Herman “Thunderfoot” Weaver on the Speaking Trail

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March 9, 2005

Herman Weaver speaks about leading a clean life.

Herman Weaver speaks about leading a clean life.

For 11 years, Herman Weaver spent every Sunday during the fall trying to connect with a piece of pigskin to bring victory to his team.

But for the past 24 years, he has been working on another mission: to connect with young students across the country who are having problems in their lives with alcohol or drug abuse.

Weaver may not be in the same stratosphere as Joe Montana or Troy Aikman, but over the past two decades he has taken his message to more than a million teenagers all across the country.

This week he is in Gallup, New Mexico, and between Tuesday and Thursday he plans to speak at 10 schools in this area as well as at the First Baptist Church here in Gallup tonight.

For those who haven’t heard of Weaver, here’s a few particulars: he began his athletic career in high school as a wide receiver. When he got to the University of Tennessee, he found that his 6’4″ frame would take a serious beating as a wide receiver and he immediately tried out for a punter position that was open. He got it. While at Tennessee, he once had a punt that went 71 yards. He had another that had a hang-time that was clocked at 5.7 seconds. After college, he was drafted by the Detroit Lions in the ninth round. He played six seasons there and because famed broadcaster Howard Cosell thought that it sounded like thunder when he punted the ball, he got the nickname “Thunderfoot.”

In 1975 he was named the top Punter of the Year. After playing with the Lions, he went to the Seattle Seahawks for five seasons. The Sporting News has called him one of the 20 top punters of all time.

But all of this, he says now, pales to what he has been doing for the past two-plus decades, spending almost every week day during the school season traveling all over the country for Sportsworld talking to students. He doesn’t preach and he doesn’t try to talk tough about the dangers of alcohol and drugs. He just tells students about his experiences and hopes that students will learn from the mistakes he made in high school, college and football when it came to drinking.

Who can’t smile at a high school senior whose only knowledge of drinking came from what he saw on television? When he had his first chance to drink beer, he remembered all the scenes he saw on the tube of people mixing liquor in glasses. So, of course, the first chance he got to drink beer, he removed a glass from his coat, filled it up about halfway with beer and filled it up the rest of the way with Coke.

Yes, he admits today, it was about the worst tasting thing every concocted by man. In college, he began to get it right and kept drinking when he got to the NFL. He remembers one day in the NFL when he was depressed and having problems. He said to himself, maybe drinking a lot of beer would get him out of his depression. So from 3 p.m. that day until 3 a.m. the next, he did nothing but drink, spending a total of $100 on booze.

What he learned from all of that, he said, was that all it took was $100 and solid drinking for 12 hours to give yourself a headache that lasted three days.

One of the places he visited on Tuesday was Central High School, where he had students hanging on every one of his stories for more than half an hour. Most of his presentation was a straight-forward and somewhat humorous account of his misfortune with alcohol, but toward the end he told of why he stopped drinking some 20 years ago and what he has found out about life.

He tells of a student he saw one day many years ago in his travels. The student was a freshman in high school and when he saw the student play football, he was amazed at his potential and told the kid he would be coming back three years from then to see how he was doing and possibly help him get into a football program at a good university. He came back three years later and asked about the boy, only to be told the tragic story of a student who got into the wrong crowd. By his sophomore year, he was drinking, the following year he discovered marijuana and his senior year he was into cocaine.

By the time Weaver got back, he was in prison. “And that kid had so much potential,” he said.

He talks during the last five minutes or so of his presentation about the role God played in his later years and how learning to have faith has played such an important in his life. He was asked after his presentation if talking about God in public schools caused him any problems. “Ninety-five percent of the schools I give speeches in are OK with it,” he said. “Where you have the problems are in the coastal regions. The middle of the country has no problems with it.”

He told of one school in North Carolina where he asked the principal if he could mention “Jesus” in his presentation. “No, you can’t say his name here,” the principal said. “But what if I refer to him as God’s son,” Weaver replied. “Oh, that’s all right,” said the principal.

Students who didn’t get a chance to hear him at their school or parents who just want a chance to talk and think football in the off-season can do so by coming to his presentation at the First Baptist Church, beginning at 6:30 tonight. Persons who attend will get pizza and Coke and a chance to watch some play tapes of him punting while he was with the Lions and the Seahawks. Some in the audience will also get a copy of his rookie football card which has become a valuable collector’s item. He was told that the card is now worth $1 but is increasing in value every year to the tune of about 3 percent.

In 400 years, he said, if the card is kept in pristine shape, it could be worth as much as $30.