DENVER — When the Air Force lacrosse team plays at Denver on Saturday, Paxton Boyer will be in goal for the Falcons. It’s his second start.
Boyer is a born-and-raised Colorado guy, a graduate of Mountain Vista in Highlands Ranch. He won his first college start, an 11-10 upset at No. 10 Duke, and good luck shaking his belief that No. 17 Air Force one day can win a national championship in lacrosse.
“I think I told my mom I wanted to play college lacrosse when I was in fourth or fifth grade,” says Boyer, a freshman cadet studying Management at the academy. “But I wasn’t really a 'military guy.' I just liked to have fun. I never really even looked at Air Force. But then….”
His voice cracks. He takes a deep breath.
“But then Coach Herman thought it would be a good fit for me.”
That’s why Boyer and I are talking: Dr. Jake Herman. He was a powerhouse of a man, a Final Four lacrosse player at RIT. He was a husband, a dad. He was a teacher at Mountain Vista. He was a microbiologist. He was covered in tattoos. He was a coach.
“Sorry if I break up a little bit,” Boyer says. “It’s still hard to think about.”
It was a year ago, in January 2016, two of Boyer’s lacrosse teammates knocked on his front door with tears in their eyes. Herman, 38, had died suddenly of undisclosed causes.
His influence lives on, in inspirations like Paxton Boyer.
There are few things in sports, and maybe none, more powerful than a coach who cares. They teach the value of competition, not only as a means to triumph, but also as a way to better one's self. In the case of this player and coach, Herman once told Boyer that becoming a college All-American should be a goal, not a pipe dream. They enrich the process of being an athlete, turning monotonous workouts into a challenge the player can’t wait to encounter. Herman once told Boyer they could practice outdoors if, and only if, he promised to "shave that gnarly mustache" after the teenager's failed attempt at facial hair. One year later and Boyer can’t lie down on a bench press without imagining Herman above him, spotting him, screaming at him to finish one more rep.
“When I was done with a set,” Boyer says, “Coach Herman would get on the bench and do five times what I did. Then he'd teach chemistry and you're like, 'This guy's a genius, too.'"
And as Boyer put it, his coach "showed me a light that I didn't know I had." The two lacrosse programs on his list were Ohio State and Marquette. But Herman knew that Boyer aspires to become an entrepreneur and believed Air Force would inspire the leadership and courage to pursue his dream of running his own business.
It’s ironic, Boyer says, that the last time he saw Herman was days before Mountain Vista hosted a charity drive for the Make-A-Wish foundation. The coach stopped his team captain in a school hallway, telling Boyer he needed the senior to take a stand and make certain the lacrosse team was the face of the school’s fundraising efforts for “Wish Week.”
“That’s one thing he really cared about — he wanted us to be good people,” Boyer says. “That’s why I remember that day, Coach telling me how to help everybody else become a better person. That was the last face-to-face conversation I had with him.”
The next morning Boyer sent Herman a text message with a question about that day’s practice. The response never came.
I asked Boyer how he referred to Herman. Coach? Jake? Dr. Herman? Yes, yes, yes, and also several more: mentor, role model, leader and father figure.
“He was pretty much my best friend,” Boyer says.
Back to that lacrosse game on Saturday. If you go — and you should, because these Falcons ball out, as Duke learned for the second straight year — you will see Boyer in net. You’ll see his pregame routine: Arms stretched like wings from pipe to pipe, head lowered, eyes closed. You’ll see him recite the same prayer — “God, give me the strength that Coach Herman always gave me” — and point an index finger to the sky. You'll see the "JH" initials scribbled in marker on his Air Force lacrosse helmet.
“You can have a feeling in your heart when people are looking out for you,” Boyer says. “And I know Coach Herman is looking out for me. I’m telling you. I can feel it.”
He’s looking out, Paxton. And he's damn proud.
Up next: No. 17 Air Force (1-0) lacrosse at No. 3 Denver (0-0), 1 p.m. Saturday (Altitude TV)