A very interesting man, Lon Herzbrun, 87, didn’t do it all but came close enough to be in the conversation. He was a Tennessee football player, military officer and coach at Fulton High School. He gained fame as an assistant coach for the Volunteers. He helped develop all-American linebackers.
After that, he affected more lives, enjoyed a giant houseboat and owned a Maryville health club for four decades. In his spare time, he wrote a book and talked about high school sports on Saturday morning radio shows.
Herzbrun died June 3. He had a rare disease that affected his legs. He had a heart condition. Doctors belatedly discovered cancer.
Jim Smelcher, the Vol tackle who played beside him in 1957, understood the burden of multiple afflictions.
“Lon was that tough.”
Herzbrun was a powerful influence. So says Herb Newton, one of his former Falcons, long a prominent Knoxville businessman.
“He was a great football coach at Fulton High and at the university. In addition, he remained an unbelievable mentor and inspiration to countless players and their families – including me and mine.”
Herzbrun was born in Welch, West Virginia, grandson of Hungarian immigrants. He grew up in Washington, D.C.
He said he wasn’t all that big (5-9 and three-quarters inches). He said he could run but wasn’t especially fast. He had good strength and was aggressive. As a fullback, he led the region in scoring. He was the top scorer in basketball as a stocky guard. He was offered a pro contract as a baseball catcher. He chose a football scholarship at Tennessee because of Robert R. Neyland.
“Tennessee had won the national championship in 1951 and General Neyland showed an interest in me. He sent two players to talk. That was a new experience.”
Lon, as a Vol, had modest statistics. He had a big day against Florida in 1955 – two interceptions to help spoil homecoming for the Gators. In 1957, he was a regular in a lineup that included Tommy Bronson, Bill Anderson, Stockton Adkins, Bobby Gordon, Bill Johnson, Frank Kolinsky and Smelcher.
Kolinsky, Herzbrun and Smelcher were best friends. Kolinsky put that in perspective: “God must have been laughing when put a Polock, a Jew and an Indian together.”
Kolinsky was Polish. Smelcher’s grandmother was an Indian. Herzbrun made the Jewish hall of fame.
Herzbrun told the story of his mother finally seeing him play in a game, at Maryland, 1957.
“My mom had not seen me play sports. The family never had a car. College Park was within reach of Washington.
“She was asked how she liked the game. She said, ‘If he thinks he’s bringing that dirty uniform home for me to clean …’”
Herb Newton recalled many Herzbrun achievements beyond football. He earned two degrees at Tennessee and an Army commission. He planned to make the military his career. He completed Ranger and Airborne training. He made 30 jumps. He prepared to be a helicopter pilot. He got reassigned to football.
Lon was at Fort Campbell when General William Westmoreland asked him to play for the 101st Division.
“He was a general,” said Herzbrun.
Lon was twice named captain of championship teams. He won the Timmy Award as armed forces’ player of the year in 1961.
After that, he got a real job, at Fulton High. Success followed him. He coached D.D. Lewis, Jackie Walker and Bill Justus. He had an undefeated team.
He coached some big-name Volunteers, too. Steve Kiner is in the college hall of fame. Walker is among the all-time greats. Jack Reynolds, Jamie Rotella, Andy Spiva and Ray Nettles remain unforgettable.
Newton has rare insight.
“He taught us to always be positive, be prepared, stay disciplined, be accountable for everything that we attempted, finish what we started.
“So many times he said we should expect to work hard in practice, always do a little bit more and never, ever give up.
“Football people say a good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life. Fulton High School in the 1960s had great football coaches that changed the lives of many of their players. I can attest to that. I was one of them.”
Herzbrun survivors include wife Wilma, son Eric and daughter Yvette. Funeral services are set for Thursday, June 9, at 5 p.m. at Fairview Methodist Church, 2508 Old Niles Ferry Road in Maryville.
Marvin West welcomes reader comments or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org