One Miami Dolphins rookie defensive lineman was a product of the South, drinking from segregated water fountains in small-town Florida, picking fruit as a migrant worker from age 10 and never considering college until the Bethune-Cookman football coach saw him play pick-up basketball.
The other rookie defensive lineman was a product of the lily-white Midwest, living in a small Iowa town with no Blacks, farming his family’s land as a child and dreaming of that farm more than football while playing at tiny Central College in his home state.
It’s a small story, from a distant time, involving two lesser names amid the roster’s iconic stars. But theirs is a story America could hear and learn from today, if America still cares to listen and observe rather than just shout.
Maulty Moore, the Black man from Brooksville, Fla., and Vern Den Herder, the white man from Sioux Center, Iowa, had never been around anyone of the other race when they became roommates in 1971. This was during another turbulent time in America for race and politics.
This was only the second year Blacks roomed with whites in the Dolphins’ organization. Coach Don Shula introduced the concept upon his arrival the previous season. Moore, for the first time, saw a white man do the same work as him, sweat as hard as him and then lay in bed across the room at night, exhausted and wondering if he could make the team. Just like him.
What he didn’t know is Den Herder felt the same way, a white man seeing a Black man working for the same dream. Den Herder was a ninth-round draft pick. Moore was an undrafted free agent. Each faced long odds of making a team.
“We found our goals were basically the same,” Moore said. “That changed the way I’d thought all my life to that point. It opened me up. Just working with Vern, rooming with him, allowed me to see a white person as a person for the first time in my life.”
It was the same for Den Herder. He saw a few Blacks at Central College. That was the extent of diversity in his life until arriving to the Dolphins. Then he lived and shared private thoughts with one. His worldview tilted, just as Moore’s did.
This isn’t a Disney movie. They didn’t become best friends or lifelong companions. They discovered mutual respect for the other, though, and forged a friendship that gets updated with each reunion.
Each, you see, helped the other become better. Not so much as a player, though they did talk football. They also had what Moore remembers as, “A lot of private talks.” Each remembers, for instance, lying in bed the night before the Undefeated Season’s Super Bowl discussing what they’d do with the winner’s money.
“I’d buy a bull,” Den Herder told Moore.
Moore remembers thinking: A bull? Why would he want that? But what he found out was Den Herder wanted a stud bull for his farm, a valuable piece for the dream he wanted to build.
“I want a home with air conditioning and carpet,” Moore told Den Herder.
Den Herder remembers thinking: What’s so big about that? What he found was where Moore grew up in Brooksville no one had homes with such amenities. Moore, in fact, had picked out the very house in Lauderhill he wanted before that Super Bowl game. He’d drive by it just to stoke his dream.
“When you were Black in America throughout the ’50s and ’60s, a majority of us lived in shotgun houses,” Moore said. “When it was hot outside, it was hot inside. When it was cold outside, it was cold inside. I wanted a house with air conditioning. We never had carpet on the floor, either. I remember when I got my first house in 1973, I used to just enjoy lying on the carpet.”
After a decade, Den Herder retired to his hometown of Sioux Center, Iowa, where he farmed 600 acres. Moore retired after five NFL seasons, lived in his dream home for 15 years and worked as an educator in Broward before moving to Port St. Lucie.
All these years later, there’s a moral to their story if America cares to find it. Moore, for his part, just says, “We’re still friends. Vern helped me become a better person.”
©2020 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)