When Eli Herring was little, he would sometimes try to be sneaky and watch Sunday professional football on television. He didn’t know much about the game, but he knew he liked it. He liked it so much that each week when his class at school would go to the library, he would check out books about football players. He knew they were big and strong, he knew he wanted to be one, and he knew that they played most of their games on Sunday. And he wanted to watch some football.
One Sunday when he had the television on, he suddenly noticed his father looming in the doorway. Eli promptly forgot about the game. His father wasn’t angry, but he sure looked disappointed. Brother Herring simply said, “Turn it off,” and Eli did. He never watched football on Sunday again.
It didn’t take Eli and his brothers and sisters long to find out how their parents felt about the gospel. The family often gathered and read their scriptures and talked about the things of the Lord. Like many Latter-day Saints, the Herrings taught their children about eternal life and eternal families. They taught their children how to fast and pray and how to seek guidance from the Lord.
Other than watching games on Sunday, Eli found no conflict between football and the gospel. He played little league with his friends, and he often thought about playing college and professional football. He was always big for his age, and his father was a big man, so he assumed he would be able to play if he wanted to.
Growing into the possibility
Then one Sunday when he was 16, he and his family were talking about football. Springville (Utah) High School had just won the state championship, and between his sophomore and junior years Eli had really begun to grow, gaining 80 pounds. Playing in college—and maybe after—was beginning to look like a real possibility.
As the family was talking about this exciting possibility, his mother commented, “You know, Eli, if you play professional football, you will have to play on the Sabbath.” Suddenly Eli knew that one day he might have to decide between keeping the Sabbath as his father had taught him and playing football.
Several universities recruited him to play for them when he finished his senior season. At this point, playing football first began to clash with doing what he knew he should. When he told recruiters he intended to go on a mission, two of the schools, Washington and Stanford, lost interest. But that didn’t deter him. More than once as he was growing up, his father had taken out his mission slides, and the family had watched as he told about his mission. Eli had always known that he, too, wanted to go on a mission, and he never questioned that decision.
Eli finally chose to attend BYU, and he played there his freshman year before leaving on a mission to Argentina. He came back two years later, stronger, faster, more coordinated, and even more ready to play football. He played his sophomore and junior seasons. He got married and took classes at the university. But always at the back of his mind, he knew that someday he might have to choose between playing football and keeping the Sabbath day holy.
Time to decide
Then, the summer before his senior season, the time suddenly came for Eli to make a decision. That summer USA Today published an article that ranked the top professional prospects among college football players. To his surprise, Eli found his name on the list. It dawned on him how much money he could be making playing football the next year, and he knew he had to make a decision.
It was not an easy one. Eli knew that something he had often dreamed of since elementary school was within reach. He considered all the things that he could do with the money he would make as a professional football player: he could put his children through school and pay for their missions; he could have a retirement fund; he could go on as many missions with his wife as he wanted; he could teach and coach and not have any financial worries. He would be set.
On the other hand, experiences he had had in his life told him things weren’t that simple. When he had arrived on his mission, one U.S. dollar was worth 15 Argentine australs. By the time he left, a dollar was worth about 10,000 australs. In less than two years, people who had been rich in Argentina were not rich anymore. From this Eli knew that he could not trust in money nor make his decision based solely on that.
On one hand there were good people who were active in the Church and who did a lot of good for the Church who played professional sports on Sunday. On the other hand, Eli had seen some very powerful examples of people who had refused to break the Sabbath.
One was Erroll Bennett, one of the top soccer players in Tahiti, whom Eli read about one day on his mission. When Brother Bennett joined the Church, he decided to withdraw from his team because he chose not to play on the Sabbath. When Eli read the story and saw how dedicated Brother Bennett was to the gospel, he was impressed. He says, “I knew I wanted to be a man like that, with that kind of commitment and dedication to what I knew was right.”
Eli discussed his choices with the people most important to him. His mother always reminded him of the commandment to keep the Sabbath day holy. His father, who had worked hard trying to support his family, told him to consider the decision carefully, reminding Eli how the money would help him support his wife and children. His wife, Jennifer, had received a paper in school full of quotations from leaders of the Church about the Sabbath day. Together they studied those and talked about the decision, but Jennifer and Eli’s parents all said that the decision was his and they would support him however he decided.
Eli talked to many other people. Some told him to play; some said maybe he shouldn’t. But Eli knew that talking to others wouldn’t make the decision for him. “When you’re considering giving up hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars,” he says, “it’s probably not something you’re going to do just because you’ve talked to someone.”
He knew that he would have to make the decision himself after praying to his Heavenly Father. Eli recalls: “It occurred to me to pray and fast about it because of what my parents taught me. … During the rest of the summer and through the next football season, all my scripture study and all my prayers and everything were focused on what the best decision would be. This lasted about six months. I didn’t make the final decision until the season was over at the end of December.”
That was an intense six months. Eli says: “I don’t think in my life other than sometimes on my mission I ever had the scriptures come to life for me as they did during that period of time. … I saw things I had never seen or understood before.”
As they are written
One day, for example, he was reading in the Book of Mormon about Alma counseling his son Helaman. Alma urges his son: “O remember, remember, my son Helaman, how strict are the commandments of God. And he said: If ye will keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land—but if ye keep not his commandments ye shall be cut off from his presence. … Therefore I command you, my son Helaman, that ye be diligent … in keeping the commandments of God as they are written” (Alma 37:13, 20).
The phrase “as they are written” particularly struck Eli. He knew the key to being in the Lord’s presence and to prospering was to keep the commandments “as they are written”—with exactness. Eli understood that to have financial security and other blessings for his family, “it was a more sure thing to keep the commandments and trust in the Lord than to have a million dollars.”
As the months progressed toward the end of the season, Eli became more sure of what he had to do. “I read my scriptures, and time after time I would see more and more and more reasons that I felt in my heart that I needed to observe the Sabbath more than I needed to play football,” Eli says.
When he finally made the decision, it was easy. He laughs now about all the attention he received: “I had been on the offensive line my whole career, and it’s not like a lineman gets a lot of recognition. I got so much more recognition for making that decision than I ever got for playing football. People wrote me, telling me what they thought about the decision I had made, good or bad. I never got so much mail in my life.”
Some people asked whether he had considered all the factors, and some asked if he had thought of all the money he could make. Eli laughs, “One of the most interesting things to me was that people would say, Haven’t you thought of this and this, when I had been thinking about it for ten years and had considered those things maybe a million and a half times.” The letters were entertaining, but they didn’t change his mind or cause him to reconsider. He had been very careful in making his decision, and once he made it he was firm.
Now Eli is doing what he has wanted to do for a long time—he is teaching and coaching in a local high school. Teachers aren’t famous for their high salaries, and sometimes the money is a little short. But Eli smiles about it: “The paychecks now, in spite of being low, are more than we were making when we were students. We’re happy to have more than we had before. Occasionally I think we could have a brand-new car or a nice house, but I have never had any serious doubts about the decision.”
He gathers his family around the room as he talks about the decision that has made such a difference in their lives. His daughter Hannah plays on the floor while his wife, Jennifer, holds the baby, Sarah. They don’t have the new house, car, and retirement fund, but they’re happy. Eli has come a long way from the boy who sometimes sneaked in to watch football on Sundays. Now he is a father who, like his own father and like Alma long ago, is determined to teach his children the commandments “as they are written” and to help them be covenant people of the Lord.