Football players like to portray themselves as tough, emotionless machines, but Florida Gators sophomore running back Mark Herndon did not have a problem admitting on Tuesday that he cried on the practice field.
“Yeah, I did,” he said with an ear-to-ear smile.
That’s what happens when the team you rooted for your entire life, the one you walked on to instead of choosing accept a full ride from another university, offers you a scholarship a year earlier than you even expected it to be a possibility.
“I just earned my scholarship today, and it brought tears to my eyes. The first thing I did was call my mom and told her. She was ecstatic about it. I’m just trying to suck it all in right now,” Herndon explained.
“[Earning a scholarship was] always in my mind, but when I first got here, Coach [Will] Muschamp told me it’s two years until you get a scholarship,” the second-year player added. “I wasn’t expecting it. So when he told me, it just threw me way off. I thought I was in a dream. If you had seen me then, my mouth just dropped.”
Tears also started flowing from Herndon’s eyes. And when he approached running backs coach Brian White to celebrate, he saw the emotion reflected right back to him.
“Coach White cried with me. That was a big thing because it makes me feel like he really cares about us. I can feel that. It was just a real emotional thing for me,” he said.
“I usually don’t cry but that was enough to do it.”
This offseason has been incredibly emotional for Herndon, who was praised by the coaching staff during his freshman season in 2012 and saw that extra effort pay off when he played in six games on special teams.
“Mark Herndon played as a true freshman walk-on and that doesn’t happen very often at the University of Florida,” Muschamp said in a statement released by the school. “He works extremely hard. He is as well-respected a teammate as anyone out here and he defines what we expect from our players here.”
That appreciation carried over into the spring and now the fall of 2013. In fact, Muschamp recently listed Herndon ahead of two four-star freshmen as the second-string running back to redshirt junior Mack Brown, who is currently starting in place of recovering sophomore Matt Jones (viral infection).
“Coach Muschamp always talks about ‘man down, man up.’ I just felt like it was an opportunity,” Herndon said. “It was really unfortunate because me and Matt – we’re not close, close friends – but we’re teammates so we talk and we hang out. I was sad, but at the same time, he’s down so I got to step up because the team needs me. So that’s what I did. Basically I just tried to push Mack Brown, he’s the number one so I pushed him in that spot. I don’t want nobody slacking.”
Herndon has a legitimate opportunity to see playing time on offense while wearing orange and blue, the colors he used to watch flash across the screen while cheering for the Gators just miles away in Ocala, FL.
His family could not afford to attend the games, but Herndon looked on from nearby while great running backs like Fred Taylor – Herndon said he is “honored” to be on the same team with his son Kelvin Taylor – ran up and down Florida Field.
“I had [scholarship] offers like towards the west, schools in the west, basically in California and stuff. I didn’t want to go far from home,” Herndon said.
“Basically, my biggest reason why I came here is because back home I always preached to young kids to follow your dreams. And this was a big dream for me. Like I feel like, if I would have taken a scholarship and gone somewhere to another smaller school or something, I would have been giving up on what I really wanted to do. Also, before I came, I prayed about it, like where I was supposed to be. God basically told me here and now I see why. This was my reason to be here. I’m just excited.”
With a scholarship comes more than just tuition. Herndon, who ate simply because he was on a tight budget considering the high cost of college classes (a full scholarship at UF is worth $20,220 in 2013), will now be able to afford better meals. The good news is that he won’t need to pay for them anymore considering he can now eat with his teammates in the dining hall.
“I can’t even imagine. It’s so much money,” he said. “Me being an OK student in high school, I got Bright Futures and some kind of grants and all that stuff, so that helped out.
“It’s just crazy right now. I don’t even know what I’m going to do with all that money.”
Now that financial concerns are less of an issue for Herndon (he will still have to work to get his scholarship renewed next season and beyond), he can spend even more time concentrating on football and ensuring that he has a role on offense this season.
Not surprisingly, he plans to do whatever the coaches ask of him.
“I feel like they’ll find somewhere to put me in where I’ll succeed,” he said. “I just want to help out as much as I can, anywhere, it doesn’t matter. Put me in the slot. It doesn’t matter. I’ll just help out as much as I can.”
Muschamp, a former walk-on safety at Georgia, empathizes with the struggles of non-scholarship players and detailed how it felt to deliver scholarships to Herndon and redshirt senior defensive back Tim Clark on Tuesday.
“I certainly appreciate where they come from and the lack of opportunities they have versus scholarship players. They’ve taken advantage of theirs. I told the team this is my favorite time of the year. To be able to have a scholarship to do that, that is just a thrill to me,” he said.
“I remember the day my head coach, Ray Goff, walked up to me and told me I was on scholarship. It’s a feeling you never forget. I know that feeling – the joy, the passion and emotion of that moment – so it’s an absolute thrill for me to be on the other end of it.”