Updated Dec. 22
Donald Herman has been teaching teenagers how to play football for more than 40 years, first in his native Georgia, and, since 1988, on Martha’s Vineyard. Last week, he retired for the second — and final — time, to spend time with family, to travel, and to work on projects.
Herman taught at MVRHS and coached Vineyarder football for 28 years, retiring in 2016 for two years before being recruited to reshape the floundering team four years ago. His career record was 244-128, including five state championships, 11 league championships, and one run of 12 straight wins in the annual Island Cup game against Nantucket High School.
Herman has had three jobs in his career, all teaching and football coaching–related. Football has literally been his professional life. He believes football is not merely an exercise in winning and losing but also that the effort in the football process builds character, creates life skills, and forges lifelong relationships of value for student-athletes.
Now, as he walks away from that life, Herman has real concerns about changes he sees in the football community and culture here that he believes don’t bode well. There are some “hard truths” to deal with, as he puts it.
“Football is a year-round sport, not only a fall sport. We work 12 months a year to prepare for 10 or 12 games in the fall,” he said. “No other sport is like that in terms of preparation for the number of games played, perhaps with the exception of cross-country and track and field.
So football requires that kind of commitment from the athletes, from their parents, and from the football community, and I see that commitment declining here.”
“The reason commitment is important is because football is a true team sport. You cannot have success unless 11 people on the field get it right at the same time. That creates a strong, shared work ethic, and a bond in that players want to do well, to succeed for each other,” he said.
Commitment, he calls it “buy-in,” is waning here, Herman said. “To be brutally honest, I don’t see that commitment from parents, and it’s trickling down to the kids. This is a hard truth, but it is my opinion and it needs to be said.
“Too many kids avoid the weight room off-season, and skip practice to go to other events, such as birthday parties. Parents make excuses for kids missing practice, and plan family vacations during our preseason work. Every year the work of the Touchdown Club is done by fewer and fewer people, many of whom no longer even have kids in our school,” Herman said.
Herman has managed and coached through a lot of change over the years, and his teams have thrived and struggled in environments marked by concussion protocols, COVID, school choice, and regionalized high school football programs. He doesn’t have an answer to the attitude shift he sees in kids and parents.
“I don’t know when it began, nor why, really, but it’s true that kids have a lot more options today, and parents don’t see sports, not just football, as important to personal growth as they once did. Technology is a problem, I believe. We live in an age of instant gratification, and playing football does not deliver instant gratification, that’s for sure,” he said.
Studies show Herman is right about a dropoff in sports participation. According to data from the Aspen Institute and the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), between 2008–19 and 2018–19, “the total number of youths aged 6 to 18 playing tackle football fell by more than 620,000, from about 2.5 million to less than 1.9 million. It seems almost certain that 2020 or 2021 will see overall high school participation in tackle football drop to below 1 million players, a level of participation not seen since 1998,” according to a Jan. 28 story in Forbes Magazine.
In fact, participation numbers in high school athletics nationally fell below the prior year in 2019, the first time that’s happened in 30 years, according to NFHS stats.
In terms of football, one in four high school boys played football in the late 1990s. The average today is nearly one in five boys.
Now, Herman has been buoyed this year by the growing popularity of football among soccer-centric ethnicities, including, for example, Brazilian and Jamaican kids on the Island. “The football culture is new, but they are picking it up,” Herman said, noting that both Brazilian and Jamaican players suited up for him, and made a real difference on the field.
In the past four years, Herman built back numbers that had fallen so low in 2017 that the Vineyarders ended the season prematurely. He has high praise for the mostly underclassmen who showed up in 2021 and bought in. “A lot of those kids really worked at learning the game, and they played hard every down. We were 2-7, but lost two overtime games and one nailbiter.”
Herman thinks one positive change MVRHS could make would be to hire a coach who is also a teacher, and he has lobbied MVRHS officials to replace him with an in-building teacher as football coach. “I saw that clearly over the past four years when I wasn’t in the building. You need to be around the kids, walking the halls, and yes, recruiting. But the kids get to know you and what the program stands for.”
Financial considerations play a part in his thinking as well. “We coaches joke we’re paid about 10 cents an hour,” he said. While no one coaches for the money, Herman said he believes that the $7,000 a year stipend he received to coach football is not particularly enticing to candidates.
“If a nonteacher is hired, that pool of candidates would typically include someone who is self-employed and/or with enough income to make ends meet in a high cost of living place like the Island. If the coaching position came with a teaching job, the pool of candidates would be larger.”
Last week, athletic director Mark McCarthy said Herman has recommended a teacher/coach role, but noted that the language outlining the coaching position does not require a teaching position to be included. “It would be a nice [outcome], but we are not allowed to do it. We’ll advertise the job and see what develops,” he said. McCarthy said the process of selecting Herman’s successor will begin after the holidays.
In sports, as in life, nothing succeeds like success, and the jaw-dropping success of the MVRHS cross-country and track and field squads in recent years created huge increases in pre-COVID participation, including a 2019 Boys Division 2 State Championship in cross-country and a 2018 Girls Division 5 Eastern Massachusetts cross-country championship. The school replaced its decrepit, literally unusable track in 2017, to the delight of a joyful Island track community, just before the sport regenerated and became a premier program statewide.
Herman is seething over the turf/grass football field battle here, and he sees lack of community resolution for turf surfaces as a major problem. “Our field is a disgrace,” he said. “We have gone through the research and approval process. Now there is an 11th hour attempt to stop the approved plan. It’s a slap in the face to the kids and the process, particularly to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which took on the argument and worked through it,” he said. “I’ve watched the adoption of turf and followed the use of turf fields over the past 20 years, and I’ve seen that turf works, and programs with turf fields grow their [participant] numbers on various teams.”
Updated to correct some statistics.