Spotlight Story: Florida Running Back Mark Herndon
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Spotlight Story: Florida Running Back Mark Herndon

Mark has never had anything handed to him, not even the game of football.

Spotlight Story: Florida Running Back Mark Herndon

Mark Herndon’s story is one that is unique from many others – it’s the kind of success story that fans always want to hear about.

Herndon has never had anything handed to him, not even the game of football. Football did not come easy to him like it does for most.

Most kids begin playing football at a young age – their dad either played football or is their little league coach; you get the idea. In general, many younger boys are consumed with the game of football. But for Mark, his first love was basketball.

“Basketball was actually my first sport, but once I realized that I wasn’t really growing as tall as the other kids I kind of figured that that wasn’t going to be a thing for me,” he said.

It was not until Herndon happened to come across a football channel that he realized he wanted to pursue this intense-looking sport.

“I never ever threw a football and I just saw two guys that really stood out to me, Barry Sanders and Jerome Bettis. I didn’t really know what they were doing. I just knew that the TV said they were running backs and I was like dang what they do is really cool. I want to do what they do one day. I don’t even know what it is but I want to do what they do,” Mark explained.

From that point forward, he and his mom got in touch with a coach in their church. Eventually, Mark and his mom watched the coach’s team practice. After seeing kids tackle each other, his mother was against the idea of Mark playing football.

“I was overweight and my mom definitely said no because she thought I was going to die of a heat stroke or something just because I was fat,” Mark laughed.

Fittingly, all odds remained against him: his mom saying no to the idea of playing football; Mark’s struggle with being overweight; and a late start playing the game of football.

Despite the barriers that Herndon had to overcome, both Mark and his mother saw something special in him.

“She knew that even though I was big, I was really athletic, really fast, really quick and I could run just as long as anybody else,” Herndon explains.

So at the age of thirteen, Mark began his journey on the football field. However, Mark’s coach positioned him as a defensive end because of his size – short and stout. To put it in a different perspective, Mark explained that he almost weighed too much to touch the ball.

It was not until his coach saw how fast and quick he was off the ball that Mark was thrown in at full back. According to Herndon, the coach’s idea of Mark at this position was simply to “just throw him in at full back and have him block somebody and maybe we’ll give it to him every now and again.”

However, during the fourth game of his entire life, the somewhat average outlook on Mark Herndon changed. The opposing team kicked off and Mark’s team ended up with the ball on their own 2-yard line. To get away from the end zone, his coach called for a fullback dive.

“I took it for like 98 yards and he just saw how fast I was. He saw how fast I was and after that day I started playing tailback, like a real [running back] getting the ball a lot. I was doing what Berry Sanders and Jerome Bettis were doing and that’s what I wanted to do and I was pretty good at it,” Herndon explained in a humble voice.

Outside of football, Mark’s inspiration was his mother because she pushed him in more things than just football like academics and volunteer-work. However, in the realm of football, Mark’s high school coach, Stan Salser, was his primary motivator.

“My first year playing with him, he saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself because I wanted to play college ball and I knew I could but I didn’t know I could play at a school like the University of Florida. It was still big to me. I thought I would end up somewhere like Division 2 or Division 3. But he saw something in my that I didn’t and he pushed me harder than anybody ever did,” Herndon explained.

In Mark’s eyes, Stan Salser took on a role far more important than a high school coach: a father figure. They would study film, work out together and often times talk about life – much of what a father-son relationship consists of.

“I kind of had fathers in and out of my life and, around that time, he was a stable father figure. He’s probably the most influential and he’s actually the reason I go into UF,” Mark said.

Coach Sulzer happens to be friends with Coach Brian White, Florida’s old running backs coach. One day, Sulzer called up Coach White and asked if he thought Mark could play Division 1 ball.

Coach White believed in Mark’s ability, but could only offer him a preferred walk-on spot because all of the scholarships had already been given to other players. When Coach Sulzer came back with the news of a preferred walk-on position, Mark excitedly agreed without knowing the specifics of what a preferred walk-on entails.

“I had no idea he was doing this and he called me that night, it was right before I was fixing to commit to Lynnwood University in Missouri, he called me that night and he was just like ‘Florida offered you a preferred walk on position,’ and I didn’t really know anything about walking on or anything.”

So Mark did what he never thought he could do and walked on to the University of Florida football team. He explained the intensity that comes with walking on a collegiate team:

“People really don’t understand how hard physically, mentally and emotionally it is to walk on a team. You get treated like you’re less than a scholarship player and it makes you feel like you’re at the bottom of the food chain.”

During his freshmen year, Mark often times didn’t have the means to buy a nutritious meal. Instead, he would stick to his monotonous Ramen Noodles. Other times, Mark’s teammates would pack him a to-go plate from Training Table.

In order to perform at the optimal level, an athlete needs to maintain a balanced diet: protein, fruits, vegetables and complex carbohydrates. Much of the time, Mark would go through practice with only Pop-Tarts and Ramen Noodles in his system (this will practically suck the energy out of any athlete.)

Despite those challenging moments, everything changed for Mark on the last day of football camp going into his sophomore year season. That day, Coach Muschamp announced that the program had freed up some space and have two scholarships available.

“I wasn’t even thinking of myself. It didn’t even cross my mind that I was going to get one… and then Coach Muschamp calls my name and my mouth just dropped and I’m looking around like ‘Am I dreaming? Did this really just happen?’,” Mark said.

That day was an emotional one for Mark and the ones who understood his struggle. His position group let him to break down the huddle for the first time, a responsibility only scholarship players usually have. His running backs coach also shed some tears after Mark told him the news.

“I looked at Coach White when I was about to walk back into the locker room and this man is crying and then I bust out crying. We hugged each other and we were just crying in each other’s arms. That was a really memorable moment for me because it showed me how much he cared and how much he wanted me to get that scholarship… It was a really great feeling to see how much he cared about me,” Mark admitted.

The love and care he felt from that point on has helped him in his journey as a Division 1 athlete, and, most importantly, God’s hand over his life pushed him through those tough moments. Mark explained that, in the past, no matter how hard life was, God showed up in every single one of those situations.

“He always provided a way for me to succeed or to get what I needed. He has always taken care of me. When times got really really bad, He made a way for me to get out,” Herndon explained.

With the experiences he’s faced, the situations he’s overcome, and God on his side, Mark’s future will certainly be filled with beauty and success. He admits that getting drafted by a team in the National Football League will be tough, but he hasn’t given up on the dream of making it to the league.

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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