Friday night at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School football field, nostalgia fueled the evening. Laughter and purple sweatshirts abounded as freshmen made out beneath the bleachers. A mother in purple face paint told a friend over hot chocolate how Coach Donald Herman had turned her son’s life around.
Over by the field entrance, Touchdown Club executive secretary Denise Lambos put the finishing touches on the club’s preparations for the halftime ceremony that would honor Coach Herman. A large showing of alumni was anticipated, but not as many as might have shown up had the ceremony been scheduled for the Island Cup matchup, which will be played on Nantucket this year.
The Touchdown club organizes and pays for everything that doesn’t fit into the school’s budget. As such, Ms. Lambos needs to stay ahead of the schedule. Along with Coach Herman, she and President Jack Law will retire this year, leaving three sets of big shoes to fill.
In the weeks leading up to homecoming evening, the Touchdown club created a Facebook page dedicated to rallying all Vineyard football alumni who’d played for Coach Herman, including parents of players, cheerleaders, Touchdown Club members, managers, and assistant coaches of the Herman era.
Just before the half, captain Alec Tattersall (’13), Coach Herman’s quarterback from the 2012 season, stood outside the fence with his mom, a few cousins, and an uncle. “You know,” he said, “how hard it is to know in the moment, that a moment is going to become a memory?”
“Show the picture!” his mom said.
Alec now attends Bridgewater State, where he no longer plays football. However, the lessons of the game, handed down from his beloved coach, still guide him.
In his senior season, the Purples were at the barrel end of a four-game losing streak. They rose from the dead to beat Nantucket, and Alec was written up in Sports Illustrated. “It was all,” he said, “because of Coach.”
He whipped out his phone, thumb-swiped a couple of times then displayed an image of Coach Herman and himself walking down the field, the coach’s arm around his player’s shoulders. “Coach Herman,” he said, “always taught me to pick yourself back up when you’re down.”
At halftime, Coach Herman entered the maintenance garage that doubles as the Vineyard’s halftime cover. He was surprised to be greeted by an empty room.
The players, who had never left the field, were lined up as a procession of former players and coaches entered the field and hoisted purple banners that celebrated Coach Don Herman’s 215-90 record [216-90 following the game]. There was a roar from the stands, and a call over the public address system for Coach Herman to come back to the field.
The normally stoic coach was visibly overwhelmed. He’d been expecting a surprise, but not one of that magnitude.
Ms. Lambos and Mr. Law led the booster group out with their own banner. They were followed by groups of alumni, holding banners by the year, cold hands in pockets and warm eyes smiling toward the man of the hour.
Coach Herman was serenaded with whoops and cheers from a stadium of devoted fans. The announcer rattled off his on-field achievements.
Under the hazy moonlit sky, Coach Herman graciously raised his arms to the cheering crowd and rushed off the field, happy to not to be the center of attention, back to where he’s most comfortable, among his football team.
Following the ceremony, Coach Herman described the moment simply. “Awesome,” he said.
Asked about his legacy, he said, “I am trying to develop young men to become positive role models in their communities, to be good citizens and to be men of character. To me, that is what any coach should be trying to accomplish. And, yes, win as many games on the way as possible while never compromising my principles.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Coach Herman’s record. It is 216-90.