MISSOULA — Former Montana Grizzly Mark Herbert enjoys the anonymity.
Sitting halfway up the stands of Oregon’s Autzen Stadium near the 45-yard line last Saturday, the sun shone on him while he heard fans beam down cheers and the occasional complaints about his son, Ducks quarterback Justin Herbert, unaware that Justin’s dad could hear them.
Mark will walk the mile and a half from his house and sit with his family in the same spot this Saturday when Oregon hosts the Grizzlies, the team on which he briefly played football and primarily ran track in the mid-1980s.
Now 54 years old, Mark hadn’t shared the story about his time in Missoula publicly until this week leading up to the game. Few people know he went to Montana and far fewer have asked him about his three years with the Griz.
Mark doesn’t talk much about his time at Montana, and even his sons know only some generalities of his story. He doesn’t recall all the details anyway and has been told by close friends that he’s too hard on himself about his time there.
Mark came to Montana to play football, gave it up after a year, ran track but left before he graduated, leaving an empty hole he still feels. Those experiences helped shape his perspective about how it’s important to take advantage of opportunities, which he taught his three kids, who have all made it to Division I football, with Justin on the precipice of being a first-round NFL draft pick.
“It’s awesome that here my screwups and my shortcomings get to be played out 35 years later with my middle son getting to play against Montana,” Mark said. “It’s unbelievable — but not maybe for the reasons people think it’s unbelievable. It’s kind of a corny thing to say.”
Herbert came to Montana from Eugene, Oregon, in 1983 with the intention to play football and run track on the side if possible. His bio in the 1983 media guide lists him at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds as an all-state wide receiver and three-sport star who prepped at Sheldon High School.
As Herbert recalls, he almost didn’t pass his physical at Montana after a history of head, shoulder and neck troubles. He was cleared, got injured about two weeks into fall camp, spent a sad night in the hospital, returned but never played a down for the Griz.
After running track that spring, Herbert quit football before the start of his second season. He gave up his football scholarship and had it replaced with a half scholarship for track.
“I didn’t probably appreciate the opportunity as much as I should have,” Mark said of football. “What I kept telling my kids is college football’s a lot harder than people realize. They think it’s glamorous. High school kids think it’s easy and think ‘Because I was the star in high school, I’ll be the star in college.’ It doesn’t work that way. I found that out.
“As I look back, I probably could have kept playing had it really burned in my gut. I wished it had. I would have loved to say, ‘Yeah, I played college football,’ more than anything. It’s a difficult thing to talk about because it’s embarrassing to say, ‘Yeah, I was a screwup.’”
Because of that experience, Mark never spoke with his kids in detail about his time at Montana. He keeps a letterman jacket and a team photo, but that’s the extent of the Grizzly memorabilia.
“For me, it was uncomfortable and it was difficult because I was the most classic underachiever, unfulfilled potential person you could ever imagine,” Mark said. “So, I didn’t want to talk about that with the boys. I told them that I had screwed up and I had some ability and I didn’t use my time very wisely and I didn’t use some of the opportunities that I had. I wanted to make sure that they did the opposite of what I did.
“But we never talked about specifics or anything in particular because it’s hard to admit your failures and your shortcomings. It was something that we didn’t talk about because to say that, ‘Yeah, I was a pretty good high school football player and I had an opportunity to go play and I couldn’t figure things out’ is embarrassing. It’s hard. To be an OK student after being a good student in high school, it’s hard to tell your kids that you’re a screwup. And over time, more of it’s kind of came out. But we just didn’t talk a whole lot about it.”
Mark spent three years running track for the Griz, primarily as a hurdler while mixing in long jumps and triple jumps. He was teammates with Griz football coach Bobby Hauck but doesn’t have any moments from their time together that stood out.
After three years competing, Mark decided to hang up his track cleats and return home in 1986. It was a combination of pressure from his friends, a desire to be closer to Eugene, where he wanted to end up, and the chance to attend Oregon, where he had wanted to go before realizing he wasn’t going to get a football scholarship from the Ducks.
“Being out of football, track was great, but I didn’t have this burning desire to be a track guy, so really it was a whole series of events,” Mark said of leaving. “It was the wrong decision, but it led me to where I’m at today and I wouldn’t trade anything. Had I stayed, this whole chain of events wouldn’t have happened.
“I’m in the greatest position. I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I believe that with all my heart. It was part of that growing-up experience that I spent in Montana that was huge for my development. So in a roundabout way, it’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”
All three of Mark’s children have played or are playing college football.
His oldest son, Mitchell, played at Montana State from 2014-17 after receiving initial interest from Montana but never getting an offer. He ended up second in MSU history with 21 touchdown catches and fifth with 1,874 receiving yards, and he earned an NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarship.
His youngest son, Patrick, is a freshman tight end at Oregon and was a four-star prospect coming out of high school.
It’s his middle son, Justin, who’s gotten the most attention. A 6-6, 237-pound cerebral quarterback, Justin had three FCS offers and thought he'd join Mitchell at Montana State before his hometown Ducks offered him. As he showcased his talent, he was projected to be the top pick in the NFL draft this past spring but opted to return for his senior season.
All three of the Herbert kids have heard generalities of Mark’s time at Montana, but the negative for him is turned into a positive discussion geared towards how the lessons of his experiences can help them enjoy success in whatever they wanted to do.
“Without question, the reasons that Mitchell, Justin and Patrick have had a fair amount of the success that they’ve had is because they understood ‘Don’t have regrets. Don’t wish you would’ve worked harder. Don’t wish you would’ve kept your nose clean,’” Mark said. “When you get to be 54 like I am, don’t look back and say, ‘You know what? I pissed away some wonderful opportunities.’ And they haven’t.
“Thank goodness they grabbed on to it and said, ‘You know what? We’re going to do the opposite of what you did, Dad, and we’re going to work hard, we’re going to keep our nose clean, we’re going to get good grades, we’re going to stay disciplined, we’re going to stay out of Stockman’s, we’re going to do all those kinds of the things,’ which I didn’t do.”
Justin will try to terrorize the Grizzlies’ defense this week, just like he has against other teams through 30 career games at Oregon. He’s completed 63.3 percent of his passes for 7,622 yards with 69 touchdowns and just 17 interceptions.
Hauck was asked earlier this week what impresses him about Justin: “Other than he’s big and fast and strong-armed and smart,” Hauck said.
“Besides that,” the questioner replied, to which Hauck laughed before continuing: “There’s a reason why Justin is as highly regarded as he is. He’s just a great player A to Z. He doesn’t do too much wrong. He’s not only talented; he understands what they’re trying to do on offense and understands what defenses are trying to do. He’s just a talented veteran player. They’re hard to stop at that position.”
When the Griz are trying to slow down Herbert and the Ducks’ offense, Mark will be sitting in his usual spot on the 45-yard line cheering for his son while hoping Montana doesn’t get beat too badly.
He won’t be wearing Justin’s No. 10 jersey, learning in Mitchell’s first year that almost no one cares if you’re the parent of a player. It’s better to blend in, absorb the moment and cherish his children’s success.
“I’m amazed that my kids turned out as good as they did considering what a ding-dong I was in that same timeframe,” Mark said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I would not trade my time in Montana for anything, or the lessons that I learned, because it brought us here.”