Thank you, Derek Herber, for reminding us you don’t have to win to be a winner, for reaffirming our faith in the idea that sports can be about more than the final score or first place.
Herber and the North Attleboro boys’ track and field team he coaches are champions, even if the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association record book will say differently now. It will say North Attleboro finished third after Herber self-reported a scoring error that cost his athletes a state title but made them paragons of athletic probity.
The North Attleboro team ostensibly repeated as Division 2 champions on Sunday, earning a narrow 69-68 victory over Central Catholic. The meet had come down to a single point North Attleboro earned with an eighth-place finish in the final event, the 4 x 400 relay. They got their trophy, rode home from New Bedford, and went to sleep secure in their accomplishment.
But on Monday, Herber was in his classroom at North Attleboro High, where he teaches history, and decided to pop online and look at the official results of the track meet, which were not available until 11:30 a.m. that day. He was on his lunch break and wanted to work on a speech for the team’s end-of-season awards banquet. He was tabulating points for his salute to the team’s MVP. But something wasn’t adding up.
Herber realized that junior Nathan Adeyemi, who had finished seventh in the 110-meter hurdles, had been credited with the 8 points given for a second-place finish, not the 2 he should have received for finishing seventh. The error had taken place during the meet, when a photo finish at the line resulted in incorrect initial scoring. The results had been updated to reflect the accurate order of finish, but North Attleboro had retained the incorrect points.
Herber called his athletic director, and they alerted the MIAA to the error. North Attleboro hadn’t won the state championship. Central Catholic had. Herber’s Red Rocketeers actually finished third, behind Woburn.
It’s refreshing that in an era when sports have taken on an outsized importance in our society, when passion and obsession are not easily separated, when the line between dedication and derogation is blurred, when youth sports have travel teams, elite teams, and cutthroat caste systems that there is still room for sportsmanship and perspective.
Ernie DiFiore, the athletic director at Central Catholic, said Herber’s actions serve as an example to all coaches and young athletes about the real value of athletic competition.
“I don’t think there is any question the message is loud and clear: There are bigger things than winning,” said DiFiore. “It’s nice to win, nice to be recognized, but at the end of the day the type of person you are and how you carry yourself is more important than the wins and the losses.”
Herber will never be as famous as David Ortiz or David Price. But right now, he is a better sports role model than either of the bickering, castigating baseball players, a pair of All-Stars acting like petty school boys.
But Herber says he didn’t do anything special.
“I truly believe that any coach, any coach in North Attleboro, any coach at Central Catholic and 99 percent of the coaches in the state of Massachusetts in all sports would have done the same thing,” said Herber.
“Most coaches are also teachers. You’re teaching other things in sports. You’re not teaching just wins and losses. You’re teaching about athletics being a tool of education.
“Maybe I’m naive, but I think any coach would do the same thing. It’s funny. We won the state title last year. I’ve done more interviews in losing the state title than in winning it.”
That doesn’t mean that Herber’s integrity didn’t come at a cost. It deprived Herber and the senior class he adored of a second straight state title and Herber of a storybook ending to his 17 years coaching track and field at North Attleboro.
“They’re thinking they’re going out as champions. It’s my last year as coach. They thought it a fitting end,” said Herber, who was a shot putter on state champion North Attleboro teams in 1990 and 1991. “Unfortunately, it didn’t go in our favor.”
But losing a state title means gaining the respect of anyone who appreciates sports rectitude, which is increasingly rare.
Telling the truth in sports isn’t easy or rewarded. Boundaries are pushed, rules are bent, penalties are feigned, all in the name of gaining an advantage.
Perhaps it’s a greater reflection on the state of sports than Herber that his scrupulosity is cause for celebration.
The beneficiary of Herber’s honesty, Central Catholic boys’ track and field coach Mike Leal, was shocked and ecstatic to find out his team had actually won. Leal had been ruminating over what he could have done to come up with an extra point or two to win the title.
As a senior, Leal was part of the Central Catholic track team that won a Division 2 state title in 1994. His main event was the 110-meter hurdles, the same event that caused the scoring mishap.
“After sitting down and thinking about it, I feel terrible for the North Attleboro team,” said Leal. “They were flying high, it was tied going into the last event — the 4 x 400, and they came through.
“My heart goes out to them. I applaud their coach for catching the scoring mistake. I don’t know if that would have been caught otherwise.”
Even for just a minute, did it cross Herber's mind to keep the scoring error secret?
“No, not at all, it wouldn’t sit right,” he said. “I don’t think any coach is willing to give up that concept of sportsmanship and win that way.”
Nice guys don’t finish last.
They finish third, with dignity and class.
Correction: A photo caption in an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Derek Herber. He is the man on the far left.