You may have seen the story last week about Vardaman High football coach Brennan Pugh, quarantined because of COVID-19, who coached from a rented lift from his backyard near the field. The story went viral, which perhaps really isn’t the best way to describe anything during this pandemic. Nonetheless…
Pugh’s story brought back memories of another Mississippi high school football story that went viral before viral was a thing. This was back when newspapers were still read from ink on paper. Back when the Internet was in its infancy, available almost exclusively to universities and governments in possession of huge, cumbersome super computers.
This was in 1988 when a 46-year-old man named David Lee Herbert, stricken with ALS, coached at tiny Tishomingo High in the northeast Mississippi hill country. Some readers may remember. Some are too young to remember. Some weren’t born yet.
Then as now, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) was incurable. Herbert had been diagnosed the year before. His illness was advancing rapidly. He coached practices from a motorized wheelchair. He coached games from a wheelchair in the flatbed of a pickup truck pulled up to the sidelines. Mainly, he continued to coach because his son, Dave Herbert, was the senior quarterback.
This was mid-November, last game of the season. Tishomingo was playing at Falkner. A berth in the state playoffs was on the line. Tishomingo led Falkner 16-14 with seven seconds left and Tishomingo had the ball at the Falkner 35. But here’s the deal: To advance to the playoffs, Tishomingo had to defeat Faulkner by four points and led by only two. Nobody in the town of Falkner could kick a 52-yard field goal. David Lee Herbert signaled in a timeout to weigh his bleak-at-best options.
A field goal try was no option. He could try to throw a “Hail Mary” against Falkner’s stout defense but that was the longest of long shots. But David Lee Herbert came up with another idea that he described in a phone conversation days later. “We weighed our chances of scoring on one play and knew they weren’t very good,” he said. “We decided to go the other way.”
The “other way” was 65 yards backwards for a safety that would score two points for Falkner and send the game into overtime, tied at 16. Then, Coach Herbert thought, his team could score a winning touchdown and advance to the playoffs. Yes, it was a long shot, but Coach Herbert determined that it was his team’s best shot.
His problem was convincing his team. “At first, I thought it was crazy, too,” said Dave Herbert, the quarterback who was called to the sidelines to get the next play. “But then when I thought about it, it made sense.”
Dave Herbert went back on the field and told his teammates. They balked. Two delay of game penalties ensued while Dave tried to convince his teammates. One teammate told him that his daddy had lost his mind. Finally, all agreed, if reluctantly, to run the play. Dave Herbert took the snap, turned and pitched the ball to Shane Hill, the team’s fastest player. While fans of both teams watched in disbelief, Hill raced to the opposite end zone and slid in for a safety to tie the score at 16 just as the clock ticked down to 0:00.
Tishomingo, of course, scored a touchdown in the first overtime to win 22-16 and advance to the playoffs. What happened next was, well, just about the biggest thing that ever happened in Tishomingo.
Even with no Internet, the news traveled fast, far beyond Tishomingo (pop. 500). Two days later, Brent Musburger talked about Herbert on CBS’s “NFL Today.” ABC and NBC ran clips from the game on the evening news. Paul Harvey featured the “wrong way play” on his national radio program. Radio talk show hosts around the U.S. scrambled to try and find the phone number of the “wrong way” coach.
All those years ago, David Lee Herbert told me: “I never expected this much attention. We were just doing what needed to be done.”
Such modesty. Maybe Bear Bryant or Knute Rockne or Vince Lombardi would have thought to do it. Then again, maybe not.
Now then, fast forward 17 years to 2005, the year David Lee Herbert died. “The doctors had told us he would live five years at most and we had 18,” Linda Herbert, David Lee’s widow, told me. “He was a strong, strong man.”
And Linda Herbert was a strong, strong woman. This is far, far more than a football story. This is a love story.
Following that 1988 school year, Linda Herbert quit her teaching job to care for her husband whose health deteriorated rapidly and cruelly. She cared for him at home around the clock, for five years in Tishomingo and for the last 12 in Carrollton where they were surrounded by more family.
“Friends talk about how hard I worked, but it wasn’t like a job, and I didn’t get tired,” Linda Herbert told me. “I loved him that much. He loved me that much, too. He would have done the same for me.”
ALS is the cruelest of diseases. The mind remains sharp, while the body loses function, organ by organ. David Lee Herbert first needed a ventilator to breathe in 1989. He still loved his football, which he watched at every opportunity on TV. His wife would clip newspaper and magazine articles about the sport and arrange them so he could more easily read.
For years, the only way David Lee Herbert could communicate was by blinking his eyes. And then those facial muscles failed him, as well. Still, Linda Herbert managed.
You want to know what love is? This is love…
“I was with him so much I could read his mind,” Linda Herbert said. “Usually, I knew what he was wanting. I could look at him and tell what he wanted or needed.”
Linda Herbert died in January, 2019, of a lung disease nearly 14 years after her husband’s death.
“Mama was a hero, too,” says David Herbert, who now lives in Florence. “What she did behind the scenes all those years, people just wouldn’t believe.”
Continued Dave Herbert, “Lot of people remember that play, the one that became famous and that was the catalyst. But there was so much more to my Dad’s story.”
David Lee Herbert was inducted into the Mississippi Association of Coaches Hall of Fame in 1989. A book – “Playing for Overtime: The David Lee Herbert Story” – was authored by Al Ainsworth and published in 2019. Rick Cleveland wrote a foreword.