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More than a game: Sports, competition helped Gov. Herbert become who he is

Published: Monday, July 6 2015 2:40 p.m. MDT

Gov. Gary Herbert has become a competent golfer, just one of many sports he enjoys. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Gov. Gary Herbert has become a competent golfer, just one of many sports he enjoys. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a series of weekly stories that examine the influence participating in youth and high school sports had on the lives of successful people.

SALT LAKE CITY — It wasn't a state title or MVP moment that gave Gov. Gary Herbert his most memorable moments as a high school athlete.

Instead, it was the heartbreaks, the challenges and just the camaraderie and association with his teammates that have remained important and defining experiences for Utah's governor.

"I wish I could say we won the state championship," said Herbert who played baseball, basketball and football at Orem High School from 1961-1965. "We always came up short, so I have some sad memories of not quite getting it done."

The fact that some of those most memorable high school sports moments were losses doesn't mean they had a negative impact on Herbert.

 Gov. Gary Herbert shares a proclamation with NBA  Slam Dunk winner Jeremy Evans as the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets play NBA basketball  Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah.    (Tom Smart, Deseret News) Gov. Gary Herbert shares a proclamation with NBA Slam Dunk winner Jeremy Evans as the Utah Jazz and the Houston Rockets play NBA basketball Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012, in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Tom Smart, Deseret News)

"I think you learn from your losses as well as from your victories," said Herbert. "You learn that you can give it your best shot, work hard, leave it all on the field, and as they say, let the chips fall where they may. If you do that, if you give it your all, you can feel good, even about losing."

So much of life, he realized through participating in sports, is outside of our control.

"Sometimes it really is how the ball bounces," he said. "It's kind of the luck that comes along with competition."

It was an injured kicker that caused them to miss — and lose by — an extra point. It was a blocked field goal, a missed catch.

"It really is a game of inches," he said. "They don't block that punt and maybe we win the game. But if you're going to have success, you're going to have to realize you'll have some defeats too. That's part of life, overcoming those defeats, those obstacles."

Gov. Gary Herbert throws out the first pitch prior to a Salt Lake Bees game. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News) Gov. Gary Herbert throws out the first pitch prior to a Salt Lake Bees game. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

Herbert was a naturally athletic young man, but he was small. He earned the respect of coaches and teammates, as well as his starting spots, through hard work.

"I just always liked sports," he said. "My dad was an athlete, my uncle was an athlete, and I was probably encouraged or at least saw them enjoy sports. But I played because I was pretty good at it and it was fun. Kids look for fun and playing sports was fun for me."

Herbert was the beneficiary of two fathers.

"My biological father was a great athlete, and he was a star athlete at American Fork High," the governor said. "My step-father was a little guy. He was smaller than I was, but he really liked sports. He was a great fan, and he encouraged me. He'd go out and throw the ball with me, and he coached me in Little League. So I got encouragement from both my fathers, but I liked doing it. It wasn't a hard sell."

Herbert was smaller than many of the boys he was competing against for playing time. It was a work ethic his step-father instilled in him that helped him become a better than average athlete.

"He used to have a phrase, and I have used it many times," he said, laughing with some of his staff members. "It applies to many areas of life. He was the hardest working guy I ever knew, and his slogan was, 'Work will win when wishy-washy wishing won't.' That was kind of the attitude with sports. I didn't have a lot of natural ability, and I wasn't a big person. But I worked hard."

His hard work earned him the starting quarterback position for the Tigers' football team, the point guard and team captain for the basketball team, and the team captain and pitcher/third baseman in baseball.

Herbert is adamant that there are many ways to learn the lessons of hard work, determination and teamwork. He points out that playing in a band requires similar skills to be successful. (He was also a trumpet player in high school.) Still, there is something unique about the physical demands of sports.

"I think I had to try harder, work harder to excel at sports," he said. "You recognize that life is not always fair. You ask yourself, 'How come he gets this great, big athletic body and I don't?' It's just a factor of your genetics. So you try to develop the talent you've got to the best of your ability. You see in sports people who have great natural talent, and they don't develop it. You also see someone who has less natural talent and physical prowess, but works hard and succeeds because of it."

Herbert's participation in competitive athletics prepared him for what is probably the most competitive career outside of sports — politics.

"I think the competitive nature of sports kind of blossomed in me," he said. "When I got into the real estate business, I wanted to compete with the other salesmen to see who could be the best salesman. I got a number of awards for selling a lot of real estate. Eventually I wanted to be my own real estate broker. That was kind of a competitive thing. I think competition falls into everyday life. We want to compete; we want to excel."

It did not hurt Herbert that he savored the challenge.

"For me, I've always been competitive," he said. "I would compete with you on just about anything, and I would find that enjoyable."

He said his love of competition has kept him involved in sports, albeit different games as he's aged. He's become an accomplished tennis player (He was ranked No. 1 in his age division at age 36), and a competent golfer.

"I kind of took to it like a duck to water," he said with a smile.

In fact, Herbert enjoys sports and competition so much that he said not participating would have likely changed not only his high school experience but who he is.

"I would have been that kid in the corner who didn't say much," he said. "It was my way to be part of the group. I was actually pretty shy in high school and this way I could excel and compete and be successful. So it was kind of my way to find social interaction."

And participating was far more important than the score of any game.

"I wasn't very great," said Herbert. "I was maybe a slightly better than average guy. But I had fun. I still enjoy sports. I like them all."

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com twitter: adonsports

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