OREM — Twenty years after making a decision that shocked the National Football League — and plenty of other people — Eli Herring wants the world to know he’s been abundantly blessed. And he’s happy.
“There was never a regret,” he said this week, just days before the start of the 2015 NFL draft, which will transform college kids into multimillionaires.
Herring, who once was considered one of the top offensive linemen in the country, is a humble man who doesn’t seek the limelight and is reluctant to do interviews. But when he’s asked, he’ll share his powerful religious convictions that led him to turn down an opportunity for a lucrative career in the NFL in order to avoid playing on Sundays and to keep the Sabbath Day holy.
Based on what’s transpired over the past two decades, Herring has no doubt that the decision he made was the right one for him and his family.
“The main thing is that I know something now that I was acting on faith on 20 years ago,” he said. “That is, I believed that the Lord would bless me and keep promises that I have learned about as I have studied the scriptures and listened to the prophets. Now I know that. After 20 years, He’s kept his promises abundantly. I’m very grateful and I’m glad I made that decision.”
For Herring, 45, a math teacher and assistant football coach at Mountain View High School as well as a member of an LDS stake presidency in Orem, the evidence of that truth is all around him.
This week the father of seven children sat in his small office at his modest home, reflecting on the impact that choice has had on him over the past 20 years.
Herring is surrounded by shelves of books, mementos from the seven years he served as an LDS bishop and family photos — but, curiously, no memorabilia from his days playing football at BYU.
While his hair is now gray, he has the same warm smile and gentle aura that emanated from him in college. As he speaks softly, a daughter plays the piano in the living room while other children do their homework and play video games. His wife, Jennifer, keeps everything running smoothly.
It amazes Herring that 20 years has gone by so swiftly. Does he ever think about where he would be now had he decided to go to the NFL?
“Oh yeah,” he said. “I don’t have any idea other than it would have been more money, so I would have been in a bigger home with nicer cars somewhere else. But I wouldn’t have been happier than I am now.”
SAYING NO TO THE NFL — AND A SIX-FIGURE CONTRACT
Early in 1995, once Herring had decided not to play in the NFL, he, with the help of a BYU administrator, wrote a letter to all 30 NFL teams informing them of his intentions. Despite that, numerous teams told Herring they would select him in the seventh round, figuring he would come to his senses and change his mind, and then sign him for a bargain-basement price.
At the time, Herring was 6-8 and 330 pounds, had a 3.5 grade-point average and was considered one of the top senior offensive tackles in the draft.
On the second and final day of the 1995 draft, Herring was attending Sunday church meetings when he found out that his BYU teammate and fellow offensive lineman, Tim Hanshaw, had been selected in the fourth round of the draft by the San Francisco 49ers.
When he returned home from church, Herring called Hanshaw to congratulate him.
“Congratulations to you, too,” Hanshaw replied, informing Herring that he had been picked in the sixth round by the Oakland Raiders, who snatched him early because they didn’t have a seventh-round selection that season.
The Raiders offered him a three-year, $1.5 million contract. Team officials, including late assistant coach Fred Whittingham, Sr., later met with Herring in Utah in an attempt to convince him to play in the NFL. Instead, he turned down the offer and became a school teacher with a starting salary of $22,000 a year.
“The Raiders tried to talk me into playing. They sent ol’ Brother Fred to visit with me,” he said. “I did get offered a contract. It wasn’t really tempting. I did get an Oakland Raiders T-shirt out it. I’ve still got that T-shirt tucked away somewhere. I’ve never been much of a Raiders fan. I was flattered that they drafted me.”
For any family raising seven children, money is a concern. The Herring’s oldest daughter recently returned home from a mission and attends BYU. Another daughter attends Snow College and is planning on a mission. While they are not wealthy by United States standards, Herring said he and his family have all they want and need. Their children take piano lessons and play sports. They recently bought a 2010 Hyundai Accent for Jennifer to drive.
“Sometimes you wish you had more money,” Herring said, laughing. “But I’m pretty confident I live in the top one percent of the Earth’s population in terms of income. I make a nice living. I’ve never been on a cruise. Maybe someday I’ll go on a cruise. But 99.9 percent of the Earth’s population hasn’t gone on a cruise. In terms of temporal things, the Lord has blessed us and blessed us and blessed us. We’ve been blessed abundantly both temporally and spiritually.”
Once Herring made the decision to eschew the NFL, the news was picked up by the local and national media. It “mushroomed,” he recalled.
Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and Seattle Times published long profiles about Herring and his decision. Ironically, almost overnight, his decision not to play in the NFL may have made him more famous than had he chosen to play.
“If they ever change to Saturdays,” Herring told the L.A. Times at the time, “I’d be very interested.”
Herring received letters from not just across the country, but from all over the world.
“Most of (them) were very complimentary. It was very gratifying to me,” he said. “But there were some that were, ‘You’re insane. You’re crazy.’ To the point of disrespect occasionally. You have the whole myriad of responses from people. I’d get letters from Jewish people or Seventh-Day Adventists who would say, ‘Hey, good news! The Sabbath is not on Sunday, so you can go play.’”
Herring still has those letters in a box tucked away downstairs, but he hasn’t looked at them in a long time. “They’re just part of that part of my life,” Herring said.
Most of the correspondence Herring received came, not surprisingly, from members of the LDS Church.
“Most of it was positive. A little bit was not,” Herring said. “I had a lot of non-members say, ‘I don’t agree with why you’re doing this but I appreciate the position you’re taking based on what you believe.’ And I had a few say, ‘You’re going to regret that decision.’”
Herring began to realize how much people cared about his choice not to play on Sundays.
“There was a little part of me that wondered, am I going to make that decision and go on with my life, or is this something that will be bigger than that?” he said. “But when it actually happened, it was pretty astonishing to me. I was an offensive lineman. Nobody talked to me. They want to talk to the quarterback. Then I had people calling me all the time. Newspapers, magazines, TV stations. On the one hand, it was kind of cool. People noticed what I did. On the other hand, it was kind of overwhelming. It was a learning experience. I had never done anything like that before. Occasionally someone would send me a manila envelope from LA or somewhere else with a copy of an article, in case I missed it.”
Just imagine what might have happened if social media tools like Facebook and Twitter had existed in the mid-1990s.
Herring has been asked to speak at numerous functions to talk about his decision.
These days, with the passage of time, those events are a faded memory for many people. But he never could have imagined that people would remember it decades later.
“Twenty years ago, if you had told me that I’d be sitting here 20 years later having an interview about this, I’d have thought, ‘No way,’” he said. “But here we are.”
Herring points out that most of his students at Mountain View weren’t even born in 1995. They are oblivious to Herring’s former life.
“But sometimes a kid will come in from seminary and say, ‘Mr. Herring, I heard something about you. Is that true?’” he said. “Sometimes I’ll say, ‘Yeah, that’s true.’ Then we’ll go on with some more math.”
While it’s not discussed as much anymore, because of his decision, he is an esteemed man among those who know him.
“The respect in my community that I have received because of the decision I made far exceeds what I ever had as a football player,” he said. “I’m very grateful for that. I can tell when people know that. I have the benefit off the bat. They give me credit for being a guy who tries to do what I believe, anyway. I appreciate that.”
SEEDS PLANTED EARLY
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:
For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
— Exodus 20: 8-11
While Herring wrestled with his decision for months in 1994 and 1995 prior to the draft, he experienced seminal moments along the way as a young man.
“There were seeds planted over the years that led finally to that decision,” he said.
Between the ages of 15 and 16, Herring grew from 6-3, 185 pounds to 6-5, 260 pounds. At that point, he started to believe that a pro football career was in his future.
He would talk about it with his family and, without exception, his mother would simply say, “Just remember Eli, if you choose that career, you’ll have to play on Sunday.”
Later, when Herring was serving a mission in Argentina, he read the story of Erroll Bennett, a Tahitian soccer star who joined the LDS Church, then told his soccer league, and his country, that because of his newfound understanding of the law of the Sabbath, he wasn’t going to play anymore.
“He was willing to give up this thing he loved to do,” Herring recalled. “He was better than anyone in his country, but he was going to walk away from that. I thought it was amazing. Not only that, they changed the day they play soccer because of his decision. I’ve never forgotten that.”
Herring also noticed during his mission how little weight sports and riches carry in the eternal perspective. Nobody in Argentina cared about American football. Plus, he was there during a time when Argentina was caught in the throes of hyper-inflation and he saw people struggle each day trying to feed their families after losing all that they had.
“As I considered that NFL decision,” Herring said, “that factored in there. I realized that I could make a lot of money, but things could happen. Money might not be something I could depend on. The Lord makes very clear promises that He will provide for His people who keep the Sabbath. I figured, well, I can take that to the bank."
PROJECTED FIRST-ROUND DRAFT PICK
When Herring returned home from his mission, he was eager to resume his football career. Going into his senior season, Herring was working in the mechanical shop on campus where he was employed, when someone asked if he had seen the newspaper. No, he hadn’t. He was shown a copy of USA Today, listing Herring as one of the prospective first-round picks in the upcoming draft.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Herring said. “I had no idea anyone thought of my play that way. At that point, that decision became real to me. I knew, barring an injury, that was a decision I was going to have to make because I was going to pursue that. If I decided to play, I was going to be the best player I could be.”
But would that be the best thing for him? The rest of the summer, and throughout his senior year, Herring focused on preparing for the draft, and figuring out if that was the goal he should be pursuing.
“If for some reason I needed not to play,” he remembered, “then I needed God to tell me that it was that important because this was a lot of money and was going to be providing for a family.”
Every day, Herring spent hours reading the scriptures and praying, searching for an answer to his dilemma. He was well-aware that many fellow LDS athletes had played professional football. He knew he could represent the Church by playing in the NFL.
By that time, he had been married for a couple of years. He was the father of a young daughter. The hard realities of providing for a family hit home.
“It just became more and more clear to me that if I would keep the commandments, Heavenly Father would bless me and honor the promises that he’s made,” he said. “Jennifer and I talked about it a lot. In the end, she was very clear. ‘I’ll support you, Eli. You’re going to provide for our family. If you choose to play, I’ll support you in that. If you choose not to play, I’ll support you in that. You’re going to be the provider.’ At no time in that process did I ever think, ‘God is commanding me not to play.’ But based on what I was learning, I realized that the law of the Sabbath is important. The law of the Sabbath is a sign between God and His people. Because of my need to have an answer to one question and my constant prayer and study regarding that one question, it was like every day I was learning things that helped me understand that Heavenly Father is serious about His commandments. He promises great blessings to those who keep those commandments.”
One day after the season while he was in the BYU football office, secretary Shirley Johnson informed him that he had been chosen to play in the Hula Bowl in Hawaii.
“Well, I think the game’s on Sunday, so I’m not going to be playing.’”
Johnson looked at Herring. “You’re going to be playing on Sunday for the next several years, so what difference does that make?” she asked.
“I’m not going to play,” he told her.
Twenty years later, there are some misconceptions that Herring would like to clear up about his story.
First of all, some people were upset about his decision for reasons that had little to do with football.
“There were people who took offense at my decision because they sensed that when I chose to not work on Sunday, I was condemning them,” he explained. “That was professional athletes and run-of-the-mill folks who weren’t professional athletes. I had correspondence from people who were angry. I said it then and I’ll say it again: for me, that was the decision I felt like I needed to make in my life. I’ve got tons of friends who played pro ball. I love them. We’re friends to this day and I have tons of respect for them. They’re great men. But for me, that’s what I needed to do. The evidence that I’ve obtained in my life since then has confirmed to me that for me, it was the right decision. I believe the Sabbath is an absolutely important law. If a person decides they need to work on Sunday, fair enough. I’m going to say, understand that I believe the law of the Sabbath is important. We have doctors and policemen and firemen that work on the Sabbath and thank heavens that they do. The Sabbath is important, I believe that.”
Second, Herring cringes when he hears people say that he was offered millions of dollars to play in the NFL.
“That’s not true,” he said. “I told every NFL team I wouldn’t be playing. It never got to that.”
THE LEGACY OF A DECISION
Herring’s decision has affected himself and his family most, and, ultimately, he hopes his children will remember why he made the decision.
Over the years, he’s shared his story with them many times, knowing it can bless another generation in the same way his parents’ teachings helped him.
“I do in the sense that because of my experience I have this testimony that the Sabbath Day is powerful and as we keep that commandment, the Lord will bless us,” he said. “I want my children to know that I know that. There are times when I teach a gospel decision and we explain that’s why your mother and I have decided this. I want my children to know that the Sabbath’s important. I’m trying to teach them. But that’s just one principle out of many.”
Already, his daughters have faced conflicts regarding whether or not to work on Sundays. They seek counsel from their father, and make their own decisions.
“They’re going to have to make the bigger decisions as they come along,” Herring said.
Twenty years ago, Herring made an intensely personal decision that received widespread attention. He’s lived with the consequences of that decision.
And he wouldn’t change a thing.
“That decision was this thing that, for me, if for nobody else, a defining moment, even more than my mission — that I’m going to try to serve the Lord, keep His commandments and rely on the Lord’s promises,” Herring said. “And rely on the fact that He will bless me. And He does. All of the time.”