Editor’s note: This story contains descriptions of an attempted sexual assault.
ON A STUNNING Saturday morning in March, Justin Herron decides to go for a walk. Lifting or running is out of the question — his whole body is run down from the grueling offseason work he’s doing at LeCharles Bentley’s offensive-line camp in Chandler, Arizona. But Herron is somebody who keeps moving, keeps grinding. He doesn’t take many days off — a walk instead of a run is about the best he can do.
Herron started six games for the New England Patriots last year, after the Pats picked him in the sixth round last year following a solid career at Wake Forest. But he knows he’ll be fighting for playing time again this year — he began the 2021 season as a swing guy on the line behind tackles Trent Brown and Isaiah Wynn — so he’s determined to make the most out of every day of his offseason.
On sore days, Kiwanis Park, near his home in Tempe, is the perfect place for Herron. It’s isolated enough — there is just the right amount of people to not feel alone, but still find solitude amongst the trees, sports fields and the lake in the middle of the park.
At 11 a.m. on this spectacular spring day of sun and mid-70s weather, Herron is winding down his walk when he hears yelling. He can’t make out what the words are, or where they’re coming from, but he pulls out his earbuds and starts to scan the park. Eventually he zeroes in on a man and woman about 75 yards from him.
He’s not sure exactly what he is seeing, but his eyes lock with the woman’s. Herron pauses a long time as he tells this part of the story. “There was a moment that I don’t really want to get into,” he says. “There was just one moment when I realized how bad it was, but I don’t want to talk about it. It’s private.”
In that moment, he knows his walk is over. It’s time to run.
BACK IN 2018, right before Wake Forest’s spring football season began, Herron anxiously awaited the voting results for team captain. He was a redshirt junior offensive lineman for the Demon Deacons, and he was sure he’d done everything right — he’d started his entire career, done countless extra hours of film work, chosen to double major in psychology and communication. Teammates had watched him work his way up from being a lightly recruited late-bloomer in high school to a reliable, All-ACC-level tackle. To make this next step, to be recognized as one of the most valuable leaders on his team, would mean something — everything — to him.
But when the votes were tallied, Herron’s teammates picked six other players, including two offensive linemen not named Justin Herron.
It tore him up. He just couldn’t fathom what his teammates didn’t see in him. After a week of letting it gnaw at him, Herron went and met with head coach Dave Clawson. “Coach, I do everything right,” Herron said. “I get there early. I watch more film than anybody. I do everything right. Why didn’t I get elected as a captain? What else can I do?”
“Justin, you do do everything right,” Clawson told him. “We always see you doing extra work. You’re a tremendous competitor and a very good player. But football is a team sport. You need to set a good example and bring other guys with you.”
Herron realized Clawson was right. He was a perfectly competent guy to line up alongside, but he wasn’t a giver. On a talented (all five starters ended up in the NFL) and very competitive Wake line, he tended to keep to himself. He often did workouts and film study alone. Clawson told him that the best leaders — the best people, really — weren’t just singular, widely respected talents; they knew how to lift others up at the same time. “That changed me,” Herron says.
He headed into the 2018 season on a mission to be a better teammate. He had never been selfish but he wanted to be selfless now. That August, he started mentoring the guys competing for his position. As Wake’s season kicked off, away at Tulane, coaches were seeing a new Herron. Then, in that first game, Herron suffered an ACL tear and was out for the year. Coaches weren’t sure how Herron would respond. “Everybody sulks for a while after a season-ending injury,” Clawson says.
But a week later, right after the surgery, Herron began to show up at every meeting, film session and practice. He started producing typed-up weekly breakdowns of upcoming opponents for his teammates. The younger linemen began to gravitate toward him, and Herron became an unofficial assistant coach.
Herron considered leaving Wake after that year for the NFL draft (he’d graduated already). But he ultimately returned for a final season as a grad student in 2019, and he won the team’s Deacon House of Pancakes (DHOP) award for most wipeout blocks. But most importantly, in the months leading to his last year, he got the call he wanted most. “Congratulations, Justin,” Clawson said. “Your teammates have named you a team captain.”
As Herron hung up the phone, he thought about the gut punch he’d felt a year earlier and the good that had come of it. “I really applied that to my life ever since then,” Herron says. “And it’s definitely paid off.”
ON THAT MARCH morning at Kiwanis Park, she feels a push in the back, hears a strange man telling her to be quiet, and then she starts screaming. She screams over and over again, but nobody comes. People are around — she can see 10 or so bystanders in her peripheral vision — but her screams are just faint enough, just far enough off in the distance, that no one moves.
And then she makes eye contact with someone she calls her angel. “People need to know what an amazing person Justin is,” says the woman, who wanted to remain anonymous but agreed to an interview with ESPN to describe Herron’s involvement. “He couldn’t have known if that man had a weapon. He just did it spontaneously. Justin has given me hope for the rest of my life. I love him for it.”
Since she’d retired a few years earlier, the former elementary school teacher had gone for a walk almost every day. She loved her job but it had been long, hard days for 39 years, teaching different grades. She especially enjoyed the last stretch of her career, when she was working with fifth-graders. They were the perfect age group for her — old enough to have real conversations with her, yet still young enough to be kids.
She would often daydream about someday retiring and living a tranquil existence, full of walks and parks. She’d spent most of her past four decades around Tempe, often visiting with her daughter that lives in the area, but sometimes traveling to Texas, where her other daughter works as a doctor. Through it all, she always made sure to get her walks in and built a small community of joggers and dogsitters and fellow park walkers that she would see every day. “Walks were my treat once I stopped teaching,” she says.
That morning, she is already shaken after a disturbing start to her outing: a soccer game on pause as a player in distress lays on the field. First responders frantically try to revive the man as worried teammates crowd around. She can’t hear what they’re saying. She can just feel the fear in the air as the man fights for his life. She cries and says a little prayer for the man, and before she leaves, she breathes a sigh of relief: The man had sat up. He appears to be okay, and he’s loaded into an ambulance and taken away.
A few minutes later, she’s still thinking about the player on the soccer field when a man approaches from behind and attacks her. She doesn’t know how long she screams and fights but it feels like forever. “Time went so slow,” she says now.
That’s when her eyes connect with another man almost a football field away. “I saw her,” Herron says, and his words slow down. “And she saw me. And… I think… I felt like when I got there… we had a moment of eye contact. And then… the situation did de-escalate quickly and then it stopped, right there and then…”
Herron goes silent for a second, and then finally finishes his sentence. “Right after the eye contact,” he says.
Herron remembers making the decision to run, but he doesn’t remember actually running. He is suddenly just there, next to the man, a local homeless man named Kevin Caballero. When he gets to Caballero and puts his giant 8.88-inch hands on him, Herron is able to latch onto him and drive him, hard, into a heap across from the woman. Caballero tries to wobble back to his feet but Herron is making loud noises that he can hardly believe are coming from within him. His voice is guttural and terrifying, even to him. “Don’t move,” Herron yells.
Around that time, Murry Rogers arrives. He’d been preparing for his teen daughter’s birthday party 30 yards away, putting ice in the coolers and hanging balloons, when he hears the screams. “I didn’t think it was what it was,” he says. When he sees Herron in a sprint toward the man, he begins to run, too, and he arrives a few seconds later.
As Herron comforts the woman, Caballero is insisting that she had initiated the assault. (Later, when detectives interview him about the incident, Caballero says he believes the woman telepathically communicated to him and told him that she wanted to have sex. He admits to pushing her down and attempting to sexually assault her.) Herron eventually tells the woman, “You don’t have to listen to this guy anymore,” and they walk out of ear shot from the man as Rogers stands guard with Caballero.
“Don’t let him go,” the woman says over her shoulder to Rogers, who has his hand on Caballero’s shoulder. “Just don’t let him go.” Caballero continues to mumble, mostly incoherently, but he doesn’t move. “I think he just knew, ‘This was going to be way more trouble if I start running from this guy,'” Herron says.
Police arrive within a few minutes and take Caballero away. (He’s ultimately charged with attempted sexual assault and kidnapping. His public defender — who did not respond to calls and emails from ESPN — argued that Caballero had never been convicted of a felony and had been off his mental health medications, and the court agreed to release him to the custody of a relative. The trial is scheduled for sometime this fall.)
Herron does his best to soothe the woman while the detectives interview witnesses and the police cars pull away. She gives Herron and Rogers one more hug each, and then she’s loaded into an ambulance and driven off.
Herron and Rogers watch as she pulls away, and then they’re the only people still there, standing in the park, staring at each other, as people wander past with no idea that a sexual assault had been prevented a half-hour earlier.
“It’s just… over now?” Rogers says to Herron.
“I guess so,” Herron says.
Rogers goes back to setting up his daughter’s birthday party. Guests begin arriving soon after, and Rogers can’t help but sit amongst all the laughing and balloons and presents and think about the way something can happen — something really bad, something really traumatic — but the world just hurtles forward.
As Herron leaves the park, he calls his mom to tell her what happened. “You’re never going to believe this,” he tells her. “I saved this woman from getting raped in the park.”
“What if the guy had had a gun or a knife?” she asks. Herron lies and says that he could tell immediately Caballero didn’t have any weapons. He didn’t know, though. He just knew he had to start running.
A FEW DAYS after the attack, Herron and Rogers were asked if they’d come back to the Tempe town hall for a ceremony to honor them for their good deeds. The woman was notified but not expected to attend.
Herron and Rogers arrived to a crowded hallway of Tempe police commissioners and officers, with media cameras set up outside. The two men were chitchatting with everybody, and football kept coming up. Most of the people there were Cardinals fans, but a Patriots fan or two made sure to remind the room of the significant gap in success between the two franchises. Everybody laughed.
And then the group went quiet. A retired schoolteacher and her daughter turned the corner and began to approach. They walked side-by-side for a bit but then the mom sped a few steps ahead. “I wanted to hug my angels,” she says.
The hug began as a low-speed collision between Herron and the teacher, and they both peeled off one arm apiece to make room for Rogers. All three bowed their heads, and almost no words were exchanged. They just hugged and cried, and pretty soon, all those old grizzled cops were dabbing at their eyes, too.
About a minute later, the small huddle broke, and Herron told Rogers and the woman that he would get them to a Patriots game this fall. “For sure, that is a given,” says Herron, who will be splitting snaps at right tackle as starter Trent Brown deals with a calf injury. “There is no way that isn’t happening. We’ve established a relationship that will never be forgotten. Our paths will definitely cross again in some way shape or form. I don’t know when that is. But it will be a wonderful reunion.”
Now it was time to speak to the media outside. Rogers and Herron waved goodbye, and the woman’s daughter handed them each a thank-you letter she’d written. Herron really wanted to open his but he didn’t have time — he put the note in his pocket and headed for the exit.
But as he got to the doors, he looked back once more at the woman he’d saved. She was watching him the whole time as he walked away, so Herron gave her one final wave and smile. He was surprised — happily surprised — that she came that morning.
The truth is, she had to go. She says in the weeks after the attack, the only visual she had in her mind was the face of her attacker. She needed to stare at Herron and Rogers that morning for as long as she could. “I wanted to take in their faces,” she says. “I didn’t want to only see that man’s face for the rest of my life. And now I can — I only see Justin and Murry now when I think back on it. I will carry their faces forever.”