Ask former teammates about Jay Cutler, and without any prompting, it comes up: The face.
No NFL quarterback in history has had his facial expressions dissected more than Cutler’s. Why doesn’t he smile more? Why doesn’t he look more intense? Is he apathetic? Aloof? The perception of nonchalance led an NFL fan in 2012 to Photoshop a cigarette in Cutler’s mouth, and create the “SmokinJayCutler” Tumblr account, which went viral.
The smoking Cutler meme resurfaced Monday, during his introductory news conference after signing a one-year, $10 million contract with the Dolphins to replace injured Ryan Tannehill.
That face, say those who know him, is, in fact, the face of a tough-as-nails competitor, son of a no-nonsense Indiana state trooper who ran a concrete business on the side, a three-sport phenom who grew up on Holly Lane in Santa Claus, Indiana, led Heritage Hills High to a state semifinal victory on a severely sprained ankle, and survived four years at Vanderbilt, where he faced relentless pressure from the Southeastern Conference’s punishing defenses.
That face, they say, is a resilient guy who during the past eight years, while playing quarterback for the Chicago Bears and being a media piñata, was battling Type 1 diabetes, pricking his finger several times a day, injecting himself in the stomach with insulin. He realized something was wrong when he felt weak and lost 35 pounds during the 2007 season with the Denver Broncos. He was diagnosed in April 2008, just before his 25th birthday.
“Living with diabetes in the public eye, it makes it harder,” Cutler said in a video for National Diabetes Month. “There is no real room for error. Every day I have to be on. If I go out and have a bad game and my numbers are way off I'm going to get criticized for it. I can get real low and not know exactly what's going on and get hit the wrong way and hurt myself. There are definitely dangers out there.”
Although he has been married to actress Kristin Cavallari since 2013 after courting her long-distance through her publicist (Cavallari sheepishly admits she had to Google Cutler because she didn’t know who he was), he is uncomfortable in the spotlight. The father of three is guarded with the media, which has not helped his public image.
“Jay’s been getting blasted his whole career, people saying he needs to smile more, be more emotional, Twitter blew up with that dumb meme,” said Jovan Haye, a Fort Lauderdale Dillard grad who was Cutler’s teammate for four years at Vanderbilt and went on to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “Jay’s Jay. He’s never changed. That face is the same face I saw every game at Vanderbilt.
“It’s not that he doesn’t care. He’s one of the most competitive guys I’ve ever known. He’s just stone-faced, like Eli Manning. You can’t tell if he just threw five touchdowns or five picks. If Jay Cutler had one or two Super Bowls under his belt, this would be a non-issue. It’s not like me and Jay are best friends. I don’t have his number; he doesn’t have mine. But I played with him, and I’m telling you, he’s had a bum rap.”
Bob Clayton was Cutler’s high school football coach. It irks him when critics question Cutler’s toughness. He has vivid memories of that 27-0 state semifinal victory over perennial powerhouse Roncalli of Indianapolis. Heritage Hills, from a rural corner of Indiana, was the underdog. Cutler had spent the week on crutches with a sprained left ankle, and his status for the game was in doubt.
Cutler not only played, he threw three touchdowns and intercepted three passes as a safety. A week later, Cutler led the Patriots to the school’s first and only state football title, culminating a 15-0 perfect season.
“Jay is the most misinterpreted guy in the NFL,” Clayton said. “He’s been raked over the coals so many years now. It hurts me. It’s disrespectful. I want to punch the guys on the TV sometimes because they don’t really know Jay Cutler, and they don’t know what they’re talking about. He was one of the most competitive kids I’ve ever seen. He played quarterback and safety, was our punt and kick returner. That kid never left the field.”
Adam Kress played on that high school team. He says Cutler’s sideline demeanor then was the same as in the pros. “He didn’t show much emotion or give speeches; but one time, he thought I took a play off, and he grabbed me by the facemask and let me have it. The guy wanted to win. Anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t know Jay.”
Cutler has spent much of his 34 years explaining that the name of his hometown is, indeed, Santa Claus. Coincidentally, Dolphins legend Bob Griese grew up just outside Santa Claus, and his brother, William, lives there.
The Christmas-themed village 30 minutes from the Kentucky border has a population of 2,500, an amusement park called Holiday World, a Santa Claus Museum, and streets named Elf Way, Sled Run, and Blitzen Lane.
The town was founded in 1854 as Santa Fe, but when locals applied for a post office, they were told Indiana already had a Santa Fe. They went with Santa Claus. Every December since, the post office has been flooded with letters from children, and they get back a reply with a Santa postmark.
Jay was the first child of Jack and Sandy Cutler, and has two younger sisters, Joy and Jenna. Jack, a former star high school running back, became a police officer and started a concrete company called Cutler and Son. Jay helped his father pour concrete from a young age, and spent the rest of his time playing sports at Holly Park.
By the time he got to Heritage Hills High in 1997, everyone in town knew he was the kid with the rocket arm who could dunk a basketball, play every position on a football field and switch hit on the baseball diamond. His senior year, the Patriots averaged 51 points a game. Cutler completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,252 yards and 31 touchdowns. He ran for 493 yards and six touchdowns, and also returned six kicks for scores.
He was voted All-State in football and basketball and honorable mention as a baseball shortstop.
Cutler was heavily recruited by the University of Illinois, and planned to go there, but Illini Coach Ron Turner (who coached at FIU in recent years) changed his mind and gave the scholarship to a California kid named Matt Dlugolecki, who transferred to San Diego State after one season. As fate would have it, Cutler and Turner were reunited with the Bears, where Turner was the offensive coordinator.
Jay Burch, Cutler’s high school athletic director, reached out to Vanderbilt and they signed Cutler. He made an immediate impression.
“Jay was one of the strongest players in the weight room, and when we played pickup basketball in the rec center, he dunked on guys, which we didn’t expect from a quarterback,” said Trey Holloway, a Vandy teammate who now works for AARP in Washington.
He started as a safety on the scout team, and before long had unseated highly-touted David Koral as the starting quarterback.
“Jay never gave speeches in the locker room or huddle, that isn’t Jay,” Holloway said. “He was a one-on-one leader. When they asked me to switch from defensive line to center my junior year, I didn’t want to. Jay came over and talked me through that, which, to me, demonstrated leadership.”
After good showings at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine, Cutler was taken by Denver in the first round of the 2006 Draft, the 11th pick overall and third quarterback selected. The other two — USC’s Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart and Vince Young of Texas — are no longer in the NFL. Word is the New York Jets, under then-general manager Mike Tannenbaum, were very high on Cutler. Eleven years later, Tannenbaum signed Cutler for the Dolphins.
Broncos fans were excited about Cutler, whose athleticism drew comparisons to John Elway and Brett Favre. He made the 2008 Pro Bowl. But coach Mike Shanahan was fired that year, and Cutler, known for his bluntness, expressed his displeasure. Word leaked that new coach Josh McDaniels might trade Cutler for New England’s Matt Cassel. Things turned sour, Cutler asked to be traded and was lambasted in the national media.
ESPN.com columnist Gene Wojciechowski wrote: “Will someone please give Jay Cutler his pacifier, hand him his favorite blankie and put him back in his crib for his afternoon nap?” Cutler supporters say McDaniels mishandled the situation and was to blame for the messy breakup.
The Bears gave up two first-round draft picks to get Cutler from Denver. He arrived in Chicago to a hero’s welcome, expected to return the Bears to Super Bowl glory. It didn’t happen. He was 51-51 as a starter through eight seasons, enduring a revolving door of six offensive coordinators.
His leadership and toughness were called into question, particularly after he left the 2011 NFC Championship Game down 14-0 with a knee injury and stood off by himself during the second half. Critics say he should have played hurt, or at least engaged with teammates. Supporters say he was frustrated coaches pulled him from the game.
After the 2016 season, Cutler announced his retirement. He got a job as a FOX analyst. But last week, the Dolphins called, and his career got a restart.
One former member of the Bears organization who asked to remain unnamed said Cutler was phenomenally gifted, well-liked by his teammates, worked hard, never made waves, but “didn’t have that intangible, that aura, that the great quarterbacks have. He was highly insecure, which many players are, but as quarterback, he should have tried to show more energy, even if that was out of his comfort zone; not just for the fans and media, but for his teammates.”
Cutler, that source said, “never reached the pinnacle of his athletic prowess, but Dolphins coach Adam Gase, who was offensive coordinator of the Bears in 2015, might bring it out of him.” Cutler and Gase have such a good relationship that Gase flew to Nashville for Cutler’s retirement party earlier this year. “Some players need a coach who’s as much psychologist as X’s and O’s. Adam Gase is that coach,” the Bears source said.
Kress agreed. “Jay has a chance for a storybook ending. Hopefully, he can shut the haters up and fix that tarnished reputation. He’s got a coach who believes in him, teammates who seem happy to have him there, and that’s got to put a zip in his passes, and a spring in his step. We’ll be rooting for him from Santa Claus.”