HOUSTON (Jewish Herald-Voice/JTA) — Robert Hersh had a chance to live out every football kicker’s dream: Tie game, four seconds left and a 47-yard field goal attempt separating his team from victory.
All the pressure and all the eyes in Reliant Stadium were focused on the Texas Southern University kicker.
For Hersh, however, it was much more than a dream.
The challenge was just the latest chapter in what has become an emotional roller-coaster college experience.
* In 2009, as a college freshman, Hersh lost his mother and paternal grandfather to cancer.
* In 2010, his 11 field goals and 34 extra points helped Texas Southern win the Southwestern Athletic Conference for the first time in school history.
* In 2011, a preseason leg injury cost him the season, leaving Hersh unsure whether he would ever play college football again.
So making a game-deciding field goal in front of thousands of people may not have been the toughest challenge that the 22-year-old has faced in his life.
“For anyone to go through what Hersh has is a living hell, but for an 18-year-old college freshman making the transition from high school alone — much less playing in football stadiums before crowds of 40,000 — is unbelievable,” said Ed Hersh, Robert’s father.
Hersh earned football all-district kicking honors his junior and senior year at Pearland High School, and was recruited by several out-of-state schools. But in March 2008, he learned that his mother, Shellie, was diagnosed with cancer.
“It was very hard for all of us,” Hersh said. “I had a lot of sadness. I had a lot of anger. You just always ask yourself, ‘Why?’ ”
Instead of leaving the of state, Hersh decided to stay close to home and accepted a full athletic scholarship at Texas Southern, a historically black college in the heart of Houston.
Though being one of the few white players on the team — and the only Jewish one — may sound a little out of place, it was the best situation for Hersh.
“I honestly didn’t even know what TSU was at first,” Hersh said. “I visited the campus, and the school is great. More importantly for me, I wanted to stay close to my mom.
Hersh handled the kicking and punting duties for the Tigers in his freshman year. He made eight field goals and 30 extra points in 2008, with his mother and father attending every home game.
Hersh’s older brother, Jonathan, was a senior, kicking for the Austin College football team. Jonathan considered leaving college and coming home, but was convinced otherwise.
“I told him, ‘Mom’s not quitting. Mom’s still fighting. By you and me playing football, that gives Mom high hopes,’ ” Hersh recalled. “I think her coming to our games, it gave her hope, and something to look forward to.”
Shellie had a whole team rooting for her. After Robert’s three field goals led to a 30-29 Texas Southern win over Alcorn State, the Tigers dedicated a signed game ball to Shellie. TSU coach Johnnie Cole and all of the team captains brought the ball to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to present it to Shellie.
The Hersh family got to know Robert’s extended TSU football family as well. The Hershes hosted 15 players for Thanksgiving that year, and they all fell in love with Shellie.
“Try cooking for a football team,” Edward Hersh said. “It was awesome. It also was Robbie’s last Thanksgiving with his mom. She was overjoyed to have a house full of football players, and when it was time to return to the dorms, each boy gave her a hug and kiss.”
Unfortunately, the cancer pain was so severe the next day, Shellie was rushed to the hospital, never to return home.
She passed away in February 2009.
More than 600 people attended her funeral and memorial services, including coaches and teammates from TSU, as well as high school football coaches and former players and teachers.
“My teammates have been so supportive of me from the start,” Hersh said.”It really meant a lot to me.”
‘I used to say I was just a relaxed Jewish guy because we would have football on Friday nights and that great Texas barbecue’
Making things even tougher was the fact that Hersh’s grandfather, David Hersh, passed away a month before Shellie.
Part of Hersh’s healing came in synagogue. Congregation Beth Yeshurun Rabbi Steve Morgen was a big part of that.
“I told Robbie, ‘We don’t really know why this is a part of God’s universe,’ ” Morgen said. “God forbid we should think it is a punishment. It’s really just a random thing, and our job as concerned Jewish people is to take care of people who are sick and make sure they are comfortable.
“I just tried to provide support to his mom and their whole family. I wanted to continue encouraging Robbie to stick with his skills and talents.”
For Hersh, the experience brought him closer to his spiritual side.
“I used to say I was just a relaxed Jewish guy because we would have football on Friday nights and that great Texas barbecue,” Hersh said.
“After my mom passed away, it really helped going to synagogue. It helped me find healing and guidance. Rabbi Morgen has helped me out so much. He has been my teacher and mentor.”
As a way to give back and also remember his mother and grandfather, Hersh along with Jonathan and their other brother, Craig, began a football kicking camp for kids in 2009. The Hersh Brothers Kicking Camp has been held each summer the past four years.
“It’s in honor of our grandfather and mom, who were our biggest fans,” Hersh said. “We just like kicking so much, and this is a way to give back. We have boys and girls from fourth grade to just about any age.”
Meanwhile, Hersh continued studying and playing football. He made seven field goals and 23 extra points his sophomore year, and had his best year as a junior, making 11 field goals and 34 extra points.
His junior year ended strong, with several big kicks that propelled the Tigers into the SWAC championship game.
During each game, Hersh wore a necklace that he gave his mother just before her passing.
“It just helped me feel like she was a part of everything I was doing,” Hersh said.
Heading into his senior year in 2011, Hersh was one of the top kickers in the conference, aiming to build on his three years at TSU. Then, at a practice, he heard something snap.
“I had worked hard all summer to prepare for my senior year, and then two weeks before the first game, in practice on a kickoff, it happened,” Hersh said.
He had torn a quad muscle in his right leg — Hersh would not be able to kick in a game for a full year.
With 2011 being his senior year and the Texas Southern coaching staff on the way out, Hersh did not know if he ever would get a chance to kick again collegiately.
Hersh was granted a medical redshirt, which is common for season-long injuries in college sports, and was allowed to come back for a fifth year in 2012.
Still, Hersh did not know who the new head coach would be, or what he would think about bringing back a fifth-year kicker coming off a major leg injury.
“I was really sad and depressed not to be out there in 2011, but I also had a lot of time to mature,” Hersh said. “Then I had to go out and earn my spot, and the new coaching staff got to trust me.”
The new staff, led by head coach Darrell Asberry, not only welcomed back Hersh, but last month named him one of the team captains.
“It was a very proud moment,” Hersh said. “It was an honor to be named a captain. I’ve been here for four years. When people look for leadership or advice, I can be there for them.”
Morgen, who was invited by Hersh to speak to the TSU team a few years back, could not be happier for his former pupil.
“We are all very proud of him,” the rabbi said. “I think the most amazing thing is he always has such a positive attitude. He is always smiling and is just a nice, generous and kind person.
“He doesn’t take for granted his talents — he is very grateful for them. He is just a good kid who works hard and does well.”
Now, more than three years after his mother’s death and a full year from his injury, Hersh looks to finish what he started. He will graduate from TSU in May 2013 with a degree in education. He hopes to go into special education and coaching.
But before that, he has some unfinished business to take care of on the football field.
The Tigers were big underdogs in the Labor Day Classic against Prairie View on Sept. 1, not having beaten their conference rival since 2006.
In a back-and-forth game, Hersh already had kicked two field goals and five extra points. The score was tied at 41 with four seconds left.
Hersh trotted on the field, looked 47 yards at the big yellow uprights and tried to clear his head before taking a deep breath.
‘It’s been a roller-coaster ride, but I know my mom has been here with me the whole time,’ Hersh said.
“It’s hard to block everything out,” Hersh said. “To be honest, I was thinking about my mom. I think it helped me be more calm and relaxed.”
As the snap went back to the holder, Hersh took his steps toward the ball and launched it straight down the middle, setting off a huge celebration on the field.
“As soon as I planted my foot and kicked it, I knew it was going in,” he said. “I looked up and started celebrating and got tackled by all of my teammates. It was amazing. It feels like we just won the national championship.”
Among the thousands of cheering fans was Hersh’s dad.
Looking down from above, no doubt, was someone else.
“It’s been a roller-coaster ride, but I know my mom has been here with me the whole time,” Hersh said.
“When I first got here, I wanted to just graduate and be done,” he said. “Now I want to stay and enjoy every last minute of it. I just wish my mom was here for my senior year. But I know she is always there with me in spirit, no matter what.”