Eight schools in just as many years, parents divorcing, new step-parents, more divorces, more new homes, overwhelming shyness, red-faced when emotional and almost always feeling out of place. It doesn’t sound like the prerequisites for Kirk Herbstreit’s stellar career as a sportscaster and star of College GameDay.
But Herbstreit always had football and no matter what school he landed in, he made the team, and he was a star. It might not have been enough—not with a stepmother who didn’t mind entertaining male guests in front of her stepson when his father was out of town, a barely tolerable stepfather, and constantly saying goodbye to friends, attempting to make new ones, and trying to hide out in the back row of the classroom in his newest school. But what else could a kid like Herbstreit learn to do but stuff his feelings deep inside and throw the ball. It worked.
For a while.
Herbstreit was playing for Ohio State University just as his father had. But things weren’t going well. He didn’t quite fit in with the program. Suddenly he wasn’t a star. He was barely on the team.
In other words, it wasn’t working.
“I’ve always been the guy who tried to say the right thing, to tell people what I thought they wanted to her,” says Herbstreit in his new autobiography, Out of the Pocket: Football, Fatherhood, and College GameDay Saturdays written with longtime ESPN reporter Gene Wojciechowski. “I’m a shy guy, the one who holds things in—it’s my way. I’m an introvert by nature.”
On the phone Herbstreit seems like the kind of guy you could talk to for hours. He’s friendly, he’s chatty, he listens, he doesn’t need to dominate the conversation, he’s open about his feelings, and he cries at sentimental movies.
So what happened to the stuffing feelings thing?
“I’ve come a long way from what I was,” says Herbstreit. “I just evolved.”
But it was more than that. He took a huge step. It seems there’s was this funky looking OSU team doctor.
“He had this look to him,” Herbstreit recalls about the team’s therapist. It’s not an unusual comment about psychiatrists.
“It was 1990, forget 2021,” says Herbstreit about deciding to talk to a mental health professional. “I remember going into his office looking over both my shoulders, like Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. I was very standoffish, giving the answers he might want to hear. I was just giving him canned answers, then he started talking to me about my background, saying tell me about your mom, your dad, and I suddenly started talking about what I’d been through. He was the first person I really talked to about all this. He became my confident, my guy. I was skipping when I went into his office. When the season ended, I went up to get three different awards, the last time I went up was to get the most valuable player, I just got it out, I said there’s this guy, it was such a credibly positive experience. It was a game changer.”
Herbstreit was the youngest of three siblings, John and Teri, who after their parents’ divorce lived with their mother, a struggling car sales person. When she didn’t sell a car, they didn’t eat. They often scrounged for food. Their father? Missing in action. But to give him his due, he may have taken one too many hard blows to the head while playing football for Ohio State. It changed him, Herbstreit’s mother claimed. Whatever the cause, his father was remote and withdrew from his kids’ life for long periods after the divorce. He married a woman who kicked John out of the house. Teri took over a big part of parenting her younger brother, giving up a big chunk of what should have been her fun years.
But Herbstreit revered his father, no matter what. When the family still lived together, he would go down to the basement and lovingly unpack his father’s football momentous from his days as a player and then coach at OSU. And there was his dad’s Captain’s Mug—the ultimate trophy.
And in Herbstreit’s last year at Ohio, he would get his own OSU Captain’s Mug.
How often does that happen?
“In 130 years in football it’s happened three times,” says Herbstreit, who after a pause adds, “some kids go through divorce angry, I never had that, I just wanted my dad. He was my hero—he was Zeus, he was Superman, when I finally got voted captain, the first person I wanted to call was my dad.”
But his father had a hard time listening. It taught Herbstreit, the father of four sons, how important it was to listen to his kids.
After his senior year, Herbstreit was offered a totally awesome job as a medical supply sales rep—six figures, a company car, and 401k plan. But he wanted to be a sports talk show host and he also had an offer doing just that. It paid $12,000 with no benefits. Seems like an easy decision. It was. Herbstreit took the radio sports job with WBNS 1460. He worked his way up.
And then he got the call. A try out for College Game Day. He was a disaster—he was visibly sweating, and his face was bright red. Afterwards the only thing Herbstreit could remember was that he jabbered away but not what he said. Oh and he did remember Lee Corso kindly telling him over and over again to relax. It was bust he thought, knowing he was up against the much better known Mike Adamle who was considered a shoo-in for the job.
But we know how it turned out. Herbstreit has been on College GameDay for more than 30 years.
As long as we’re talking football, does Herbstreit have any comments on Justin Fields, the new Chicago Bears quarterback?
“Congratulations, congratulations, you’ve got a great player, who has a chip on his shoulder and is competitive, the players will love their teammate,” says Herbstreit in what is music to a Bears fan’s ears.