Hilton Head Prep's Michael Hermann moves closer to dream of playing in NFL

ccox@islandpacket.comJuly 28, 2013 

Chargers Camp Football

San Diego Chargers quarterback Michael Hermann looks on during training camp Friday in San Diego.

GREGORY BULL — The Associated Press

Tina Webb-Browning cobbles together what she can find -- yearbooks, awards, college honors. Whatever she can to help recreate a childhood that never seemed to actually exist.

One by one, lifelong friends arrive at her door. Sixteen in all, eager to share their favorite memories of a now-accomplished man with a troubled background, all in the hopes of helping him piece together the early years of his life.

Michael Hermann doesn't know much about his past. He cannot name all the schools he has attended, cannot count the states he has lived in and cannot recall memories of the mother he never knew.

"Most children remember their childhood in different ways," he says. "Birthdays, or places they went, vacations they went on. I remember all the moves and all the struggles that I dealt with.

"I think I have a very different memory and image of my childhood and unfortunately, it kind of sticks with you."

The son of a hulking semipro Australian football player, Hermann never got to know his mom, Diane Brooking, who died before he was 2. He believes a car crash in Australia claimed her life after he and his father moved to America, but he isn't completely certain.

Her death was a precursor to the problems that would plague him throughout the next several years. Most of his life seemed to be spent in the car, traveling from town to town as he lived a nomadic childhood with a father struggling to maintain his grip on reality.

Roy Hermann's intentions were always good, his son maintains -- "It's very relieving to know that I am where I am and it all kind of began with him." But unless their conversations involved football, Roy often struggled to properly express his emotions, using anger and profanity instead of the stable support a young person needs.

He is proud to know his son, a former Hilton Head Preparatory School quarterback, realized his dreams when he signed with the NFL's San Diego Chargers in April. But it came at the hefty price of their relationship, which has only recently began to heal.

INTIMIDATION

Ron Peduzzi could see Michael Hermann was a special talent early on. He also could see he dragged a rough background with it.

The former Hilton Head Prep football coach had made his way out to the old McCracken field to watch the Bluffton Bulldogs, whom Hermann quarterbacked as a middle schooler. He quickly saw the skills he commanded even at such a young age and the pressure he faced from his father as a result.

The first time Peduzzi laid eyes on Hermann, the signal-caller had taken a late hit near the goal line as the Bulldogs drove for a score. Out of the stands came his father, who barreled across the field to make his thoughts known to everyone there that afternoon.

"Roy got thrown out of many stadiums," Bulldogs coach Brother Kitty said. "I was a personal friend of Roy's and used to try and calm him down. I'm like, 'Man, chill the (expletive) out, dude.'"

Roy Hermann suffers from a brain condition known as progressive multifocal leukoencephalitis (PML), a debilitating form of dementia. His illness led to more heated, and sometimes abusive, arguments than his son can remember, all of which were won by the man who towered over everyone he crossed.

"My dad definitely played an intimidating role," Hermann said. "I never really got to say much, I never could say much. My dad was 6-5, 300 pounds my whole life and had a scary background to go with it. I never really questioned what he had to say very often."

Roy, who restored cars for a living and endured constant money problems, always seemed in search of the next big break. Following his son's birth in Australia, the two made stops on Hilton Head Island and in Georgia, Florida and Pennsylvania, among other places. There was little rhyme or reason to their constant movement.

"It was just emotionally draining," Michael said. "We were living a military lifestyle without having any affiliation with the military. It was very uneasy. We would never get settled and ... I could never create any type of relationship with anybody around me."

Webb-Browning and a host of others saw how the perpetual change plagued Michael's adolescence like a cancer. So she decided to do something about it -- urging Hermann to place his son at Hilton Head Prep, where she taught physics and chemistry. After some pushing, including contact with Michael's grandfather Steven, Roy obliged.

Michael soon started to come into his own. Webb-Browning gave him rides to school and helped with his studies, he began to make friends and ultimately found a spot on the football team as a defensive end. He was the only eighth grader to play under Peduzzi, the coach said.

Roy helped out on the Dolphins coaching staff, largely because Peduzzi was one of the few men who had no fear of his daunting figure. Even when he threatened to leave at halftime of a road game at Heathwood Hall, Peduzzi remained steadfast.

"He's a big scary man, but you know he loved his son and wanted to do what was best," he said. "Maybe he didn't know how to do what was best, but he wanted to."

The growing stability proved too much for Roy, who told his son that the two were moving to Alabama on the day of his eighth-grade graduation. Tears flowed from Michael, who was finally starting to carve his niche, as he begged his father to stay.

"He had this vision in his head that Mobile, Alabama was the greatest place on earth and there was no convincing him otherwise," Hermann said. " ... That's the very first time I ever did stand up to him and tell him how I felt. I told him I didn't agree with what we were doing.

"I remember breaking down and crying and not wanting to leave. He didn't respond. He didn't care what I had to say."

Their relationship soon deteriorated. Within six months of the move, Roy was almost completely confined to a wheelchair as his illness worsened. No longer the imposing figure he once was, a growing Michael began to stand up for himself more and more.

When money evaporated and it became clear Roy could no longer care for his son, the two moved back to the Lowcountry where Michael's great aunt and uncle, Estille and Steve Nadel, still lived. Michael spent his 10th grade year at Memorial Day in Savannah while his grandfather tried to get him back at Prep, a move Roy opposed due to his apparent rejection by the school community.

"The Prep community embraced Michael," Webb-Browning said. "They didn't really embrace his father. That made it very difficult for him to support Michael either at staying at Prep or coming back to Prep."

Hermann's next decision forever changed what was already a strained relationship. His aunt and uncle thought it best to legally adopt Michael. He agreed to the move after coming home from school to find the dirty dishes and garbage Roy had strewn across his bed for failing to do his chores.

"Everything built up and it kind of boiled over," Michael said. " ... I never had so much rage built up at one time."

But the rigors of adoption took its toll on both sides. Roy failed to show up for his court date when he was supposed to sign Michael over to Estille and Steve, instead skipping town undetected. He resented the Nadels for stealing his son, Michael said, an anger he still feels today.

Michael returned to Prep for his final two years of high school. And with his eyes on a future in football, a sound family structure in place and a solid support system to lean on, he finally, after so long, had a real chance to blossom.

A BUDDING STAR

Just fewer than four thousand people were there that Saturday in 2009 in Troy, N.Y., watching Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute play Endicot in the season opener. They are likely the only group of people who know much of anything about RPI sports, a school not known for its football prowess but instead its mathematicians and engineers.

But that small crowd got to witness something few others have, when a wide-eyed freshman named Michael Hermann took the field in the second quarter after a pair of veteran quarterbacks failed to get the job done. Hermann, who looked more like a tight end than a savvy signal-caller, responded by coordinating a 17-play, 98-yard drive on his first college possession.

His legend was born.

Hermann finished his four-year career at RPI with more than 9,000 yards of total offense and 86 touchdowns. By the start of his senior year there was a scout at every practice, 29 teams in all trying to get a feel for this 6-5, 250-pound physical freak that ran a 4.64 40-yard dash and benched 225 pounds 20 times at his pro day. He appeared to a be a sure-fire bet to make it to the next level, a first for a Division III school with an enrollment of 5,400 that has never had a professional football player since starting its program in 1886.

"It was an overwhelming experience for me, and I think it was a little overwhelming for the RPI community as well," Hermann said. " ... RPI is a hockey school. It's a Division I hockey school and they are always (getting) attention."

But Hermann changed that, much in the same way he did his tumultuous upbringing.

"I don't think anybody would have (been surprised) if he had been unable to do some of the things he did," said Steve Fuller, Hermann's offensive coordinator at Prep. "We certainly could have understood that. The fact that he was able to battle through that is a great tribute to the young man."

Fuller saw early on Hermann had become a full-fledged college prospect when he made his return to the Dolphins in 2006. He quickly made the transition from defense to quarterback, but still took advantage of his athletic ability when Fuller would put him out wide on third and long for Hail Mary attempts.

"You could immediately see the potential," he said. "Physically he was very special. He was a tall kid, big-boned, looked like he was going to grow into his body pretty nicely. He could run, he could throw."

He could win, too. He racked up 19 tackles at free safety in a playoff game against Thomas Sumter, accounted for six total touchdowns on both sides of the football in a postseason win over Pee Dee Academy and led the Dolphins to a state championship over rival Hilton Head Christian.

It was Prep's second win over the Eagles that year, the first coming when Hermann rallied the Dolphins from a halftime deficit after being suspended for the first half for letting his emotions get the best of him the week before.

"I said, 'Michael, you owe it to your team to go out there and play like a man,'" Peduzzi recalled. "And when he walked on the field that game was over. ... That was a great moment."

That was just Michael having fun, something that was often nothing more than a two- or three-hour release from the rigors of his life. It was a merely a break, a chance to get out of the house and away from his father.

"Football is my sanctuary," he said. "I love being on the field. It gets me away from all the stresses or the things occurring in my life. It allows me to just get away from it all, and I've always been that way. That's always been my escape."

Life can be funny, though. At first it was a chance to forget the daily problems he and his father endured. But now the game is a daily reminder of the role his father played in his future.

"(Football) started off with his dream," Michael said. "And it eventually became my dream once I realized it."

"I think his dad did a lot of things to get him in the direction he is now," Fuller said. "Probably more than anybody else. When we got him he was already a quality athlete. He knew what he was doing, and I give his dad credit for that."

A BRIGHT FUTURE

Tina Webb-Browning starts to cry.

The Prep science teacher who transformed herself into the mother Hermann never had can't help but choke up at the memory now. A simple cake was the culprit -- a surprise for Michael as his friends came together to reminiscence on his childhood.

"It just haunted me," she said. "How many cakes has Michael had in his life? I'm darn well going to get the cake he wanted just so he could have that.

" ... I wanted him to have something that celebrated him. I don't know how often that's happened."

As friends arrive, Hermann's state championship victory over Hilton Head Christian plays on the TV in the background. There are hugs abound, memories shared and emotions shown.

"It was like the prodigal son had come home, that's what that was like," Kitty said. " ... It was a very good, warm family-type setting."

This was no day for sadness. It was instead a celebration, a chance to wish Hermann well before he returns to San Diego, where he began training camp Friday with a chance to make the roster.

He shined in rookie camp in May after San Diego gave him a free-agent contract following the NFL draft. With only two veteran quarterbacks on the roster, he will battle it out with seventh-round pick Brad Sorenson for a shot with the squad.

"I want to prove to people that I belong," he said. "Throughout my whole life I've always had to prove people wrong because people have always doubted me, whether it was on the football field, in athletics or because of my childhood."

Hermann embraces that childhood, using it as a chance to inspire others to keep fighting their own battles. It is a fight he still finds himself dealing with, as he and his father speak briefly on the phone each day. The two reconciled about a year after their separation, and have been working to repair their relationship ever since.

Roy is in an assisted-living facility in Florida, as he finds himself almost completely blind now. He often struggles with simple tasks like walking and sleeping and wants to move to San Diego with Michael. The younger Hermann politely said that was not the best idea.

He may always try and maintain that distance from his father. And yet, each time he puts on his helmet that same man comes to mind. It is the same helmet he hated to wear when Roy first put it on him as a child.

"I guess football was my dad's dream," he said. "It began with my dad. He kind of forced me into football, I remember. I didn't know what it was, I didn't want to play it. I was terrified the first time I put on pads.

"He always had this vision of me playing football and playing in athletics. I guess it all began with him, really."

And it will end with his son who, despite the Hell he endured as a child, finds himself -- at least for the time being -- as an NFL quarterback.

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