An ALS remembrance: David Lee Herbert

Apparently there is much method to the madness that is the ice bucket challenge we keep seeing on the news and on social media. The ALS Association reported Sunday it has received $13.3 million in donations compared to $1.7 million during the same time period last year (July 29 to August 17). These donations have come from existing donors and 259,505 new donors to The Association. This is good.

What follows is a column from 2005, written about David Lee Herbert, small-town Mississippi football coach, who became famous for a week in the fall of 1988. What people didn’t know at the time was that Herbert was suffered from ALS.

From Sunday, July 24, 2005, The Clarion-Ledger

Andy Warhol once predicted everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. For football coach David Lee Herbert, fame lasted more like a week, maybe two, 17 years ago.

Herbert, who died July 16 at age 63, was a small-town Mississippi football coach who made international news for a stroke of coaching genius in November of 1988.

Some fans surely will remember.

Herbert’s Tishomingo team led Falkner 16-14 with only seconds to play in the last regular season game. Tishomingo needed to win the game by four points or more to make the state Class 1A playoffs. Tishomingo had the ball at the Falkner 35 with time for only one play.

Timeout was called and quarterback Dave Herbert, the coach’s son, was called to the sidelines. At first, young Dave couldn’t believe the play his father called.

“He told me to turn around and pitch it to running back Shane Hill and for him to run it back the other way through the end zone for a safety,” Dave Herbert recalls. “At first I didn’t know what to think, but I didn’t question it. He was the coach and my daddy, and I did what I was told.”

Dave Herbert, at 6 feet, 2 inches and 210 pounds, was one of the biggest players on the smallish Tishomingo team. He needed all that size to convince his teammates to run his daddy’s play.

“At first, they wouldn’t do it,” Dave Herbert said. “They didn’t understand. We got penalized twice for delay of game before I could convince them to do it.”

Back then, after the game, Coach David Lee Herbert explained, “We weighed our chances of scoring on one play and knew they weren’t good, so we just decided to go the other way.”

While Falkner players and coaches – and fans on both sides – watched in disbelief, Shane Hill raced the wrong way, scoring a safety for Falkner to make the score 16-16.

Naturally, Tishomingo scored in overtime to win 22-16, earn the district title and make the playoffs. Although Tishomingo lost the next week in the first round, David Lee Herbert became for at least that one week the most celebrated coach in football.

Brent Musburger featured Herbert’s strategy on CBS’s NFL Today show. NBC and ABC ran film clips of the play on the national news. Paul Harvey had much fun with “the wrong way play” on his national radio show. Newspapers across the country – and in the Philippines and Taiwan, too – ran stories.

Yes, and sports talk shows across the country scrambled to find the phone number of the coach of the tiny high school in the tiny town in the northeast corner of Mississippi.

Back then, David Lee Herbert really didn’t understand all the fuss. “I never expected this attention. We were just doing what we needed to do,” Herbert said.

Back then, many in the national and international media missed the real story behind the story.

A year earlier, in 1987, at the age of 45, David Lee Herbert had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease). There wasn’t then – and there isn’t now – a known cure. Herbert made the famous call from a wheelchair in a flatbed pick-up truck pulled up to the sidelines with Linda Herbert, his wife, sitting by his side. The famous game was the next-to-last game he ever coached.

“I really think David Lee coached that last year because it was Dave’s senior year,” Linda Herbert says. “It was getting hard for him to coach, and he had to quit teaching. He didn’t know how much time he had left, but he wanted to do that with Dave.”

Doctors originally told David Lee Herbert he could expect to live from three to five years. He surprised everybody, including himself.

“He was a strong, strong man,” Linda Herbert says.

And Linda Herbert, who quit teaching to take care of her husband, is a strong, strong woman. She kept her husband at home, at first in Tishomingo and for the last 11 years in Carrollton, and cared for him around the clock these last 16 years.

“They said he would have five years at most and we had 18,” Linda Herbert says, crying softly. “I’m just thankful for that. Friends talk about how hard I worked, but it wasn’t like a job, and I didn’t get tired. I loved him that much. He loved me that much, too. He would have done the same for me.”

In a way, ALS is the most cruel of all diseases. The mind remains sharp, while the body, organ by organ, ceases to function. David Lee Herbert first needed a ventilator to breathe in 1989.

For years, the only way he could communicate was by blinking his eyes. And then those facial muscles failed him, as well. Linda Herbert still managed.

You want to know what love is? This is love:

“I was with him so much I could read his mind,” Linda Herbert says. “Usually, I knew what he was wanting. I could look at him and tell what he wanted or needed.”

What David Lee Herbert usually wanted, his son says, was to watch any game that was being televised. He loved football the most, but he watched all sports. Linda would cut articles out of the newspaper or sports magazines and arrange the pages so that he could read, as well.

“That helped him occupy his time with something he really enjoyed,” Linda Herbert says.

No, she answers, she never talked to her husband much about the night 17 years ago when he became famous.

“I think he enjoyed it back then, especially the fact that he and Dave shared it,” Linda Herbert says. “But, honestly, he never thought it was that big of a deal. He was just doing what needed to be done. He was just coaching.”

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