It’s somewhat fashionable among North Carolina fans to say with great assurance that Mitch Trubisky’s days as the North Carolina quarterback are done (full disclosure: I am no exception). It started about midseason, when Mel Kiper or some other draftnik commented that Trubisky might be the highest-rated quarterback in this year’s class. Of course, talk is cheap, and we live in a world of clickbait and hot takes. If you wanted, you could ignore that. But after the season, word spread that the official assessment of the NFL is that Trubisky grades out as a first round draft pick. Add to it that the Cleveland Browns, who hold two picks in the top 13 (including #1), are Trubisky’s favorite team in his home state, and that they reputedly love the Tar Heel quarterback, and all the logic is on the side of a grateful goodbye.
Plus, there’s a certain worldliness to it . . . you know . . . you’re not some rube who believes in the tooth fairy; you’re a gimlet-eyed veteran of the real world. Let’s not let your heart carry you away here. Save yourself the heartbreak. We’ve had enough heartbreak in Tar Heel land over the last year. The money is there. He’s gone.
But here’s the thing. On Friday, it’ll have been a week since Mitch Trubisky left El Paso, having every bit of that information and then some, and . . . crickets.
There’s still plenty of time for Trubisky to do just what everyone seems so sure he’s going to do, and he might. The amount of time he’s taking, though, strongly suggests that Mitch Trubisky, who is the only person who actually has to live the life that follows his decision, doesn’t find it nearly so straightforward a choice as the message board jockeys and sports talk show hosts do.
There are practical points to be made, even if you’re the bottom-line sort. First, being a first round draft pick means many different things depending upon where in that first round a player is drafted. Last year’s first pick, Jared Goff, got a contract of almost $29 million. Assuming a modicum of self-control, it will be generations of Goffs before anyone has to worry much about money. But drop to #13 (i.e., where the Browns’ second pick is), and you’re talking significantly less than half that: $12.76 million.
Drop to the end of the first round, and the number is down to $8.45 million. Now, no one is going to snicker at anyone for “only” getting $8.45 million to play football, but it must at least be acknowledged that there’s a huge amount of money to be made by playing yourself into the very top of the first round. Trubisky’s best games came in the heart of the season, but like the team he led, he wasn’t at his best late. That makes his actual draft position more speculative. If Trubisky believes that he has even more than he’s shown, there’s a potentially large financial gain to be made by returning.
There’s also the professional side of it. Presumably Trubisky wants his career to consist of more than signing a rookie contract and collecting his paycheck. In terms of development, repetitions as a college quarterback matter. You will look in vain to find an example of a successful NFL quarterback who had no more than one year of college starting experience. That must surely concern not only Trubisky in terms of his own development, but the teams who will be investing in him as a potential franchise savior. A successful senior season would not only improve Trubisky by experience; it would make him less of a wildcard in the minds of NFL scouts. If you’re spending a top-5 pick, you don’t want the word “wildcard” involved.
What doesn’t get said often enough, however, has nothing to do with dollars or repetitions: Mitch Trubisky is a living, breathing human being. Sure, you know that already. Sort of. But unless you’re in his inner circle, you don’t see him that way—not really. You see him as a fan sees an athlete: as a talent, a leader, as a potentially wealthy man, maybe even as a personality. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but it is different from knowing who Trubisky is. What does he value? What has his experience really been like? How much fun is he having? What does school mean to him?
Does that seem naïve? Look around you. Somewhere in your life there is almost certainly a person you know who has passed on more, sooner, bigger, and faster for what was right for them. Who went off the beaten path, even when others thought they were nuts, and is glad for it. Sure, that person in your life probably isn’t an NFL quarterback. Such people exist, though: most recently, Andrew Luck returned for his senior season at Stanford when he was considered a lock to be taken by the Panthers with the first pick. Peyton Manning and Matt Leinart did the same.
In every case, the dollars and opportunity were still there, on top of something no pro contract can buy: the experience of being the senior starting quarterback at a place each loved to be.
Luck, in particular, speaks eloquently of his love for his college experience and says he never seriously considered leaving after his junior year. You don’t sense much regret. There are other examples—Tyler Hansbrough and Tim Duncan jump quickly to mind. So when someone trots out the Marcus Lattimore injury story as the definitive cautionary tale, remember there’s another side to the story.
No one should, and few if any will, hold any grudge against Mitch Trubisky if he goes ahead and steps forward into the opportunity he has created for himself. Neither should anyone think him a fool for choosing a different path, because in the end, he is not merely playing football. He is living a life of which playing football is merely the most public component.
The time Trubisky is taking suggests that, if nothing else, he is mature enough to have learned something very fundamental: real life is hard.