Former Bomber Mack Herron dies in Chicago at 67

Mack Herron, the former Winnipeg Blue Bomber running back who went on to set a single-season National Football League record for all-purpose records but whose playing career and later life was disrupted by drug use, died Saturday while living in the same Chicago streets where he grew up and was still “a neighborhood legend” for his athletic accomplishments.

Mack Herron as Winnipeg Blue Bomber on July 26, 1972. He was 67.

His death, believed to be connected to diabetes, was confirmed Sunday by his sister Barbara.

Nicknamed “Mini Mac” for his diminutive stature but powerful running, the 5 foot five and a half inch, 180 pound Herron joined the Canadian Football League Bombers in 1971 after the NFL Atlanta Falcons drafted him 143rd overall out of Kansas State, where in his senior year he had been runner up in college scoring.

With the Bombers, Herron was a sensation on the field and a fan favourite. He led the league in all-purpose yards in both of his CFL seasons before he signed with the Patriots in 1973, and in 1974 the kick-return specialist set the then NFL 14-game record with 2,444 all-purpose yards.

But Herron only became available to New England because of what would become a long-running battle with drugs. In May 1973, Winnipeg police raided his East Kildonan apartment, tackling Herron before he could toss the evidence off his balcony. It was a miniscule amount of marijuana, but police said they also found traces of cocaine.

The Bombers released him.

Five months later, having signed with the Patriots, Herron pleaded guilty to two drug-possession charges and was given a choice four months in jail or pay a fine and costs totaling $1,000. It was a stiff sentence, even back then, but the judge considered Herron’s residual stature in the community. At the time, the little man was still a big man in Winnipeg, and before he left the courtroom that October day, he spoke directly to young Bomber fans.

“Unfortunately, I became involved with drugs,” Herron said, “and it has caused great harm to my career. I lost the opportunity to play in Canada for the Winnipeg team and become part of a wonderful community. I have been given a second chance to play for the New England Patriots on condition that I have nothing further to do with drugs. I will not become involved again. If there are any football players amongst the young Manitobans, I urge them to profit from my mistake. Stay away from drugs of all kinds.”

But soon, after playing parts of the 1975 season with the New England and finally Atlanta, his addiction to drugs, including heroin, would drag him down and out of professional football permanently. By 1978, Herron was sentenced to five years in prison on cocaine trafficking charges. He would serve shorter prison terms in 2000 and 2003. In 2011, his last reported drug-related arrest, The Chicago Tribune wrote that Herron has been arrested about 20 times since his football career ended, mostly for drug offences.

The Mack Herron who once had so much promise, and made so many promises, had been receiving public assistance in recent years and fighting with the NFL over pension payments. He did landscaping around the neighborhood, the Tribune wrote, “usually for free.”

And like so many old pro football players, he was in constant pain. In Herron’s case it came from his leg and ankles, his mother told the Tribune.

“Sometimes,” she said, “he can hardly walk.”

The arrest four years ago came as a shock to his family.

Herron was a devout Muslim, they said, who didn’t drink or smoke. They pointed out that he mentored children against drug use. They thought his troubles were behind him.


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