By Billy Watkins
They are not words you often hear.
I asked him to repeat them to make sure I heard him correctly.
“I spent a lot of my childhood in dumpsters,” said Jeff Herrod, the former Ole Miss All-SEC linebacker who grew up in Birmingham.
“My parents divorced when I was four or five,” he said. “We lived in what people refer to as ‘the hood.’ My mom was a nurse, but she wasn’t around a whole lot. She was working all the time, trying to provide for me, my brother and three sisters.
“There was a Burger King not far from our neighborhood. At night, they would toss out the food they didn’t sell. I’d climb into the dumpster, find the food and that’s where I got a lot of my meals. And I’d walk miles to go through dumpsters and get aluminum cans that I could sell and get me 50 cents or a dollar.
“It motivated me. I used to see my mother crying all the time, no support coming in. I didn’t want to live like that the rest of my life.”
Herrod discovered football as a way to deal with his anger. Every hit he delivered was like therapy.
Undersized and barely recruited out of Banks High School, he found his way to Ole Miss where he played from 1984 through 1987 for head coach Billy Brewer. He became the second-leading tackler in SEC history and remains the Rebels’ all-time leader in tackles (528).
Still undersized and doubted by most NFL scouts, Herrod was selected in the eighth round of the 1988 draft by the Indianapolis Colts.
He became the franchise’s top tackler (1,337) and led the team in stops for eight consecutive years.
“It’s been a long journey,” Herrod said.
He had reason to be reflective Wednesday. He and seven others were introduced at a press conference as the newest class of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. They will be inducted next summer.
The class includes Mississippi State pitcher Paul Maholm; Mendenhall’s John Mangum, a star defensive back at Alabama; longtime Millsaps baseball coach Jim Page; Olympic skeet shooter Tony Rosetti; Ole Miss basketball player and coach Carol Ross; Southern Miss defensive back Patrick Surtain; and Jackson State running back Lewis Tillman.
“This means so much,” said Herrod, 55, who was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame in 2017. “I’m not a member of the Colts’ Ring of Honor, but I’d choose the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame over that any day. It’s an honor that Mississippi would give me the time of day. And I’m thankful that Ole Miss gave me an opportunity.”
His childhood dream was to play for the Alabama Crimson Tide. By his senior year of high school, he just wanted to play for somebody, anybody with a scholarship offer.
While watching film of another player, a couple of Ole Miss assistant coaches turned their attention to the linebacker who seemingly made every tackle.
“They told Coach Brewer about me. He watched my film, and Ole Miss offered me the day before I was going to join the Marines,” Herrod said.
He was thrilled to get a chance to play in the SEC. He was not thrilled when he saw the depth chart the day before his first practice in Oxford.
“I wasn’t on it — anywhere,” he said. “And they gave me jersey No. 66. Not even a linebacker number. I was ticked.
“But it wasn’t long before I was No. 2 on the depth chart. I took out a lot of frustration on my teammates. I even grew to like the number 66. That was the year I was born and there are 66 books in the Bible. Plus, it always reminded me of being the underdog.”
He became ticked again when the coaches wanted to redshirt him his freshman year.
“I was 6-foot, 205 and they wanted to put some weight on me,” Herrod said. “But I didn’t want to sit out. I became a wild man in practice. Right before the first game, they pulled my redshirt. I remember (defensive coordinator) Coach (Carl) Torbush saying he was going to let the lion out of his cage.
“I’m proud of leaving Ole Miss as the second-leading tackler in SEC history, but I’m frustrated about it, too,” he said. “We rotated linebackers and I don’t think I ever played an entire game. I had 28 tackles in one game and only played 53 snaps. I wish I knew how many tackles I could have wound up with if they’d left me in more.”
Herrod enjoyed just one winning season in Oxford— 8-3-1 in 1986 and an Independence Bowl win over Texas Tech.
But he still earned his due. The kid who was barely recruited ended up a two-time All-SEC selection, and in 2013 he received the SEC Football Legends Award.
His path to the NFL was eerily similar to the one that led him to Oxford.
Colts linebacker coach Rick Venturi was researching Vincent “The Undertaker” Brown of Mississippi Valley State prior to the ’88 draft. While watching Brown on tape, Venturi began to notice Herrod.
Venturi traveled to Oxford to meet with him.
“We had a great one-on-one,” Venturi told Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star in 2013. “We watched tape together. His workout wasn’t spectacular. He ran about a 4.8 (40). And he was small (6-foot, 249).
“But he had those eyes, and you would keep seeing it on tape after tape, tackle after tackle.”
Venturi told Chappell what he wrote in his pre-draft evaluation of Herrod: “If we have a chance to draft this guy late, he will make our team. I guarantee he will make our team.”
“Little did I know he would become the best player on our our team,” Venturi said. “If we had been a better team, his reputation nationally would have been better.”
The Colts won just 67 games in Herrod’s 10 seasons and twice made the playoffs.
Herrod retired following the 1998 season, which was Peyton Manning’s rookie year with the Colts.
“I always tell people Peyton is the reason I retired,” Herrod said, laughing. “The defense would get off the field, sit down and before I could take a sip of Gatorade the coaches would be yelling ‘defense!!!!!!!’ We’d have to go back out there because Peyton had thrown another interception. (He threw 28 that year.)
“I said right then that I had gotten too old for that stuff.”
His glory days came with a cost.
“I’m like Humpty Dumpty,” said Herrod, who resides in Tampa with his wife, Kate, and her 17-year-old twin boys. “I spend most of my time getting my body put back together. I’m beat up head to toe.
“I’ve had three surgeries on my left shoulder, one or two on my right. I’ve had both hips replaced, my neck fused, my back fused. I’ve got bad fingers, bad toes. I walk with a limp.
“And my brain … I’m a poster child for CTE.”
CTE stands for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a progressive brain condition cause by repeated blows to the head.
When he dies, Herrod’s brain will be donated for CTE research.
Herrod, a father of five, said he is certain his CTE is at “stage 3 or 4.” There are only four stages.
“I can talk with you right now because I’m medicated,” he said. “It helps me focus and remember stuff. But it’s tough, man. I have migraines really bad. My wife caught me crying in the bathroom not long ago. It takes a toll.”
Herrod has a service dog — a black Labrador named Buddy — to “help me when I get angry.”
“He comes and calms me down,” he explained. “He comforts me. Takes my mind off stuff. Licks my face. When I take a shower, he’s right there waiting on me.”
Herrod talks with his retired NFL friends about what the game costs its warriors. Guys like Eric Dickerson, Thurman Thomas, Cornelius Bennett, Andre Reed. He talks with former Mississippi State star Tyrone Keys, a member of the 1985 world champion Chicago Bears, and former Ole Miss teammate Tony Bennett.
He speaks with another Ole Miss teammate, Wesley Walls, several times a week.
“Wesley’s my guy, one of my best friends in the world,” he said. “He wrote a recommendation letter to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame on my behalf.
“But I kid him. He was a linebacker the three years we played together. The year I left he switched to tight end. I tell him he went soft.”
He speaks of his days with the Colts in a business-like manner. But when the subject turns to Ole Miss, his voice grows softer and layered in emotion.
“I used to call Coach Brewer every Father’s Day because that’s what he was like to me,” Herrod said. “He taught me so much about work ethic and life.
“I love Ole Miss. I love Oxford. I’ve got all my friends in Tampa yelling ‘Hotty Toddy’ at me. And when Ole Miss is playing, they’re texting me.”
Herrod doesn’t just talk the talk. Last weekend, he traveled from Tampa to Oxford to watch the Rebels defeat Auburn and move to 7-0.
Yes, he was in pain. Yes, he limped around.
“But that’s where my life changed,” Herrod said. “I’ll go back as long as my body will let me.”