Winning a Life's Battle
Feb. 28, 2008
Athletic competition is normally based on wins and losses. That is all that seems to matter at the end of the day to those who watch it and for those who compete. Former Penn State standout Kahadeejah Herbert defied that notion by using basketball for something more than winning games. She used it to win in life.
Herbert grew up in New Jersey surrounded by a very hostile environment. She was often mistreated by her family and was afraid for her well being on numerous occasions. Herbert also became a mother at the young age of 16 after giving birth to a baby girl. In society's eyes, she was heading down a path of destruction. Herbert saw it differently.
All of this occurred while Herbert was attending John F. Kennedy High School in Willingboro, N.J. At the time of her daughter's birth, Herbert had never participated in any type of athletic competition. Bill and Evelyn Lewis, neighbors of Herbert and parents of gold medalist, Carl Lewis, helped spark an interest in athletics for the troubled teenage girl. Bill was Herbert's history teacher and coached the track team. He encouraged her to participate in track and field and basketball for the last two years of her high school career.
"No one in my family had ever finished high school or went to college," Herbert said. "Mr. Lewis encouraged me to start track and basketball. The Lewis' were successful, and seeing that gave me hope that there was something better on the other side."
Herbert excelled on the basketball court and graduated from JFK in 1981 before moving to University Park, Pa., to play at Penn State University. She would suit up for the Lady Lions' program under a young head coach by the name of Rene Portland. Portland was just in her second year of coaching when Herbert joined the program. With this opportunity, Herbert was defying the odds. Although she was a young mother coming from a rough background, she was enrolling at an excellent institution with an opportunity to play Division I basketball while pursuing a degree. Herbert immediately felt the impact of being part of a team, or in her case a family.
"It was my first real family experience and coach Portland was like the mother I never had," Herbert said. "We were a close-knit family, we would have done anything for each other. It was a first time family for a number of my teammates as well. When you come from a background like I had growing up, the experience of what we had was awesome."
With her new family, the Lady Lions also had success on the court during Herbert's career. During her freshman campaign, Penn State went 24-6 and played in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history. The Lady Lions continued their successful postseason run as they went to the NCAA Tournament all four years of Herbert's career.
Herbert's name can still be found in the Penn State record books for her individual accomplishments. She was the first in program history to score 2,000 points in a career and is only one of three to do so in PSU history. She is the all-time leading rebounder in Lady Lion history with 1,103 caroms, averaging over eight per game for her career. Herbert holds the all-time record for field-goal percentage in a season when she shot .764 from the field during the 1983-84 campaign. For her stellar play, Herbert earned a number of individual laurels as well. She was named Atlantic 10 Player of the Year and Wade Trophy finalist in 1985. She was an honorable mention selection on the Street & Smith's All-America list in 1984 and 1985 and earned recognition on the NCAA Tournament All-East Region Team in 1983 during Penn State's Elite Eight run. Although she is considered one of the best Penn State players of all time, she sees her career as something more than putting a ball through a hoop.
"I never thought of my accomplishments on the court as anything special," Herbert said. "Basketball was never my life. I used it to get out of my childhood situation because I wanted something better in life. The accolades didn't mean that much to me. It is fun to see my grandson point to my picture when we visit Penn State. It makes me proud. I saw it more as an opportunity to get away from what could have been."
Herbert also had an adopted family away from campus as well. Dorothy and Herb Schmidt took Herbert in as one of their own during her college tenure. The Schmidt's had two boys and lived near Penn State. The Schmidt boys were like brothers to Herbert and for the first time in her life, she had a place to call home. Dorothy would often go by the nickname of Tootie, a name still used fondly by Herbert.
"The Schmidt's were like foster parents to me," Herbert said. "I got to hang out with both of their boys and it was nice to have a family that hugged each other and said `I love you.' Every time I go back to visit, I stay with them. They are my family there and we keep in touch. My grandson calls her Grandma Toots. They were a godsend."
After her collegiate career, Herbert took an interest in coaching for a few years. She was an assistant at St. Joseph's under current Ohio State coach Jim Foster. She also coached at UC-Santa Barbara and spent some time at a small Division III school as an assistant and volunteer. After a few years, Herbert decided to leave the coaching profession and concentrate on moving forward with her life.
Raising a child was a difficult task for Herbert when she finished college. Her daughter often stayed in New Jersey with Herbert's family when she was at Penn State, so she had a similar upbringing as Herbert did.
"Raising my child was tough," Herbert said. "She had the same influences I did and she was a witness to what I had to go through. It was difficult to get respect from your child when they see things like that. We moved away and the best part is that we made it through. I have my Penn State experience to thank for that."
Herbert's daughter is preparing to finish nursing school in 2009 and will move to Florida to begin a career in the field. Her grandson, Isaiah, is four-years-old and although they reside in Buckeye country in Ohio, Isaiah still wears blue and white to support his grandmother's alma mater. Herbert currently works for AT&T as an Engineer and Project Manager and played a major role in developing U-verse, the company's new digital television service.
Herbert does not keep in contact with her paternal parents because of the upbringing she had to endure, but her birth mother recently sent a letter to coach Portland stating her thankfulness for helping her daughter become a success. Portland was touched by the letter and sent it to Herbert.
"My real mother sent that to Rene knowing what she had done for me," Herbert said. "Rene Portland saved my life. The lady is my mother, the only thing she didn't do was give birth to me. Everything I learned came from Rene."
Herbert is a living example that no matter where one may come from, a successful life is achievable. She saw where a rough road could lead, and chose to overcome life's obstacles by getting a college education and playing basketball at Penn State.