He never had it easy.
Sitting in a quiet hotel room detailing a complicated past, Wyoming wide receiver Robert Herron opened up about a life not many could understand.
Raised in South Central Los Angeles, a place where the odds are not in a young man’s favor, this story includes no silver spoons.
A stoic Herron, driven by a need to succeed and persevere, couldn’t help but succumb to the emotions of his past.
A brief moment of vulnerability from a rock-solid young man soon dissipates as Herron continues sharing his journey of strength, focus and determination. At every step, every new encounter, he faced a myriad of challenges around each corner.
He never had it easy.
At 14 years old, Herron spent two months living in various hotel rooms, sleeping in cars, never a consistent place to rest his head.
He was homeless.
Herron’s father was incarcerated when he was four years old and was never a consistent figure early in Herron's life. He was just recently released from prison.
His mother, also in and out of his life, struggled to the point where he was brought in by a family member willing to treat Herron as their own.
That family member, a first cousin of Herron’s dad who is referred to as Aunt Kathy (Hales), had never met Herron before she agreed to open her home to him.
“It wasn’t easy, there was a lot of issues,” Hales said. “I just wanted him to feel like he was my son with everything he had been through. I struggled to make sure I gave Robert love and guidance and attention but also my own son, but at that time Robert needed it more.”
Hales has a distant relationship with Herron’s dad, her first cousin, and has not spoken with Herron’s mother in eight years, when they mutually agreed she would take care of him.
Hales emotionally recalls the situation when Herron first arrived at her home.
“When I finally took Robert in he didn’t have anything but the clothes on his back,” Hales said. “He never asked anyone for any help.”
Herron learned at an early age how to fend for himself, to not rely on others or expect handouts. It’s those lessons, although tough and unfair in many ways, that shaped Herron into the man he is today.
Consequently, Herron has made a name for himself as a rising NFL draft prospect, but Herron’s story is far more than a stat line, box score or scouting report. The obstacles Herron has overcome can only be truly understood by a handful of people, most notably, Hales.
“She’s been there when my mom was struggling,” Herron said of Hales. “She opened her house to me and took me in. She’s always just stayed on top of me and took care of me.”
The bond these two share is only rivaled by a handful of people in Herron’s life: his few close friends back at Dorsey High School and one of his former coaches and current advisor, Ivan Stephenson.
Both Hales and Stephenson made the trip down to Mobile, Ala., where Herron continued to make a name for himself as an electric playmaker at the Senior Bowl practices.
Every college football player dreams of the opportunity to play in the Senior Bowl. It’s the most prestigious invitation a player with hopes of playing in the NFL can be given.
Herron was given that opportunity after he caught 72 passes for 937 yards and nine touchdowns last season at Wyoming.
But coming from a small school, Stephenson believes Herron will always feel like he has to prove he belongs with the best.
“He’ll always have that edge about him,” Stephenson said. “Right now he’s that kid from Wyoming, but he knows he can play and this arena really solidified that.”
According to lead NFL draft writer for Bleacher Report, Matt Miller, who was at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Herron solidified what he already knew.
Herron is the ideal slot receiver prospect. His short area quickness and explosion make him one of the most exciting players in this year's senior class. He stood out as impossible to catch in coverage and as his comfortability improved, so did his production with unfamiliar QBs. Herron made himself money this week and could be this year's Marquise Goodwin.
While some players chose not to attend the Senior Bowl when given the chance, Herron jumped at the opportunity.
“I was excited to come and play against the best,” Herron said. “It’s everything I wanted and it’s a little overwhelming at times, but I don’t care about the attention. I just want to fulfill my goal, get drafted, make a team and just play.”
Wyoming WR Robert Herron is a name to get familiar with for 2014 draft. He has caught the eye of scouts with his quicks and top-end speed.— Phil Savage (@SeniorBowlPhil) January 22, 2014
The fulfillment of these goals goes all the way back to high school for Herron, where a struggling teenager used training and football as means to an end.
He was going to use football to ensure his future was nothing like his past.
After attending Hamilton High School the first two years of high school, Herron decided to transfer to Dorsey after his sophomore year and play for legendary head coach Paul Knox.
The two schools are separated by just three miles in South Central Los Angeles. Dorsey has produced NFL players Keyshawn Johnson, Dennis Northcutt, Na’il Diggs and coach Hue Jackson, among others.
Despite not playing football until his freshman year, Herron decided that transferring to Dorsey for “football reasons” would prove beneficial to him in the long run.
Knox remembers trying to find a place for Herron to play.
"When we first got him at Dorsey we moved him all over the place," Knox said. "We tried him on defense before eventually settling on receiver. That's obviously where he excelled."
Dorsey also happened to be closer to Hales and where he’d be living.
Meanwhile, Herron’s breakout game in high school was against San Fernando during his junior season, where he finally got to showcase his skills after pulling in two touchdowns that night.
“That was my joint right there,” Herron said. “That was my proving people I can play this game.”
While playing at Dorsey, Herron came across the path of a positional coach, Jeff Johnson, who happened to have a cousin also attending Dorsey.
It was during his senior year that Johnson remembers giving Herron, whom he didn’t know at the time, tips from the sideline on how to use head fakes when running his routes. Johnson was impressed at how quick Herron picked up his coaching, even between drives during this game.
It wouldn’t be long before the two were working out privately.
Johnson normally only worked with college and professional players, but he noticed something in Herron that he wanted to develop.
“You have this raw athlete who has a high ceiling and has never been taught,” Johnson said. “Inner city kid who’s definitely never had any professional coaching, or teaching at the time.”
Johnson was intrigued by Herron’s innate physical abilities, and Herron was eager to learn.
“He didn’t have a car so to get to and from workouts I had to pick him up,” Johnson said. “I didn’t have to call him to work out. He was always calling me.”
It was at that point Herron knew what he wanted. He had always known he was a good athlete. As a kid, he was always the fastest guy around, and he knew eventually that would help him on the football field.
But growing up in a rough area, there was more to it than just having a goal and some dreams.
“Robert is special and it’s all up between the ears,” Johnson said. “It’s very mental with him. He saw one life that he did not want to live and abide by, so he tried to follow his opportunity and exhaust it with football.”
Johnson also believes the community around Herron often reminded him of what he was working to avoid.
“Seeing a lot of guys around in the neighborhood who had the athletic ability who still didn’t make it,” Johnson said. “That drove him as well.”
There was never a doubt in Herron’s mind that he could play football at a high level, and that he was going to “make it” playing football. That inner-confidence was always there, but that didn’t mean there weren’t times in high school the lack of college scholarship opportunities didn’t weigh on him.
Herron recalled a time that he and his best friend at Dorsey, current Boise State cornerback Cleshawn Page, reflected on a lack of college interest in them at the time.
Herron’s drive and determination to be successful quickly manifested itself into vulnerability and emotion in this quiet hotel room.
“That’s my boy right there,” Herron said while gathering himself. “Really we were just talking about how we were just going to make it no matter what. His dad was in prison too and we talked about being the first in our generation to really do something with our lives.”
Through all of the hardships Herron dealt with as a child, an absent father who was in prison, a mother who struggled to take care of herself at times and not having a consistent place to sleep during a small stretch, none of those things had the emotional impact in talking with Herron as his recruitment did.
He looked at football as a way to take care of himself, so he never had to worry about the kinds of things he did as a kid.
“People have their own situations in life and I feel like, they couldn’t handle it at the time and I’ve just got to get mine,” Herron said of his parents.
The scholarships weren’t pouring in for Herron during his senior season.
“I always knew but nobody else knew, but Ivan (Stephenson) was always there for me and helping me out,” Herron said. “That’s what bothered me the most, not living up to the expectations of myself.”
An opportunity finally did come for Herron to play in college, and it couldn’t have been in a place more different than South Central Los Angeles.
Just what he needed
From the hustle and bustle of California to the laid back style of Laramie, Wyo., the community’s couldn’t have been more different for Herron.
Thanks to the efforts of then-recruiting coordinator at Wyoming, Marcus Arroyo, who’s now the quarterbacks coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Herron was given an opportunity to play football at Wyoming.
But it wasn’t an easy transition for Herron during his freshman year, who signed so late in the process that he missed all of the summer camps and workouts.
“It was a 360-degree turn, I was home sick,” Herron said. “I feel I was isolated from everything. I didn’t get to be up there in the summer with the other freshmen to get adapted. So I was like thrown in there during the fall camp. It was just totally different.”
Even though it started off difficult, Hales believes that it was crucial for Herron to get away from all of the distractions in Los Angeles.
“Going to Wyoming made a huge difference in his life,” Hales said. “If Robert had stayed here there’s no way he’d be in the position he’s in today.”
And despite the rough start to his life in Laramie, Herron knows it helped him get to where he is today.
“Being in Wyoming those four years, I just feel like it just made me a better man,” Herron said. “It made me more mature to be able to live in that situation. I would say that shaped me, just trying to take advantage of my opportunities.”
Herron finished his career at Wyoming with 152 receptions for 2,030 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Through all of the ups and downs in getting to Wyoming, then staying at Wyoming, Herron never wavered on his primary goal, which was to play in the NFL.
He never had it easy
The people who often have the most impact in the lives of others weren’t setting out to do so. They never see themselves as anything more than a simple, focused individual.
This is the case with Herron.
He doesn’t see himself as a person who has done anything special. But when you look at his situation, it’s truly remarkable what he’s been able to overcome to even put himself in the position he’s in now.
He’s had every excuse imaginable to throw in the towel and say it’s just too difficult, and frankly nobody probably would have blamed him. But that thought process doesn’t even compute with him. It’s not an option or even considered, and that’s why he’s special.
Back in high school, before Herron’s senior season at Dorsey, he met Dashon Goldson at a work out in Los Angeles; Goldson currently plays safety for the Buccaneers.
Without a lot of money for new equipment, Goldson hooked Herron up with a new pair of cleats. Herron wore those same cleats during his entire senior season at Dorsey and still has them to this day.
Once drafted, Stephenson said Herron would love to repay Goldson with his own pair of brand new cleats.
Goldson’s advice to Herron back then about reaching his goals, “just keep doing what you’re doing, working, and you’ll get there,” Stephenson recalled.
The love and support Herron received from Hales and Stephenson during the difficult times in his life developed a trust in them that’s unbreakable.
It’s about who was with you when things were rough because when you reach the goals you always said that you would, you’ll always remember who was there telling you it would happen when you needed them to.
“Every time someone would hit you with a statistic, like in high school, they’d tell you a certain percent are going to make it to college, I was always thinking I’m that percent,” Herron said. “In college, the percent went down on the number of people that would make it to the pros or whatever, I just always felt like I was that percent no matter what.”
Herron’s message to anyone going through a difficult time in their lives is simple.
“Stay strong and believe in yourself, no matter what the situation is.”
With the NFL draft approaching and the “buzz” surrounding Herron growing, Hales can’t help but think about how far he’s come.
“Sometimes it brings tears of being overwhelmed with happiness for Robert, because it’s been a journey,” Hales said. “It was really a journey, but I’m proud of him and he did it by himself. All the accomplishments and everything, I think back eight years ago and where he is today, I’m just overwhelmed with happiness.”
Stephenson summed up what was probably the most important aspect of Herron’s journey.
“There’s probably a kid out there at Dorsey right now who looks up to Rob that we don’t even know about,” Stephenson said.
The story of Herron goes beyond football, and that's why he's willing to share his past. He knows there's a kid out there who's going through something similar and that he might be able to help him in some way.
It's easy for anyone to look at Herron's story and see a role model, not by choice or by intent, but because of a belief in himself that trumped his challenges.
It’s about a young man who never had it easy, who never gave up or felt bad for himself and achieved his goals when the odds were stacked against him.
Simply put, it's amazing.
So on draft day when you hear Herron's name called, just understand the path it took for him to get there and smile like the rest of us who already know.
Because there's a kid out there somewhere who might be walking a similar path who now has a role model to look up to, and that's Herron affecting others beyond football.