Herberger will play at Linfield
St. Paul senior Justin Herberger sat at table in the high school library on Thursday surrounded by friends, family members and coaches. After a few brief pleasantries, he put his pen to the paper, inking his commitment to play football for the Linfield Wildcats next season.
It was a rare opportunity for a student athlete at a small 1A school to continue their playing career at the collegiate level.
"In recent history, we've only had one other college football player in the last 20 years," said athletic director and football coach Tony Smith. "Even with all our success, we haven't had a lot."
Yet even working in the relative anonymity of a rural district 15 minutes off the I-5 corridor, Herberger's feats of excellence were hard to ignore. On the desk surrounding his National Letter of Intent were scattered a few of the various accolades he has earned in his decorated four-year career with the Buckaroos.
First team all-conference on offense and defense in 2018. First team all-state on offense and defense in 2017. Defensive player of the year in 2017 back when the Bucks briefly flirted with the 2A classification.
And that's not counting the academic achievements, which include a 3.8 cumulative GPA across his four years at SPHS and his prodigious talents on the baseball diamond, basketball court and within the track and field program.
"He's a (four)-sport kid, he's an honor roll kid every single term and a very committed and talented athlete," Smith said. "I think a combination of all those things allows him to play."
His numbers on the field are well known to anyone who has watched the Bucks football team cruise to a 22-2 record over Herberger's junior and senior seasons, where he had the biggest impact. In the past year alone, the running back has put up 1,549 yards and 23 touchdowns on just 126 carries, averaging 12.3 yards per carry. The year before was nearly identical with 1,471 yards and another 23 touchdowns on 128 carries.
And while Herberger's accomplishments over the 2017 and 2018 seasons have been spectacular, they were set up in part due to his role as a starter as a freshman and sophomore.
"To have a four-year starter — even at a small school like ours — that's a pretty amazing thing, because we've had a lot of good kids come through here and (have a) lot of success," Smith said.
That's not to mention a combined 32 receptions for 618 yards and five more touchdowns in the passing game over that span of time, making him an obvious target for the Division III football national powerhouse in nearby McMinnville.
"They said they want me at running back only, but then the head coach talked to me and said I could see you doing a little linebacker too," Herberger said. "I'd be happy at both sides of the ball."
Herberger joins a football program that has long been the darling of the NCAA Division III, holding the longest streak of consecutive winning seasons across all levels of college football, dating back 63 years. In that span, the Wildcats have won four national college football titles in 2004, 1986, 1984 and 1982, while playing in three more championship games in 1961, 1965 and 1992.
"It's awesome to go into something that has a tradition like that and a culture like that," Herberger said. "There's nothing to do but succeed and that's what I like about it."