Some legends are larger than life; Bunyan-esque figures who force themselves into public consciousness either through sheer force of will, deft marketing or feats of grandeur that simply cannot be ignored.
Some legends, however, are different.
There are legends who attain their considerable cachet of respect and admiration simply by showing up day after day, year after year, and making the things and people surrounding them better for having known them. They ask for — and far too often, receive — less adulation than the mythic figures who grab our attention and firmly embed themselves in the forefronts of our minds.
All the latter ask is that we listen to what they have to say and, hopefully, learn something from them.
For nearly 50 years, Herb Hartman has showed up at Troy Memorial Stadium every spring, wishing only to teach the sport of track and field he loves to the children he has cared about for generations. He is quiet. Unassuming. He shuffles into practice day after day — just as he has since he began his coaching career at his alma mater in 1968 — carrying his clipboard, usually whistling a quit tune of which only he seems to know the origin.
He sets up drills for his pole vaulters — Hartman spent 30 years as the head coach at Troy before turning over those duties and focusing almost exclusively on his beloved vaulters for the better part of the past two decades — with methodical precision. He knows what he is doing and how it is supposed to be done.
Herb Hartman — the man after whom today’s Herb Hartman Invitational track and field meet at Troy Memorial Stadium is named — is a legend. He is not a Trojan legend in the same way former athletes such as Bob Ferguson or Ryan Brewer or Kris Dielman are legends. He may never be a household name and he never made a splash on the national scene the way those three former football stars did.
But to those who were coached by Hartman or who have worked alongside Hartman, his impact is every bit as important. For five decades, he has done big things in a small town. He has coached athletes, their children and their children’s children. Some lives are touched by athletic acts of prowess viewed from afar; Hartman prefers the more direct approach.
“You can’t talk about Troy track without talking about Coach Hartman,” current Troy girls track and field coach Kurt Snyder said. “He’s forgotten more about track and field than all of us will ever know.”
Following a standout career as a football player and middle-distance runner at Troy, Hartman attended Capital University in Columbus. After his graduation from college, he would return to Troy as an art teacher and would take over the boys track and field program in 1968. He would serve as the Troy boys coach until 1989, when he took over the Troy girls track and field program. Even after his retirement as head coach, he has continued to serve as an assistant coach with both programs.
Hartman was inducted into the Ohio Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches Hall of Fame in 1993 and still is widely regarded as one of the top track minds in the state. He has served on numerous state and regional coaching boards and has been the meet manager for many state and regional cross country and track meets.
While all of those things certainly sound great on paper, however, they tell only a part of the story. There’s no hall of fame that can truly honor a man who has touched the hearts and souls of young people in the way Hartman has for nearly half a century. Framed certificates and spiffy plaques can’t quite match the smiles on the faces of Hartman or his charges when they make a breakthrough on the track … or in life.
“You can tell how much he cares about these kids — that’s why he keeps coming back,” current Troy boys track and field coach Deon Metz, who was coached by Hartman during his days as a Trojan athlete, said. “It’s because he loves what he’s doing and he cares about these kids.”
Legends aren’t meant to last forever, though. As Hartman creeps closer and closer to his 80th birthday, those around the program are trying to come to grips with the fact there will eventually come a practice when they’ll look over at the pole vault pits and won’t see Hartman standing there, quietly imploring one of his vaulters to make sure they keep their hand locked onto their hip as they run down the runway and their right knee bent as they take off from the ground.
There will come a day when a legend retires … leaving behind the many lessons he taught, the memories he helped create and the lives he touched.
That’s not a day anyone is looking forward to.
“How do you replace someone like that?” Metz said. “How do you replace somebody with that many years of experience who is willing to do anything and everything you ask of them?”
You don’t. You can’t … which is why they should be appreciated for as long as you have them.
Contact David Fong at [email protected]; follow him on Twitter @thefong