This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s April 24 NFL Draft Issue. Subscribe today!
MITCHELL TRUBISKY IS beginning his workout on the football field at Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Orange County, California, and his attention is divided. The footwork drills are important, sure, but he’s more concerned about Ricky and Jake, who are about 50 yards away, behind the end zone, just out of earshot. The road to the NFL draft is fraught with peril for a top-rated quarterback — the general weirdness of the combine, the linguistic complexity of NFL playcalls, the mysteries of team workouts. But nothing compares with the sight of your buddies from home talking to a reporter.
Trubisky warned me beforehand. “They’re degenerates,” he said, in the kindest way possible. “They’re great, they’re the life of the party, but they have no filter.”
They arrived from Ohio two nights earlier for a spring break visit with their now-famous friend. Ricky Dexter attends Bowling Green State, Jake Curtis Ohio U. They were planning on going to South Padre Island, Texas, before being invited here, where they can catch passes from future NFL quarterbacks and swim in the ocean off Laguna. They grew up with Trubisky in Mentor, Ohio, and they’ve been friends as long as they can remember. They know almost everything about the 22-year-old, projected by most to be the first quarterback taken in the NFL draft. They played on opposite teams in youth football and on the same team for a time in high school. They hung out at the Trubisky house, read the plaque above the fireplace — do what is right/not what is easy — ate Jeanne Trubisky’s cabbage rolls and played every kind of ball with Trubisky and his three siblings in the wide, fenceless yard that backs to the woods.
In other words, at the precise moment when Mitchell Trubisky (or Mitch, up to you, doesn’t matter, but it’s Mitchell when you’re with those who’ve known him this long) is most aware of how he is perceived in the outside world, when image control is most closely aligned with self-preservation, Ricky and Jake enter the scene. They are among his best friends; they infect him with marrow-deep dread.
And so he keeps an eye on them. Before the workout, on one of the first truly warm days of Trubisky’s two-and-a-half-month stay in Southern California, he pulled Ricky and Jake aside and spoke in a manner that could be described as pleading. He bore down on them with those brown eyes, irises nearly as dark as pupils, while Ricky and Jake nodded. No problem. It’s their buddy’s future at stake. They get it. They’re adults. They’ll behave.
Adopting their best adult tones, they rummage through the moments they remember from their friend’s career. Mostly, Trubisky spent a lot of time “wrecking people” on his way to becoming Mr. Football in Ohio as a senior, which made it even more perplexing when he didn’t start a game until his fourth year at North Carolina.
“That made me mad,” Jake says. Says Ricky: “It just took a long time, a long process. He understood what was going on. He knew what he was walking into.”
“Just remember,” Trubisky calls from across the field. “They have no filter.”
“What’s he yelling about?” Jake asks.
“Us,” Ricky says, and then bellows: “Dude, you’ve got no filter right now.”
THE STORY OF Trubisky’s time in Chapel Hill, which ended with a 3,700-yard, 30-touchdown season, has gone from largely unknown to forensically dissected in the months since he decided to forgo his senior year and declare for the draft.
“‘Why didn’t you play sooner?’ That’s the No. 1 question for him right now,” says former NFL and current CFL quarterback Ryan Lindley, Trubisky’s predraft quarterbacks coach. “That’s a testament to him too. There’s not a whole lot else you can pick apart in his game except that he only had 13 starts.”
All 13 came this past season, and he threw just 572 passes in his college career, fewer than the Eagles’ Carson Wentz did. (Clemson’s Deshaun Watson threw 1,207.) But everyone from Trubisky to his parents to UNC coach Larry Fedora to agent Bruce Tollner finishes any sentence that begins “He only started 13 games” with “… yeah, but he played in 30.”
Fedora expands: “It’s not always the most talented guy who gets the job. Sometimes it’s the guy who fits best with the other guys.” The explanation feels unsatisfying, not only for Trubisky but for his predecessor, two-year starter Marquise Williams. Trubisky, for his part, manages to say he should have started sooner — “the 13 starts were out of my control” — without offending anyone. It’s a nifty trick, like parallel-parking a big rig. “Not playing right away taught me that you have to take advantage of every snap,” he says.
Trubisky attempted to shed his frustration by getting a few receivers together for late-night throwing sessions at the Tar Heels’ indoor facility or on a lighted intramural field. “We’d throw our tennis shoes on, throw out a speaker and go for two and a half hours,” says Trubisky’s roommate and top target, Ryan Switzer. “The best thing was it was behind closed doors. We didn’t tell anybody, we didn’t tell the coaches, we didn’t put it on social media.”
The wait was difficult. Failure is its own kind of torment; never getting an opportunity might be worse. There were times when Trubisky doubted — “It brought him to tears,” Switzer says — but he never seriously discussed transferring.
“There were definitely days I wondered, ‘Man, is this really for me?'” Trubisky says. “But then I’d wake up and realize this is what I want. I want to be the starting quarterback. I definitely questioned why I wasn’t playing, but I never said it to anyone but my roommates. I never complained to the coaches.”
Not even Ricky and Jake know the story of the only time Trubisky wanted to quit football. He was 7 years old, in his first year in pads, and he quickly tired of being hit by older kids. Jeanne, who runs the Trubisky household with legendary efficiency, shot down that idea. “If you don’t want to get hit,” she told him, “run faster.” She talks so fast, a trait she ascribes to growing up one of 10 children, that when she’s asked what advice she gave her oldest child while he was waiting his turn in Chapel Hill, the words rush out like they’re sprinting toward a finish line: “Don’t complain about it. Do something about it. Change it. Bebetterplayharderbeabetterleaderbenoticed.”
“My mom’s a character,” Trubisky says. “My dad was my coach, but my mom was the one who was hard on me. I would come home from a game in high school after throwing five touchdowns and she would say, ‘Oh, you played all right. You can do a little better.'”
So with his mom’s advice a constant soundtrack, Trubisky could be found at least once a week tapping on Fedora’s office door. The question was always the same: What can I do to get better this week? And the answer invariably bent its way toward one word: presence.
“I heard that word so much,” Trubisky says. The coach’s enduring, and often exhausting, quest was to convince Trubisky that quarterbacks can’t lead by example. Being the man means being loud and forceful and sometimes arrogant. None of those qualities, especially the last one, comes naturally to Trubisky.
“I almost lost my voice every practice because I’d be yelling,” Trubisky says. “I’m more of a quieter person, and I think if everyone works hard and does their own job, we should be rolling on the same page. But there are some guys who need that kick in the butt, and that’s what [Coach Fedora] needed to see more from me. It made me a better leader.”
Trubisky has a smile that nearly swallows his eyes and a personality that’s best described with a nonfootball adjective: sweet. There is none of the bro-ness that radiates from Ricky and Jake. He veers toward simplicity, which is why he still drives the ’97 sedan his grandmother gave him, and his dry sense of humor can go undetected by the unobservant. Says his mother, “He’s a little flat sometimes,” but it’s easy to project that face onto billboards somewhere — in Cleveland, for instance, for his beloved Browns.
On the field, he’s acknowledged to be the most accurate passer in the draft, and his ability to throw from every angle while on the run — with force — has invited comparisons to Aaron Rodgers. Scouts like that he moves and thinks quickly. When he was asked in a combine interview how well, on a scale of 1 to 10, he is at dancing the NaeNae — a question of irrefutable relevance — he says he answered without hesitation: “I’d grade myself a 2, which means you won’t be seeing me do it.”
At Trubisky’s pro day at UNC on March 21, a line of scouts and coaches watched like private investigators as he changed his shoes, stretched his legs and joked with his ex-teammates for more than two hours before he began throwing. An NFL quarterbacks coach, without taking his eyes off Trubisky, said, “I’m not looking so much at how he throws but how he handles the day.”
Back on the high school field in Orange County, Ricky and Jake are running out of compliments.
“I’ll say this,” Ricky says. “He’s better at interviews now than he was in high school.”
“Oh, he was terrible,” Jake says. “We used to make fun of him so bad. One interview he said ‘execute’ probably 20 times.”
The memory triggers a fit of laughter. The interview in question took place after the homecoming game during Trubisky’s sophomore year at Mentor High School. The camera’s light went on, the reporter started asking questions, and Trubisky — making his debut on the 11 o’clock news — indulged in what he endearingly calls his tendency to “overtalk and repeat the same thing. ‘Execute’ was the thing I kept repeating.”
Ricky is doubled over. The memory of the interview is funny enough on its own, but the laughter is multiplying, becoming its own joke, because Trubisky is staring across the field, shaking his head. He has no idea what they’re talking about, but he seems to possess an innate understanding of this uncontrolled, unfiltered, very nearly degenerate (in the kindest way possible) brand of laughter.
“This is probably the stuff he doesn’t want us to say,” Ricky says. “Here’s the thing, though: There are no skeletons in his closet. There’s literally nothing. There’s just not. He’s boring.”
Trubisky’s concern does seem unwarranted. His closest brush with controversy, aside from the time he almost got a speeding ticket in high school, came at the combine, when he unwittingly instigated what he calls “the whole Mitch/Mitchell extravaganza.”
“They asked me what my mom calls me,” he says. “Mitch, Mitchell — I don’t care, but my mom prefers Mitchell. I’ll answer to either one. Now it’s like I’m having an identity crisis or something. I didn’t change anything — call me whatever you want.”
AT A FANCY juice bar near the high school, Trubisky places his post-workout order and goes outside to take a call. When he comes back, Ricky is taking a picture of his biceps with his sleeve rolled up to his shoulder. “Just showing off my farmer tan for everyone back home,” he says, poking the demilitarized zone where pink meets scarlet.
Suddenly, Ricky’s tone changes.
“Hey,” he says, reading his phone, “the Browns just traded for Osweiler. Dude, what’s that all about?”
Trubisky says nothing.
“Did you know that?”
“Yeah, I just got a call.”
“What’s that mean for you?”
Trubisky shrugs. It’s happening in another world, a world he’s not yet a part of, and the look on his face says it will take some time before he gets used to the idea that things like this are relevant to his life.
“I really don’t have a reaction,” he says. “I mean, I don’t know.”
The conversation moves on. Brock Osweiler, who, it turns out, was essentially purchased by the Browns for a future draft pick, may or may not impact Trubisky’s life. He’d love to play for his hometown Browns, who have the first and 12th picks, but there’s no sense worrying about it.
A brand-new Porsche Carrera pulls up in front of the shop. Ricky and Jake take the opportunity to tell Trubisky they expect him to be driving something similar very soon.
“That’s another thing,” Trubisky says, “I’m going to have to step up my car game, I guess.”
He squirms. “It’s just weird to think about,” he says. I suggest that being a first-round pick, and a quarterback, comes with certain demands. Symbolically, rolling up to the first day of minicamp in a 20-year-old car might be a problem.
“I’d be fine just keeping it,” he says. “It’s weird to think about money and all that other stuff. I really just want to play football.”
Trubisky is between worlds, in a postcollege, pre-NFL purgatory. It’s an uncomfortable, exciting place, with rules he’s not entirely sure he understands. “Your life can change in one year,” Trubisky says. “You can go from a nobody, not even getting any playing time on a college team, to being one of the most highly touted quarterbacks coming out of college for the draft. That’s where I am. That tells me: Why can’t I win a Super Bowl a year from now?”
Toward the end of that afternoon’s workout, Trubisky finished a sprinting drill and looked across the field to see Ricky and Jake, still laughing. He dropped his arms in disgust — what could possibly be so funny? — and turned away in surrender. What else could he do? His stay in purgatory is nearing its end, and a new world beckons. Forgive him for wanting to bring the old one along.