Like most Americans, Jamel Herring was deeply moved by the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. He was a junior at Longwood High School in Brookhaven, Long Island, and felt a sense of purpose in life he hadn’t felt before.
When he graduated high school in 2003, the passage of time hadn’t diminished his feelings of patriotism and obligation that he first felt on that fateful late summer day when the U.S. came under attack.
He joined the Marine Corps to try to do something, anything, he could.
“I’m a native New Yorker and that hit so close to home, man,” Herring said of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in Manhattan. “I felt at the time I needed a purpose in my life, and that was my calling.”
Not long after, he found himself deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, and life as he knew it would never be the same. Seeing live combat will do that to a guy.
“You know, you grow up in Long Island, you don’t see rockets on a daily basis,” Herring said. “I’d see something go zooming over my head and it would fool me. I’m like, ‘Now what is that?’ And then a couple of seconds later, I’d hear this huge impact and I knew what it was. The sirens would go off and you just knew.”
It became familiar, but no matter how familiar it becomes, one can’t ever get used to bombs going off around you and your comrades dying.
He learned to cope because he had no other choice. And the coping mechanisms he learned as a Marine have enabled him to reach his dream of becoming a world champion boxer.
Now the WBO super featherweight champion, Herring will defend his belt Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+) against Lamont Roach at Chukchansi Park in Fresno, California.
Herring, a member of the 2012 U.S. Olympic boxing team, didn’t win a world title until May 25, nearly seven full years after the Olympics concluded, when he decisioned Masayuki Ito in Kissimmee, Florida.
Things weren’t always moving in the right direction in his fighting career, he said, but he learned to be patient and remain disciplined in the Marines and that helped him overcome the frustrating and sometimes dark times in the pros when it seemed like his shot may never come.
“I had a lot of ups and downs,” Herring said. “I made adjustments to my team. I had to fight to keep the faith. I wasn’t getting the right fights I needed to put me where I wanted to be. That’s where being a Marine helped me.
“When you are deployed, all you have are your brothers [in the Marines]. You rely on them and they rely on you and there is something there that is hard to describe but that stays with you forever. And you learn that, hey, we can be friends and be talking and doing this and that, and when I wake up tomorrow, that guy isn’t there anymore.”
By that standard, being put into fights he didn’t feel helped his pursuit of a title wasn’t that big of a deal. He pushed forward with the determination he learned as a fresh-faced teenager in Boot Camp. It tested his perseverance and will and belief in himself, but he got through it and not only survived, but succeeded.
“If you are going to quit when you first have trouble [reaching a goal], then it must not have been very important to you in the first place,” Herring said. “I had a vision for what I wanted to do and I kept pushing and working and believing, and it finally paid off.”
He has spent fight week visiting veterans hospitals and children’s hospitals and tried to spread the positivity for which he’s become so beloved by those who know him.
When he doesn’t have a lot going on, when he’s sitting at home reflecting or just relaxing, his past can haunt him. It is something so many veterans are familiar with and have trouble coping with. He wants to be the living, breathing symbol that the haunting memories don’t have to win.
“It’s the quiet moments in life that can get you,” Herring said. “Those quiet moments trigger not only myself, but a lot of vets in general. In those quiet moments, they have too much time to themselves and their minds starting racing and thinking of the horrors of their past. This is why I am doing what I am and telling veterans there is nothing wrong with getting help and speaking out.
“I found it out myself: The more you keep it tucked in, the more it builds up and the worse it gets. It gets worse and worse by the day and it can consume you. It’s why I use my platform, not to show off and say, ‘Hey, I’m a champion,’ or brag about all the materialistic things I may have. I use the platform to try to be a champion in life and encourage those who are suffering and going through what I’ve gone through to understand it’s all right to seek help and speak out.”
Herring is the kind of champion every mother dreams of raising. He is a competitive man and says boxing is therapeutic, but he understands the impact his success can have upon others, and he wants to share his gifts.
It’s why he’s going to receive a hero’s welcome from his fellow Marines when he makes that long walk to the ring on Saturday.
“My parents taught me to be respectful and have a good heart and appreciate what you have in life,” Herring said. “I feel like I have the ability to do some good in this world and to impact some lives and have a positive impact on others. And you know what? If I can do that, that would be the greatest gift I could ever get in this world, doing something to help others.
“Our veterans need that support and that love and that recognition. They’ll thank me for my service and want to talk about boxing when they see me, but I always thank them because without the sacrifices they’ve made, I wouldn’t have the freedom and the ability to do what I do.”
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