"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy."
- Exodus 20:8
PROVO, Utah - Whenever Eli Herring stares at the pile of bills that has collected on the table, or squeezes behind the wheel of his beat-up old car, or speculates on how hard the years ahead will be financially, he wonders how it would have been if he had just told the NFL "yes" and signed with the Oakland Raiders. With one pass of the pen, he could have had the house and car and long-term security that comes with having an ample bank account. It could have been that easy, if only the NFL and Eli Herring had not come to a theological parting:
The NFL plays on the Sabbath.
Eli Herring keeps it holy.
Big, strong and talented, the 6-foot-8, 335-pound Herring was one of the top offensive tackles in college football as a senior at Brigham Young University a year ago. NFL scouts had slotted him as a first- to third-round selection in the April draft.
Raiders took chance
Even after he sent a letter to each of the 30 NFL teams explaining to them that he would not pursue an NFL career because of his Mormon beliefs, the Raiders drafted him in the sixth round in the hope that he would have a sudden change of heart when he realized the financial windfall he was turning down. The Raiders even dispatched the personnel director and an assistant coach to Provo with a $500,000-a-year offer, but Herring told him with characteristic politeness: "Money is not the issue here."
The issue is deeper than that - far deeper - and it is one that Eli Herring and his wife, Jennifer, labored over.
Today, both profess to be content with the decision to pass up the NFL, despite the fact that it will take Herring 20 years teaching in the Utah public-school system to earn what the Raiders would have paid him in a single season. Currently living on an academic stipend with his wife and 18-month-old daughter, Hannah, while he finishes his degree at BYU, Herring will earn a starting salary of $22,000 to teach math when he graduates, and hopes to supplement that income coaching high-school football.
Content with decision
While there are certain aspects of the sport that have been hard to leave - the camaraderie and "sense of belonging to something" - Eli Herring is certain that when he looks back on it 10 or 20 years from now, he will decide that he did the right thing.
"Not that I would not have liked to have been in the NFL, but Sunday is a church day," Herring, 26, says as he sits in an old chair in the cluttered living room of his two-bedroom apartment. "One of our guiding principles as Christians is the Ten Commandants and the Lord has told us there and in the scriptures to `keep the Sabbath holy.' The Lord has said that those who do enjoy certain promises, and I just decided that I would be better off in the long run if I obeyed His desires."
Suddenly, a grin forms on his large face and Eli Herring adds: "Though a couple of hundred thousand dollars sure would have been nice."
It is not unheard of for religious belief to come into sharp conflict with the secular world of sports. Baseball Hall of Famers Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax both sat out games that fell on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur.
Jonathan Edwards, the British triple jumper who is a devout Baptist, would not participate in events on Sunday until the 1993 World Cup in Havana, where he won his event on a Saturday evening and was informed by a reporter that it was "Sunday in England." Ultimately, he observed that God had come to him "in a dream" and told him that he should place the economic welfare of his wife and children above His command to honor the Sabbath.
How Eli Herring has chosen to interpret the word of God is open to some debate. While the voice that stirs deep within Herring has led him to the strict observance of fourth Commandment, former BYU athletes and practicing Mormons such as Steve Young, San Francisco 49er quarterback, and Shawn Bradley, Philadelphia 76er center, participate in Sunday games on a regular basis.
Both Young and Bradley can point to passages in the scriptures that support their choices - the parts where the Lord speaks of "being a light to the world and positive influence on others." Even Herring conceded that the scripture leaves room for a broad range of "alternative" readings.
"I have no problem with what Steve and Shawn have decided to do," Herring says. "I would not sit here and judge either of them."
Mother `crystallized' issue
Shy, but well-spoken with gentle ease, Eli Herring was the oldest of seven children and grew up in a devout Mormon home. His father, David, worked in construction, and it was not uncommon, during the slow periods he encountered, for the Herrings to have to pack their belongings and settle into cheaper housing.
Moving from place to place, "sometimes even into trailers," Herring remembers that it was his "dream" back then to line up on an NFL field. While did not see a lot of NFL games on television (in part because they fell on Sundays, and his parents forbade him to watch television on the Sabbath), he did check out books on the all-time greats from the school library. Captivated by the exploits of Larry Csonka, Jim Brown, George Blanda and others, he thought to himself: "What could be better than playing ball like these guys?" Herring adds now with a chuckle: "And football players seemed to get all the cute girls."
He picked up size between his sophomore and junior years of high school and developed into an exceptional athlete. Herring was the Utah state champion in the shot put and discus, led Springville High School to the state football championship in 1985, and also lettered in wrestling and baseball. Utah, Utah State, Stanford and Washington began recruiting him, and it was clear at that point that he had a shot at a pro career.
Then one day his mother, Lynn, brought something to his attention. "You know," she began, "that if you play in the NFL, you would have to play on Sunday and break the Sabbath." It was at that point that Herring remembers that the "whole issue seemed to crystallize for me."
Wife supports decision
Not sure what he would do at that point if the opportunity ever came up, he enrolled in BYU in 1987 because it was the only school that recruited him that did not withdraw when he announced his plans do a Mormon mission. He spent two years in Argentina and found that his religious convictions "only solidified." When he returned to BYU in the spring of 1991, he worked himself into the starting lineup, earned a 4.0 grade-point average during the winter semester. It was during that same period that he attended a church gathering and met Jennifer Anderson, who remembers that she had "little to no knowledge of football." A July 1992 wedding followed, but not before the couple had some serious "What if . . ." discussions concerning football.
"I told her I had a chance to become an NFL player and that it was an issue with me," Herring says. "I asked her, `What if I get drafted and decided not to play?' "
Jennifer replied, "I will support whatever you decide to do."
Jennifer Herring straps Hannah in a highchair, pours some cereal in a bowl and feeds her. While Eli prepares for his classes at BYU that day, Jennifer would clean up the apartment, do some grocery shopping and mail checks for some bills. Money is tight, and it worries her, but she still supports her husband in his decision follow his own convictions and say "no" to the NFL.
"I have more respect for him because he followed what was in his heart," Jennifer says as she removes Hannah from the highchair. "How rare is it for someone to do that?"
Honors were bestowed on Eli Herring both in the classroom and on the field at BYU and as his career there unfolded, it only drew him closer to Draft Day 1995 and the issue continued to remain unclear. He was second-team All-Western Athletic Conference and selected to the Hula Bowl squad during his senior season.
While some pro scouts who saw him predicted he would have problems against speed and finesse opponents, others praised his size, strength and intelligence. New Orleans scout Bob Baker observed that while Herring was "just an OK athlete," he had the physical attributes "to play for a long time in the NFL."
Eli withdraws from draft
Ultimately, the question that troubled Herring as his senior season came to a close was this: "Would that be proper?" When he asked his mother's advice, she reminded him of the religious concerns she had. When he asked his father, he received a conflicting response, in part due the fact that David Herring knew how hard it was to support a wife and a houseful of children. He told his son that, and reminded him that other Mormon athletes found it within themselves to play on Sunday. Herring asked some of his friends, and some of them just thought he was crazy. Others realized how deep the conflict was.
"Eli is complex," says Mike Empey, who played with Herring on the BYU offensive line. "He spends a lot of time dwelling on each aspect of his life."
No one could tell Eli Herring what he should or should not do. He had to look deep within himself for the answer and, in December 1995, he found it: He would effectively withdraw from the NFL draft. The letter he sent out to each team stated his desire to pursue "other career plans," but the belief around the league was that he eventually would decide to play. Rumors spread that some teams were still considering drafting him in the seventh and final round, just in case, but Raider owner Al Davis beat them to it. Davis drafted him with his sixth pick. The Oakland owner had landed Bo Jackson and Rocket Ismail in the draft when both had other commitments.
While the Raiders said on Draft Day that they would "allow Eli to come to us - if and when he was ready," the organization stepped up its effort when injuries left a hole in their offensive line. Raider senior assistant Bruce Allen flew to Provo and offered Herring a three-year, $1.5 million contract. Herring rejected it.
Raider linebackers coach Fred Whittingham, a BYU alum, Mormon and Provo resident, invited Eli and Jennifer to his house to discuss the situation. Whittingham asked: "What about Steve Young? What about Todd Christensen (the former Raider tight end from BYU)?" Herring replied, "That was fine for them, not for me."
"I came away with an immense respect for Eli," Whittingham says. "Whatever he decided is between him and the Lord and we support him. Our door will be open if he ever decides to play."
"Happy with the plan"
David Herring does not expect that to happen. "Eli loves to teach," the elder Herring says, "and a good teacher is worth his weight in gold."
While the Raiders opened their season in September, Eli Herring returned to BYU. Typically, his days are full, beginning with classes and including his work with the football team at his old high school, Springville. He is an assistant coach there. When practice ends at 7 p.m., he heads back to his apartment, eats, and helps Jennifer prepare Hannah for bed. Then he hits the books again before falling asleep.
"I am happy with the plan Jennifer and I have for our life together," says Eli Herring as he stoops down from his chair and picks up Hannah. "I feel secure with what we have going here."
He cradles Hannah in his large arms and says with a grin: "Give daddy a kiss on the cheek."
Sunday is a day of worship and reflection for Eli Herring. While football fans across America convene in front of television sets, Herring attends church from 2 to 5 p.m. and spends the remaining hours of the day with Jennifer and Hannah. It is not permissible to watch television on Sunday, or as Herring observes with a laugh, "do anything else but spend time with your loved ones."
Though he has not seen an NFL game this season, Eli Herring does occasionally drop to see his old BYU team practice. Whenever he does that, it reminds him of how he loved football. He enjoyed the position he played ("offensive tackle was so intricate"), and the bonds that formed with his teammates, how "we laughed and sometimes cried together." It was something special. While he says that he is "happier each day" with his decision to not pursue an NFL career, there are times when it still occurs to him that life could have been so different . . . if only they played on Saturday.