight mixtapes showcase his arm strength that wowed fans in college and the NFL. Even then, Herbert could air the ball out, launching it over defenders and hitting receivers in stride. Herbert also showed the bursts of speed that makes him a better than average running quarterback. 

But the biggest improvements came from Herbert’s mental development and leadership skills. For Johnson, who has known Herbert since he was an elementary school, this was Herbert’s biggest leap. 

As an underclassman Herbert had a “baby” mentality, Johnson said. In his early career, Herbert struggled handling negative things as they occurred in games.

Herbert captained Sheldon to a 10-2 record in his senior season. Sheldon’s offense frequently eclipsed fifty points as they blew out their Southwestern conference rivals. 

Even though Herbert displayed the skill set that defined his career at Oregon, he was still not receiving the level of recruiting that other elite high school quarterbacks receive. Unlike his peers, who often participated in quarterback camps in the offseason to impress scouts, Herbert was more focused on winning at Sheldon. Herbert was not a participant in year round prep football, making him a bit of a throwback type of player and an outlier. 

The early offers Herbert received were at the FCS level, featuring schools like Portland State, Montana State and Northern Arizona. As Sheldon began annihilating opponents during the 2015 season, some FBS schools began to take notice. Johnson was called by former Oregon State head coach Gary Anderson, inquiring about Herbert, but that discussion didn’t lead to anything. 

“Most recruiters don’t care what high school coaches think,” Johnson said. 

The Ducks finally began to take notice of Herbert as the season progressed. He initially got scouted by former Oregon wide receivers coach Mike Lubick. The orginal recruiting centered around him coming in as a walk on. 

Later on, former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich and former offensive coordinator Scott Frost began to pace the sidelines at Sheldon games. 

Toward the end of the season, Herbert received some last minute suitors. Recruiters from Nevada chartered a private plane during a Thursday night practice to watch Herbert. Later that night, Herbert committed to Oregon. 

Herbert’s senior football season came to a close after losing in the state semifinals to Jesuit, another Portland-area football powerhouse. Sheldon lost to Jesuit twice that season, the only team they lost to. 

As Herbert ascended in the college football and NFL world, his high school years served as a reminder of how random the recruiting process is and how close he came to not being Oregon’s four-year starter. 

Herbert, who just finished his rookie season in the NFL, is the front runner for offensive rookie of the year. In his first season, he broke the record for the most touchdowns thrown by a rookie quarterback. But just like his college start, Herbert’s big break was a bit of fluke. In all likelihood, he would have spent his rookie season as a backup for Tyrod Taylor. However, in the second week of the NFL season, a team doctor for the Chargers punctured Taylor’s lung, sidelining him. Herbert got his big break and ran with it. 

For Johnson, who still communicates regularly with Herbert, this is the culmination of years of hard work. 

“He’s a better person than a player, and he’s one of the best players in the NFL,” Johnson said.