Michael Jordan. Joe Montana. Jack Nicklaus. Sandy Koufax. When you think of the all-time clutch performers, the name Dave Herman does not come to mind. Well guess what, folks? It should. What Herman pulled off in Super Bowl III is nothing short of magnificent. In fact, many arguments have been made over the years that suggest Herman should have been named the MVP.
In the sports world today, true inspirational performances are trumped by selfish acts. The media would rather focus on locker room drama than on a feel good story of a player. Furthermore, the terms “hero” and “courageous” are thrown around way too often. But what Herman did for his teammates, for his fans, and for his coaches, will forever be captured in the hearts of millions.
In what would turn out to be their best late round selection of all time, the Jets selected Herman in the 27th-round in the 1963 AFL Draft. He was the 211th player chosen. In fact, just four men drafted after him played pro football. Herman appeared in five games as a rookie. However, in his second season he was named the starting right guard, a position he held for the remainder of his career. Herman missed just three games his entire career after his rookie year and made the Pro Bowl in both 1968 and 1969. He retired from the Jets in 1973.
In 1969, Herman had been the Jets starting right guard for five seasons. However, as the team was getting ready for the AFL Championship Game against the Raiders, Coach Weeb Ewbank decided to bench rookie right tackle Sam Walton. Walton was impressive at first but struggled as the season progressed. The Jets played the Raiders during the regular season, and Walton got man-handled by Raiders defensive end Ike Lassiter, a Jets nemesis. Lassiter’s success against Walton led to a Jets loss. Herman understood what Walton was going through. “It’s like a lot of rookies,” Herman said of Walton. “By the time you got to the championship game all the way from preseason, it was like two college seasons back-to-back.” So Ewbank decided to put Herman in at right tackle. The Jets defeated the Raiders and then prepared to face the Colts in the Super Bowl.
Ewbank was forced to make a difficult decision—stick with Herman at right tackle or put Walton back in. For Ewbank the decision was easy; he was going to ride Herman.
Herman’s task was not easy, however. He was going up against Bubba Smith, the Colts’ imposing defensive end. Herman was giving up 6-7 inches and 30-40 pounds in the matchup. The ’68 Colts (13-1) set an NFL record by allowing only 144 points in 14 games. The main reason for this was the impeccable pass rushing skills of Smith. Picked first overall in the combined NFL-AFL draft, Smith was an imposing blend of strength and speed. “He was a 1990s player back in 1969,” Herman said.
As Jeff Miller of ESPN explains, “Smith hoped Namath’s seven-step drop and deep setup would provide him a better angle. But Namath’s quick release, Herman’s technique and a New York game plan that often ran to the opposite side kept Smith at bay for most of the game. Smith got his hands on Namath only once when he made a third-quarter sack.”
Herman got the job done. “I weighed 255 and I had to block Bubba Smith, who must have weighed 320. After the game, Weeb said to me, ‘How many guys could I ask to do that?’ I was proud of that.” When one ESPN writer called Herman on the phone to tell him he should have been named the MVP of the game, Herman agreed. “I thought that for I don’t know how many years,” said Herman, 70. “I wasn’t the one who got the ball to the receivers or the ball to either the halfback or the fullback. But I was the one that made it possible.”
Now a financial planner in New York, Herman displayed extreme consistency and loyalty both on and off the field. He played ten seasons in NY and was All-NFL in 1967, 1968 and 1969. But to know Herman, you have to understand that things were not always easy for him. Just as he displayed in the Super Bowl, Herman was a fighter. Never was that more evident than the day his daughter was born with cerebral palsy. With the help of Jets head coach Weeb Ewbank, Herman faced the difficulty head on. “My daughter was born with cerebral palsy, and he made me bring her to Saturday workouts so he could talk to her.” After Ewbank’s death, Herman was extremely hurt by the loss of his former coach, “I loved him. In recent years, I talked to him every two weeks. The last time was a [week before his death], and the first thing he said was, ‘How are the kids?’ ”
For those of you who are aware of my work, I make it no secret that I am of a younger generation. Obviously, I have never seen Herman play. But, to appreciate the present, you have to learn and respect the past. In doing my research for this article, I gained a whole new level of respect for football players of previous generations. You can tell how much Herman cared for his teammates, coaches, and fans. “Well, we had a bunch of guys that liked each other, and a bunch of guys who were willing to do the work to make it happen,” Herman said.
So the next time you are sitting around the dinner table and somebody tries to tell you Joe Namath was the most important player on that 1969 Jets Championship team, remind them that the game could not have been won without Mr. Dave Herman.