There he was on our television screens on the first night of the first Sunday of the NFL season, grinning into the camera with those glimmering ivory teeth and those chocolate-brown eyes and that teen-idol hair. His name—in case you were swooning so heavily that you missed it altogether—is Jimmy Garoppolo, and he is 6 feet, 2 inches tall, and he weighs 225 pounds, and he attended Eastern Illinois University, the same small college that produced another NFL quarterback a few years back. And that quarterback, one Tony Romo, was also undeniably handsome, but it would seem that Jimmy Garoppolo is even more handsome.
And this is what made it weirder: Garoppolo was starting for the New England Patriots, replacing the suspended Tom Brady, the quarterback widely considered the most handsome to ever play the position, a man who models fur-lined boots and marries Brazilian supermodels. It was enough to make you wonder: What the hell is going on here? It was enough to make you ask the question: Are the Patriots now purposely targeting incredibly handsome quarterbacks? Is this yet another element of the vast Nixonesque evil-empire conspiracy that brought us Deflategate and Spygate? Has Bill Belichick, the frumpiest coach in all of football, a man who cannot even abide by the restrictive sleeve length of a normal hoodie, a man who appears entirely oblivious to his own self-image, somehow hacked into human biology to render the Patriots even more of a super-team?
Watching Garoppolo’s stupidly perfect face beam through a postgame interview, I couldn’t help but ask whether we might somehow be on the cusp of a new era in professional football where the face matters as much as the arm.
“I love the handsomeness conspiracy idea—the notion that Belichick has discovered a market inefficiency in the undervalued handsome quarterback and is stocking up on them,” Tufts psychology professor Sam Sommers told me. “Sure, could just be an anomaly…(But) I’m sure the rest of the league would be quick to pounce and accuse the Pats of some sort of cheating scheme by which they are outhandsoming everyone else.”
Perhaps you find this theory of mine ridiculous and shallow. Perhaps you may ask, What could a quarterback as handsome as Jimmy Garoppolo possibly provide that a less handsome quarterback couldn’t? Haven’t there been great quarterbacks with frumpier figures and doughier faces and multiple Papa John’s franchises who have also proven to be great?
This is all true. But watching Garoppolo defeat the Arizona Cardinals that Sunday night, and watching the Patriots coalesce around him, and watching that stupidly perfect face beam through an otherwise stultifying postgame interview on NBC, I couldn’t help but ask whether we might somehow be on the cusp of a new era in professional football where the face matters as much as the arm, where a position long associated with golden-boy looks had reached a new apogee. All I knew is that I could not answer this by simply gazing at the glimmering surface of Jimmy Garoppolo’s cheekbones.
And so I turned to science.
There is an archetype at work here when it comes to quarterbacks, and that archetype goes back decades, if not a century, to the moment when Notre Dame first popularized the use of the forward pass in 1913. As the quarterback position developed into the most important role on the field, particularly in the post World War II era, quarterbacks became matinee idols (the Rams’ Bob Waterfield married pin-up girl Jane Russell in 1943). Kids all over the country wore Johnny Unitas’ high-top sneakers in an attempt to emulate his quiet cool, and then Joe Namath broke the mold and became the first countercultural icon to play the position. And so it went, as the NFL and television developed a symbiotic relationship, as our screens grew larger and our pictures became sharper. The quarterback was almost always viewed as the most charismatic dude on the field, as an undeniable leader of men, as the guy who could be (and would be) played by any number of movie stars.
It became a chicken-and-the-egg question, then: Were quarterbacks better-looking because they were the ones often chosen, as young kids, to play the position? Was there a sense of playground Darwinism at work here? Or do we see quarterbacks as being more handsome because this is our perception of what a quarterback is?