Eli Herring: The man who said ‘no’ to the NFL

Eli Herring with his wife, Jennifer, and their seven children. Herring decided not to play professional football to honor the Sabbath. (Eli Herring)
Eli Herring with his wife, Jennifer, and their seven children. Herring decided not to play professional football to honor the Sabbath. (Eli Herring)

Eli Herring was a second-team All-Western Athletic Conference tackle after his senior season at BYU. He was projected to be drafted somewhere in the first three rounds of the 1995 NFL Draft. It was a childhood dream of his to step onto an NFL gridiron, but Herring told all 30 teams “no.”

It wasn’t for him.

Not anymore.

Herring, 46, grew up in Idaho, but moved with his family to Utah when he was in high school and he enrolled at Springville High School. A massive growth spurt prompted real thoughts about professional football.

“I was about 6-foot-3 and 185 (pounds) when I started my sophomore year,” Herring said. “Then when I started my junior year I was 6-foot-5 and 260 (pounds).”

Herring played football and wrestled at Springville High School, lettering in both. He was a captain on the Springville football team and won the state championship in 1985. In 1987 he enrolled at BYU, after being recruited by Utah, Stanford, Washington, Utah State and the Cougars. By the time he arrived on campus in Provo, Herring stood 6-foot-8 and weighed 330 pounds.

Herring played his freshman season in Provo before departing on an LDS mission to Salta, Argentina. While there he heard of Erroll Bennett, a Tahitian soccer player who decided to give up Sunday play after he was baptized. Bennett’s decision prompted his soccer league to change their scheduling to allow him to play.

This story stuck with Herring and it brought back memories of what his mother had told him years earlier.

“My mother started introducing that idea – whenever I brought up professional football, she’d say, ‘remember, if you choose that, you’ll have to play on Sunday. You’ll have to play on the Sabbath.'”

Bennett’s strong testimony, that influenced his entire community, and the steady influence of his mother kept Herring thinking about his future. But he still had a few seasons before the NFL would come knocking.

Herring returned to BYU in 1990 in good football shape. He started eight of the team’s final nine games in his sophomore season, then was granted a medical hardship waiver after injuring his knee in 1992. During his junior season in 1993 he was selected by his coaches as the Offensive Lineman of the Game four times. The Cougars went 6-6 that season, including a four-game losing streak where they lost to UCLA, Notre Dame, Fresno State and Utah State. But in-season disappointments aren’t what Herring remembers.

Eli Herring during his playing days at BYU. Herring was projected to be drafted in the first three rounds of the 1995 NFL Draft. (BYU Photo)
Eli Herring during his playing days at BYU. Herring was projected to be drafted in the first three rounds of the 1995 NFL Draft. (BYU Photo)

“After my junior year I was selected as an Honorable Mention All-Conference offensive tackle,” Herring said. “What that honor made apparent to me was that there were 10 offensive linemen who were thought of more highly than me who were first and second teamers in the Western Athletic Conference. I thought ‘Well, I’m not going to be able to play pro ball. There are all kinds of guys who are playing better ball than I am.'”

Herring began thinking that pro football might not be in his future and started contemplating other occupations that would allow him to provide for his family more effectively.

That was until he saw the newspaper.

Heading into his senior season, Herring was working at the mechanical shop on campus. He was in the shop one day when a co-worker approached him, asking if Herring had seen the paper.

Herring replied that he had not.

He informed him that Herring was in it.

“I just assumed it was a Daily Universe article,” Herring said. “Or something in the local paper about the upcoming season. I was more likely to have an article written about me as a senior than as a freshman or sophomore, so I didn’t think anything of it.”

The two went to the co-worker’s locker and pulled out a copy of USA Today.

USA Today had ranked him as one of the top 30 prospects in the 1995 NFL Draft.

“I was like ‘wow,'” Herring said. “I was really pretty blown away. I had no indication whatsoever that I was on anybody’s radar.”

The news gave Herring some renewed hope for his NFL dreams. As he prepared for his final season at BYU, he knew what he was going to do.

“At that point, all doubts were dispelled. I knew I was going to play and play hard,” he said.

But he still remembered what his mother had told him. About how he’d be spending his Sundays. So as he played his senior season, Herring focused on two things.

Playing great football and figuring out his Sabbath situation.

“I knew two things,” Herring said. “I knew barring injury I was going to play great football and make a lot of money, or I was going to know for myself that the Sabbath was so important that I needed to set that career opportunity aside and pursue something else.”

Herring spent his senior season studying game film to eliminate mistakes on the field and reading his scriptures for hours at a time to eliminate potential mistakes off the field. He’d also pray, seeking for answers to his questions. It was a sacred period of time for Herring and it gave him a strong testimony of the power of God and the need for obedience.

“It was a very spiritual time for me,” Herring said. “There was very constant personal revelation as I read my scriptures.”

Herring cited a handful of scriptures that he still holds dear. Exodus 31, Doctrine and Covenants 59 and certain passages from Alma and Isaiah are all ones he said he’s “never forgotten.”

“Observance of the Sabbath is something you’re going to see among God’s people.”

The Cougars finished Herring’s senior season with a 31-6 shellacking of Oklahoma in the Copper Bowl and were ranked No. 18 in the final AP Top 25 Poll (BYU was No. 10 in the Final Coaches Poll). Herring was invited to the NFL Combine and the Hula Bowl (now the Senior Bowl).

Eli Herring walks off the field after a game. Teammate Jim Edwards said Herring would sometimes implement the "splash technique." If the man Herring was blocking fell and the whistle hadn't blown, Herring would jump into the air and "belly flop the opponent." (BYU Photo)
Eli Herring walks off the field after a game. Teammate Jim Edwards said Herring would sometimes implement the “splash technique.” If the man Herring was blocking fell and the whistle hadn’t blown, Herring would jump into the air and “belly flop the opponent.” (BYU Photo)

Herring knew he had to make a decision about his NFL future. Agents were contacting him. He needed to return their calls. He needed to accept or decline his Combine and Hula Bowl invitations.

“As I look back at that whole experience, I never asked the Lord to tell me what to do,” Herring said. “I just asked Him to help me understand.”

Herring sat at home one day while his wife, Jennifer, was out. He stared at his telephone. He decided to call those agents and tell them the news.

He wasn’t going pro.

Herring said the agents were respectful and “complimentary” of his decision, adding those interactions “went well.”

But he still had more people to tell.

Herring met with Athletic Director Val Hale to draft a letter to send to every NFL franchise, informing them of Herring’s decision.

A few weeks later, Herring was in the football offices. A secretary approached him and said every team had called, asking if he was serious about not going pro.

“Wow,” Herring said smiling. “I didn’t have any idea that every team in the league would have any concern with what I did.”

But, despite the interest from each squad, Herring said he never had any regrets about the decision.

“I would not have made that decision if I had any concern about it being wrong,” Herring said. “I knew it was a decision that needed to be made and I would not have made that decision if I wasn’t sure it wasn’t worth making in that way.”

Herring said he often wondered, especially as a younger man, what might have been had he made a different choice. Had he laced up his cleats on Sunday. Had he made more money.

Instead, he was watching as former teammates and opponents went pro.

Still, no regrets from Herring, who describes himself as being “very, very blessed.”

Herring’s letter still didn’t deter NFL teams. Many called Herring personally to say they planned on drafting him with their seventh round selection.

He sat in church one Sunday, expecting to be drafted by one of those teams that contacted him.

Someone approached him and said that Herring’s teammate, Tim Hanshaw had been selected in the fourth round by the San Francisco 49ers. Herring went home after church and called Hanshaw to congratulate him.

Hanshaw reciprocated the message, much to the surprise of Herring.

He’d been selected in the sixth round by the Oakland Raiders.

“I was surprised,” Herring said.

The Raiders had never spoke to Herring before the draft.

Over the next few months, the Raiders were in contact with Herring. He met with former BYU defensive end Fred Whittingham, who was a coach on the Raiders staff at the time. Some articles stated Herring met with Bruce Allen, but Herring said he “didn’t recall” such a meeting.

For Herring, meeting with an NFL team is no big deal. He speaks about it casually, saying that he “got a hat and t-shirt” out of it.

What wasn’t routine for Herring was the publicity that followed.

“I wondered what would happen,” Herring said of public reaction. “But it was absolutely astonishing to see. That’s the humor of it: I had more publicity in two or three months than I would’ve ever had in the NFL, unless I’d been an All-Pro lineman. I was on ESPN, the Boston Globe interviewed me, the LA Times and all these other papers. I had people wanting to interview me all the time. It was crazy.”

For friend and former teammate Jim Edwards, it was equally shocking.

“I was amazed at how many reacted negatively toward him for his decision,” Edwards said in an email. “It really did surprise me why anyone should get upset in the first place, or even care about what another person chooses to do with his life.”

Herring still keeps the letters he received from people all around the nation. Some were complimentary of his position, some were more derogatory. Others tried to change his position entirely.

Even some teammates harbored some negative feelings at the time. Former teammate and longtime friend Mike Empey, currently the BYU football team’s offensive line coach, said he remembered feeling jealous of Herring’s opportunity.

“At the time, I had tried to go pro the year before. I had some health issues where I couldn’t pass a physical – I had a knee problem. I just remember watching Eli and I was a little jealous that he had an opportunity to go and chose not to. I was just feeling sad because I wanted to so bad. So from that perspective, it was kind of hard to watch him go through that, because I would have wanted to go play.”

But Herring never wavered.

“The way it went has been the way I’m happy with,” Herring said. “I’m happy the way things have gone… The Lord blessed me.”

Some have speculated that Herring’s passing on the NFL is his condemnation of other LDS athletes. However, Herring has said on numerous occasions that his choice was a personal one and added he doesn’t “hold up (his) life as an example to anyone else.”

Edwards also recognized the falsehood.

“(Herring) said on more than one occasion that the NFL might be fine for (others) and that he didn’t judge their choice in any way – he just felt it wasn’t the right thing for him to pursue.”

Herring’s testimony is a strong one. His spiritual side helps drive him to balance a busy life that includes being a math teacher and assistant football coach at Mountain View High School, serving in an LDS Church Stake Presidency and being a father of seven children.

“Small investments over long periods yield big results,” Herring said, describing himself as a “math guy.” “I just have to be thoughtful about making sure the most important things get their time, and then tending to other things.”

While his story is a remarkable one, Herring insists he’s no “hero.”

But Empey and Edwards heaped praise upon Herring.

“He’s just a solid, genuine, really good person,” Empey said. “He’s always been anchored in doing things right and has a lot of integrity. Very competitive. As a football player, he was a very physical guy, very tough guy. He’s just somebody that’s solid on and off the field. Just a good person.”

Edwards said in an email that he was “blessed to be around him and call him my friend,” and added that he could count on Herring for “anything at any time.”

For Herring, he couldn’t be happier. On occasion he wonders how his life might be different had he accepted the three-year, $1.5 million NFL contract. But he never looks back. He sits in a modest home surrounded by his family, just the way he wants it.

“We’ve been blessed abundantly, in many, many ways,” Herring said. “In many ways, as I’ve looked over the course of my life, and to see how great my life is in many ways, I just think the Lord really keeps his promises.”

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