Josh Rosen takes on the NFL … and his critics

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s Apr. 23 NEXT Issue. Subscribe today!

“That’s just not me,” Josh Rosen says of the designer labels on offer for his recent photo shoot for this story. Nah, the ex-UCLA signal-caller and projected first-round pick in the 2018 NFL draft is perfectly fine, thank you very much, with his standard wardrobe of tee, jeans and maltreated Chucks. “I’m just a regular dude,” Rosen says several times at an LA studio, seemingly forgetting (or remembering all too well?) that roughly half of draft-loving America feels he’s a future franchise QB, while the other half fears he’s a crap-stirring, system-disrupting locker room poison pill.

After the shoot wraps, Rosen and I commandeer the studio’s kitchen table and begin a conversation that will veer wildly from his tangents du jour — interplanetary colonization, climate change, the existence of God — to the only slightly more pressing matter of his volatile draft stock. He’s always spoken his mind, and on the brink of the biggest day of his career, he’s not changing now.

The Mag: Soon you’ll be an NFL quarterback. How does that sound?
JOSH ROSEN:
It’s a dream. Always has been. It’s a loaded term: NFL quarterback. Face of the franchise. What does it mean?

Ready for that responsibility?
I’m excited for it. I don’t think I’m ready for it, but I’m as ready as I can be. A lot of it is trial by fire. And what happened to me in college, which people may call “knocks,” has prepared me for the NFL fire.

As a passer, you’ve been compared to Aaron Rodgers. You were once pegged as the first or second pick. For those off-field knocks, some now see you as a mid-first-rounder and the next Jay Cutler. You hear that one?
Yeah, it’s as frustrating as Baker Mayfield hearing the Johnny Manziel comparisons. I just don’t think it’s true. But it’s up to me to prove them wrong. If it persists, it’s my fault for not silencing it.

Seemingly every year, one draftee helps shine a light on the volatility of the draft evaluation process — specifically, the analysis of the unquantifiable. Rodgers was that guy when he fell to 24th. You might be that guy this year. What’s it like being inside that wormhole?
It’s been hectic. I think if teams went back to that draft, they’d rethink some of their critiques of Rodgers. If he’s the best pure passer in the draft, the best QB, with no legitimate off-field issues, that should be your answer — that’s your QB. I think a lot of people try to add fluff on the edge to, I don’t know, justify their jobs? I can’t say that, but people make it more complicated than it needs to be.

Who’s the best QB in this draft?
I’m the best QB in the draft. A lot of guys are flashier, but I think I’m the most efficient, monotonously consistent QB in this draft. Rodgers has some flair, but if you watch Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, there’s nothing that’s explosive or Johnny Manziel — like. It’s just quarterbacking.

But as you said, it’s so much more.
I have no issues with a team doing due diligence and forming opinions. But this is my opportunity to answer these questions on a national stage and set the record right with teams so there’s no more third-party misinformation. Up to that point, it’s just noise.

What culpability do you have in creating that noise?
[Pauses] Starting off, I was pretty arrogant. They handed an 18-year-old the keys to a D1 FBS-contending university. I blew up a little bit, said some things I didn’t mean, and that follows you. You get one chance to make a first impression. I made the wrong one.

Let’s dig into your perceived character flaws: You’re a cocky, jerkish, overly opinionated rich kid who’s too smart and has too many outside interests for his own good. Did I get it all?
Yeah, but let’s go one by one. What was the first one?

You’re a rich kid who — extrapolating here — doesn’t need, or love, the game of football.
OK, my family isn’t, like, stupid-wealthy. But I’m coming from a place where if football doesn’t work out, I don’t have to work at McDonald’s. Other NFL players had the same opportunities. I just haven’t tried to hide it or fool teams into thinking I’m someone I’m not. My passion for this game lies in the game, not my need to play it. Tons of players needed this game, needed the money, played it out of obligation and burned out. I don’t need it and still I give everything to it.

Your parents are Ivy League — educated. Your dad, Charles, an orthopedic surgeon, was on Obama’s short list to be surgeon general. Your mom, Liz, is the great-great-granddaughter of Joseph Wharton of Penn’s Wharton business school.
I’ll put it this way: These connections were discovered because I shared them. That’s my naïveté in thinking, “I’m going to tell people who I am because that’s who I am.” At 18, I wasn’t aware it was something to hide.

Is it something to hide?
I think so, because I’m catching flak for it. I could’ve avoided it if I’d just shut my mouth. But that’s not the person I want to be.

What are your football goals?
I want to be great — in everything I do. As far as football, I always looked up to Kellen Moore of Boise State. I thought it was the coolest thing that he was the winningest QB of all time. I thought that was a cool word: winningest. So I want to be the winningest QB in NFL history. I want to win the most games and most championships. I’d say six titles, but if Tom Brady gets six, I’ll say seven.

That’s a perfect transition to: You’re cocky. Egotistical.
You have to be. But you have to know where it plays and where it doesn’t. If you’re talking to reporters, pull your foot off the pedal. In a game, if the window’s closing on your receiver, sometimes you need to dial it up and say f— that, I’m going to get the ball in there. I’m supremely confident in my abilities as a quarterback.

A related knock, and it’s a biggie: You’re a jerk. How does it feel to know that when you Google “Jerk Josh Rosen,” you get thousands of results?
It’s a blessing in disguise. If you get ID’d as a jerk, you try really hard not to be one. Maybe a little bit of me was a jerk in the past. I’m trying to wipe it away.

What’s the most jerkish thing you’ve done?
[Pauses] The social media post about Under Armour was pretty sh—y, and the hot tub.

What was the mistake with the tub? Having an inflatable tub in your room, hosting a woman in the tub or allowing a photo to hit Instagram?
Hosting a woman in the tub. Again, it’s about tailoring the message — I don’t want to get political, but the thing I regret the most about the Trump thing is using the F-word. I’m a role model for kids. I regret the F-word.
Now the hot tub: I accidentally shipped it to my mom’s house. My mom thought it was hilarious and drove it up for me. I thought it was hilarious because she did. But I shouldn’t have had a woman in there. I enjoy making people laugh, but what I find funny and put online, others might misconstrue and find jerkish. I need to refine my message but not lose who I am.

Next one: You have an issue with teammates.
Just ask my teammates. They love … I don’t even want to say that. It’d be jerkish to say “I’m f—ing sick and my teammates would reaffirm me because I’m dope!” Talk to my teammates. I’m confident they recognize how much I care for them.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I’m not rah-rah. I want to develop individual relationships to understand how certain people react. Does he respond to a kick in the butt, or does he need encouragement because he’s self-critical? I take the time and effort to get the best out of every individual, not out of fear but out of love.

Former UCLA coach Jim Mora swears by you, but in SI, he called you “a challenge — but he’s a fun challenge, a great challenge and an interesting challenge.” What do you think he meant by that?
I think if you can take radioactive material and concentrate it, you can get something real special out of it.

You’re that material?
Yeah. People go, “He’s radioactive!” But that’s pretty powerful if you know how to point it in the right direction.

We’re almost done with your flaws.
All good.

You’re enjoying this?
Absolutely.

You’re too smart.
There are NFL guys who are mathematicians. I’m not that smart. I don’t have the raw IQ that others do. I’m just curious. I like reading and learning, and because I value authenticity, I’ll talk about it.

Is it true that your former position coach, Marques Tuiasosopo, started meetings with a two-minute “Josh period,” where you could express that curiosity before focusing on football?
[Laughs] We’d just come in early and shoot the s— about what’s going on in the world. But my curiosity applies to football too. One of the things I appreciate about [ex-UCLA offensive coordinator Jedd] Fisch is he teaches us the history of plays and why we’re calling them. Why are we calling this play and what are we trying to get out it? If I’m not asking those questions, there’s a disconnect between what me and my offensive coordinator are thinking. I’m a people-pleaser. Tell me why and I’ll execute it.

Your high school coach said you’re also curious about religion, and while you’re Jewish, you attended Mass every Sunday.
That’s right. I went to a Catholic school, and it was cool to learn. You have to have an open mind. It’d be naive to think you’re just born into the right religion that will get you into heaven. My opinion will evolve and grow. Where do you sit on it?

I’m Muslim by heritage, and I used to attend Mass too, but it was partly to impress a Catholic girlfriend. Now I’m agnostic.
[Laughs] Same. But agnostic and atheist are loaded words — people get scared, like, “Whoa!” Look, I don’t know, and I don’t think it’s possible to know. Don’t tell me how to live my life, but I’d love to hear about how you live yours.

What else are you curious about presently?
Film. I’m a big documentary guy. I just saw Icarus. That was pretty good. And I love every Christopher Nolan movie. Especially Interstellar. I’m a big Neil deGrasse Tyson fan. I’ve read all his books — now I’m on Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. I watched the whole Cosmos series. And I’m a huge fan of Elon Musk. I think he’s getting ready to nuke the poles, spark some global warming over there —

Wait, slow down, bro. What are we talking about right now?
[Laughs] Not to sound like a nerd, but Elon’s goal with Mars is to find a way to speed up the greenhouse effect, heat up the planet and grow vegetation, possibly by launching nuclear warheads at the poles. You know how a volcano erupts and ash suffocates Earth? If you do that on Mars — see, now people will go, “He’s too smart!” No, I just think it’s cool! [Laughs] I’m not smart enough to be an astrophysicist. I’m curious enough to read what they want to tell me.

Who are your heroes?
My dad. He’s led — have you done research on his career?”

A little bit.
I’ll send you an article. Remind me. But basically, he’s fought pharmaceutical companies and corruption in the medical industry his entire life. He’s gone David vs Goliath time and time again and won every time. He’s a moral person who does what’s right. And, yeah, maybe he was removed from Obama’s shortlist because he’s controversial — or the titans in the industry don’t agree with him. But that’s where my charitable impulse comes from — my dad.

We’re at the last knock on you: He has too many outside interests and is overly opinionated.
I want to comment on “overly opinionated.” I’m not saying, “I’m right, you’re wrong.” I’m saying, “Tell me your opinion and let’s find common ground.” My opinions are out there so they can be molded and so I can learn.

But you’re expressing these opinions in an age when some people want athletes to shut up and dribble.
That minority will go away — not completely, but I’m sorry, you’re not winning this one. You won’t successfully get people to stop caring for other people. Not happening.

As a pro, will you continue to speak up, or will you shut up and throw?
Both. I think I need to shut up and throw when I get there. I do want to get involved in my community immediately. But the main thing is the main thing. J.J. Watt is a guy I admire, the way he balances the two. Athletes have a platform. It’d be selfish to shut up and throw, get paid, go to the Bahamas. It’s selfless to be J.J. Watt.

To which causes will you lend your voice as a pro?
I think it’ll evolve, but one cause I’ll champion is the environment. It touches everything. I mean, the war in Syria started because of the drought and famine that destabilized the country and led the population to revolt against the government. I know global warming is a partisan issue for some stupid reason, but it touches everything.

Keep in mind, the NFL isn’t the NBA, where marquee names regularly critique the occupant of the White House, for example. Clearly, you lean liberal. Are you going to stay out of politics as a pro?
My dad voted for Donald Trump and contributed to his campaign. [Laughs] My mom is a strong feminist liberal. That’s how I’m learning compromise. I’m not going to be political; I’m just going to do what I believe is right, and if that happens to fall on the political spectrum, so be it. But there’s a time and a place for it. You might not want to speak against the president in the playoffs or before you have a starting job on a team and actually have a voice.

Will you continue to advocate on behalf of student-athletes as a pro?
Yeah. I don’t know how, but it’s something I’ll continue to fight for. I just hope people understand it comes from a good place. I’m not trying to mess up a system; I just care for other people.

LeBron James and your fellow Bruin Lonzo Ball are among the pros to recently challenge so-called amateur status. Was it a mistake for you to do so while still in school?
No, but how I did it was. Slighting my own college on its apparel deal on Instagram wasn’t very intelligent. The message needed shaping. But as a pro, I’ll have resources to get things done, affect things, not just with opinions in the news. One of the reasons I came out of college was to actually have the resources to do, like, a massive beach cleanup.

At UCLA, you spoke about athletes “who are living in [a] team room because they can’t make a security deposit.” Did you see that at UCLA?
Yeah, absolutely. A lot of these guys, if they don’t get food from the team, they’re not going to eat. Food budgets are starting to increase around the country. I know [new UCLA coach] Chip Kelly is pushing it as far as he can. Same thing with gas. They can’t see their family if they can’t afford to drive. How are you going to recruit a poor kid from Louisiana to UCLA if you have to tell them they can’t see their family over Christmas because we can’t fly them back? Those are the disparities that make you bummed out.

What’s the fix?
If you want to fix the NCAA, the time, effort and intention must be there. Smart people have to get in a room and take opinions from students, ADs, commissioners, TV partners. It’ll be messy, it’ll be complicated, but if it’s going to help a few kids’ lives, it’s worth it.

But that’s for smart people to figure out — and that’s not you, apparently.
I think the answer is the untapped revenue stream in marketing. Because players aren’t allowed to use their names and likeness, I think there’s a space where the NCAA permits marketability to some extent, and that revenue stream could be divided up.

Maybe you should be in that room after all.
I have a 60-page document on it that I can show you after this. [Laughs] But I don’t want people to know it’s actually written.

Clearly, you’ve got a good mind and designs on how to use it. Are you worried —
I don’t have designs. I have intentions to find those designs. Like, “How are you going to save the world, man?” I don’t know, I just know I want to. [Laughs] In time, I’ll figure it out.

Well, you’ll need a functioning brain for that. Are you worried about damaging it playing this game?
Absolutely. I haven’t run into any issues, but I’m acutely aware of them. It’s scary, but we all accept that, playing this game. Football is football. I don’t know enough to make a judgment on it. I’m not going to say anything about CTE and concussions until I know all the facts.

Since we’re getting all deep and everything, what do you want out of life, Josh?
I want to be happy, but happiness is a weird thing. You can’t be happy all the time. You have to fluctuate. I want to find purpose. One of the reasons I left school early is I felt like I was chasing a bunch of different things: trying to get A’s in class, being good on the field, networking professionally. Right now, I want to be the best QB that I possibly f—ing can be. When the NFL decides I suck, I want to be the absolute best at the next thing in my life.

Leave a Response