By Jennifer Kotila
Many local residents may be familiar with Dassel resident Mark Herman, who spent 33 years working in the Dassel-Cokato School District, and has lived in the community since 1974.
What local residents may not be familiar with is Herman’s back story growing up in New York and New Jersey before attending Yankton College in South Dakota, and then spending three years chasing a career in the National Football League (NFL).
This past summer, Herman was inducted into the Yankton College Athletic Hall of Fame for his athletic and career accomplishments.
Growing up out east
Herman is the grandson of Lithuanian immigrants, who came to the US in 1906.
He was born in Brooklyn, NY in the Flatbush area, he said. His family lived in a two-story brownstone house within a couple of blocks of his grandparents and many other family members.
Eventually, his family moved to Queens, NY, living in the Kew Gardens Hills apartment complex.
“It was OK when it was just my brother and me, but then along came two sisters, and the two-bedroom apartment was getting too small,” Herman said.
The oldest of four, Herman’s brother, Jeff is four years younger than him; his sister, Ellen, eight years younger; and his sister, Susan, 12 years younger.
Herman noted that the building at Kew Gardens Hills was infested with roaches, mice, and rats “not a pleasant place to live.”
Although there was not a lot to do living in the city, Herman remembers playing stick ball, tag, and running in the streets.
He also joked that growing up where he did is probably what made him a fast runner.
“Back in the (19)50s and ‘60s, for some reason, older kids would pick on the younger ones,” Herman said, noting the area in which he lived was also very culturally diverse.
“If you happened to go into an area where you were the minority, many times someone would want to start a fight with you you either stay and fight, or you ran. I am a very fast runner,” Herman added.
In fact, when he was in sixth grade, Herman ran in the New York City All-City track meet at Madison Square, where he placed sixth in the whole city, he said.
In 1961, Herman’s family learned of an opportunity to buy a new home in a development in New Jersey.
The brand-new, four-bedroom home Herman’s parents purchased for less than $20,000 was only 45 minutes from New York City.
In New Jersey, Herman attended Raritan Township High School, where he participated in track and field, and football.
When he was a sophomore, he was third in the state of New Jersey in the long jump, with a distance of 22 feet, 11 inches.
As a senior in high school, he was sixth in the state of New Jersey in the 100-yard dash.
For football, Herman played for coach Joe Oxley, who began teaching at Raritan in 1962, and started the inaugural football team garnering a Shore Conference Division Championship in 1966.
Herman was a part of that team as a running back. “I was really fast in high school and had the nickname ‘Mr. Outside,’ because I’d zip around the outside,” Herman said.
Although Herman set many rushing records, he said he never gave playing football in college or in the NFL a thought in high school.
After graduation, Herman found a job paying $1.25 per hour at Atco Tile Company, cleaning tile dust from the kilns, loading it in a dump truck, and driving it to the dump when it was full.
“The future was bleak,” Herman said, noting some of his friends were going to attend Yankton College, and his mother encouraged him to go, as well.
She contacted the high school principal, Leo Moran, with whom Herman “had a personal relationship while in school,” he said, jokingly.
Admittedly, Herman was an average student in school, and maybe spent a little too much time in the principal’s office.
“I think I had a chair in his office with my name on it,” Herman said. “It is interesting that I started my high school career in the principal’s office, and ended it there.”
Herman began his college career in 1967, where he again participated in track and field and football for the Yankton College Greyhounds.
It was during this time that Yankton College was making a name for itself by grooming football players for the NFL.
“We were just a small, little college that had seven guys drafted into the NFL,” Herman said.
There were only 535 students enrolled in the small college, but it had the “greatest football minds in the world,” according to a news article in the Yankton Daily Press and Dakotan.
Many of the athletes who came to the small town in South Dakota had been recruited from lower-income areas in the east, according to the article.
Herman began to hang out with a group of athletes who had the ambition to play in the NFL, including Lyle Alzado, who had a long NFL career, and Dean Wink, who played for the Philadelphia Eagles, he said.
“Coach Bill Bobzin had us all feel we could play professional football,” Herman said. “He motivated us to work our best.”
The “ambition” of Alzado “added another great ingredient,” the article in the Press and Dakotan stated, noting his example and success “spurred others to like ambition.”
The article called Herman a “talented free safety,” and went on to say that the Greyhounds “don’t have it made yet, but they have a running start because they are hungry.”
In Herman’s last year on the team, the Greyhounds were named the South Dakota College Team of the Year and selected to play in the Copper Bowl against Montana Tech in Butte, MT.
Herman’s brother, Jeff, had followed him to Yankton and was a freshman that year, as well.
Following graduation, Herman was a 15th-round tight end draft pick for the St. Louis Cardinals, and picked 369th overall.
After being released from the Cardinals, Herman tried to make the New York Giants, from which he was also released.
Finally, Herman was picked up by the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League, where he was a starter for a year.
While with the Stampeders in 1973, Herman caught 10 passes for 111 yards, and one receiving touchdown.
Family and career
Herman met his wife, Elaine, during his third year at Yankton. She had transferred to Mount Marty College from St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul.
“Being that the colleges were both quite small, I knew she was the new kid on the block, and it didn’t take long for me to ask her out,” Herman said.
The two dated their last two years of college, graduating in December 1971, and marrying March 11, 1972 at her college chapel in Yankton.
The couple’s home base was Yankton while Herman tried to make it with the Cardinals. Elaine had obtained her registered nursing degree and worked at a hospital there.
They then moved east to live near the training camp while Herman tried for the Giants. Again, Elaine worked in a hospital.
After being picked up by the Stampeders, Elaine stayed back to continue working, pregnant with the couple’s first child, Melissa. She was able to come up once during the season to see Herman play.
Because he was a starter with the Stampeders, the couple began to prepare for a move to Canada and obtained visas.
However, due to the uncertainty of professional football, they only moved their belongings as far as Elaine’s parents’ home in southern Minnesota.
“That was a blessing, as we ended up not going to Calgary,” Herman said, noting it was not until late August that a decision was finalized.
“(It was) late to start applying for teaching jobs, but DC was one of the schools that offered me a job,” Herman said.
In fact, DC gained two NFL hopefuls that year, as former Activities Director Paul Kleiwer, who tried for an NFL career with the Houston Oilers, was hired the same day.
“We are from opposite ends of the US, but have been friends for 42 years,” Herman said.
Herman started his career at DC as the high school physical education teacher, the assistant varsity football coach, the head boys’ swimming coach, and the head track coach.
He recalled attempting to teach a civics class in his early years, and writing on the chalkboard as he was lecturing.
When he turned to face the class, the students were looking at him rather dumbfounded, and he asked, “Why?”
One student explained that they just could not understand his thick New York/Jersey accent, something that some future students wouldn’t even know had ever existed.
Although the initial intent was to move on after a year or two at DC, the Hermans found they were home in the small community, and settled in to raise their four children.
“Actually, I never applied for another job,” Herman said. “I was very happy with the school, the administration, the town, and we realized it would be a good place to raise our family.”
Herman also said he felt a commitment to the athletes he was coaching, noting the track team in the late 1970s was very successful and earned the Wright County Conference championship for boys’ track.
He considers coaching state track champions like Matt Nyquist, and the 30-3 record of the Charger football team in the mid-1990s to be some of his greatest accomplishments.
Also during his time at DC, a new program to assist students who may be struggling and heading down the wrong path was started; Herman and Linda Teske were in charge of the program, which was the first of its kind, he noted.
The program was fairly successful, and it gave Herman the opportunity to relate the experiences he had growing up with students who were struggling with their own issues.
“So much of what they dealt with, I had either personally experienced or had known of others I grew up with that had similar struggles,” Herman said.
“I think having experienced what I did made me see the student more for who he or she was, rather than for what they were dealing with in their lives,” he continued. “I could help them see success in their futures that maybe they couldn’t see at the time.”
Another great accomplishment for Herman is his family Elaine, their four children, and nine grandchildren. He noted all his grandchildren live within an hour of Dassel, so he gets to see them often.
He didn’t forget to note that behind every successful man is a good woman, pointing out that Elaine worked in emergency surgery at Meeker Memorial Hospital when first moving to the area, and ended her career at Hutchinson Health in the coronary care department.
Herman eventually became assistant principal at DC in 1997, and ended his career spending one year as principal, retiring in 2007.
“It’s been a great ride; I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Herman said.
He and his wife now spend a lot of time at The Villages in Florida.