The Elon University men’s basketball team concludes its home schedule Thursday night, signifying the final game in Alumni Gym for the team’s resident comedian and captain, walk-on senior guard Sam Hershberger.
“It came up fast,” Hershberger said. “I was thinking about it against [the College of] Charleston [Feb. 13] — second-to-last time I’ll play in here — and I was sitting on the bench and I thought, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable.’ But I’m excited.”
Hershberger will get to start for Elon, the only start in his career. Head coach Matt Matheny loves rewarding the walk-on seniors with a start on the emotional night.
“They have a special place in my heart,” Matheny said. “Walk-ons go unnoticed a lot. They’re not playing as many minutes — they’re not playing as much in the big games — but they work just as hard.”
But Hershberger breaks the typical walk-on mold. In fact, if you ask his roommates, Hershberger can’t get around campus without being noticed.
“When going around with him on campus, you can’t walk one minute across campus without stopping with him,” said senior Rajat Agarwal. “He’s truly an Elon celebrity if there ever was one — you could compare him to Leo Lambert, in that sense.”
Hershberger comes to Elon from Vandalia, Ohio, which is approximately 20 minutes north of Dayton. He lived in Danieley his freshman year with redshirt junior forward Wes Brewer, a fellow walk-on who is also participating in Senior Night, and senior Nick Fedor.
Fedor says Hershberger was, from the moment he stepped on campus, a “really outgoing, happy dude.”
But you wouldn’t know that he was on the basketball team if you met him on the street.
“He wants to fit in as a normal student. Even just walking around with him, he never introduces himself as a basketball player,” Agarwal said. “He just loves being a normal guy.”
Yet his radiant smile and sociable characteristics give him an aura that is infectious and makes all who are with him — and talking about him — smile.
“He has a great energy about him,” Matheny said. “Ever since I’ve been here, whenever I ask Sam how he’s doing, he always says, ‘I’m living the dream.’ And I think he is. He definitely makes you feel like he’s living in a wonderful dream.”
Freshman guard Steven Santa Ana got to see this personality at its best in a most unusual circumstance.
“When my hand was hurt, I sat on the bench with Sam and Pat [Ryan, a junior guard],” Santa Ana said. “Sam’s got the most energy out of anybody. Even when he’s not in the game, he’s giving energy to everybody and going crazy on the bench, having a good time. It was so much fun.”
A known jokester
Part of Hershberger’s status and mystique on campus, according to four-year teammate and roommate Brewer, is his well-known affinity for pulling pranks.
“He’s quite a prankster,” Brewer said. “He’s always trying to pull a joke on one of us [basketball players], or someone else he knows — which is a lot, since he knows so many people.”
Brewer said one prank in particular is a favorite of Hershberger’s, of which junior guard Ryder Bowline falls victim to most often.
“When he sees someone walking with a girl on campus, he walks up and asks, ‘Is this the girl you were showing us on Facebook?’” Brewer said. “It works 100% of the time. Ryder’s been caught multiple times — it’s his go-to prank. It’s cruel, but it’s Sam.”
His outgoing nature leads to memorable experiences away from the basketball team, too.
“There was one time Sam asked me to help him record a video for a project in his Spanish class,” Fedor said. “He went around campus and went up to completely random people and got them to speak Spanish with him for the video.”
A special relationship
One prank from Hershberger’s sophomore year, in particular, took on a life of its own and damaged a close bond between Hershberger and the pranked victim.
“It all started when some of the team was out to dinner at Cracker Barrel, and [Elon play-by-play announcer] Taylor Durham was also there,” said junior guard Luke Eddy. “I wasn’t there, but I’ve seen video evidence. The guys are in one side, and Taylor’s on the other side. Sam tells Taylor’s waitress that it’s his birthday — but it wasn’t his birthday.
“This lady brings out a cake for Taylor, and Sam gets the whole restaurant to sing Taylor Durham ‘Happy Birthday’ and Taylor Durham stands up and says, ‘It’s not my birthday! It’s not my birthday!’ the whole time the restaurant is singing to them.”
The interaction spurned a “feud” between the two that, according to Eddy, has continued to this day. But Eddy also acknowledged that, deep down, they’re each other’s biggest fans, and everyone in the program sees that their friendship is truly strong.
“It’s grown — it’s come a long way,” Matheny said. “They’ll have a bond forever through the relationship that they’ve been through.”
Brewer added: “They have a very strong relationship. Since sophomore year, it’s been a very close bond since then.”
Hershberger smiles whenever someone brings up Durham to him, surely recalling his previous encounters with the man he calls “TD.” But the friendship shines through.
“TD and I have a great relationship,” Hershberger said. “We like to tease each other sometimes, but TD and I are good buds.”
Durham also smiles when asked about Hershberger and the prank wars the two have engaged in.
“He’s just a really good guy to be around — he’s a guy who keeps everybody loose, and I think every team needs to have one of those,” Durham said. “He’s come and done postgame [interviews] and the radio show with me, and he’ll be very talented in whatever he chooses to do.”
The endless song and dance
In addition to the pranks, Hershberger makes himself known whenever he comes home.
“You always know when Sam is in the room or when he comes into the room because he sings like none other,” Agarwal said.
The bursts of song are something Hershberger is happy to talk about, but he claims it isn’t happening all of the time.
“Primarily, it consists of shower singing,” Hershberger said. “I feel like, to really get the full experience, you got to put some vocal out yourself. Whether it’s singing or dancing, you’ve got to lose yourself in the music, you know?”
Yet for Brewer, his roommate’s love of music, and singing along to it, is not something to be fond of.
“Sam kills naptime,” Brewer said. “He chooses some of the worst songs, and then tries to sing the terrible songs. It’s not a position you want to be in when that does happen, that’s for sure.”
Brewer said Hershberger wakes him up from his nap “three to four times a week,” and estimates the number has reached around 500 over four years.
Eddy also referenced Hershberger’s dance moves, which he displays each year at the Late Night with the Phoenix event. Eddy said the little four-step has made a lasting impression on him, and Hershberger acknowledges it.
“When there’s music on, I like to bust some moves and enjoy myself,” Hershberger said.
But don’t mistake all of the singing, dancing and joking for aloofness. On the contrary, Hershberger can’t stay away from the gym.
“He’s one of the hardest workers on the team,” Eddy said. “It’s why he’s a walk-on but also a captain.”
Agarwal said Hershberger shoots in the gym every day outside of practice, and consistently leaves dinner to go back to Alumni Gym. There is one moment that sticks Matheny to this day.
“In a closed scrimmage in the Greensboro Coliseum against Campbell [University], he got in the scrimmage late,” Matheny said. “He fell to the ground and knocked a tooth out, and I remember he played right through it. To me, that epitomizes what Sam is all about.”
Hershberger is sad to see his time at Elon come to a close, but he’s excited to play in front of family and friends on Senior Night. And he feels he was all-in during his four years.
“I’ve tried to put my all my energy into my time here,” Hershberger said. “I told Coach Matheny freshman year that, when I leave here, I want to be able to say I made an impact on the program.”
Hershberger indicated that he’d like to think he managed that. If he could see the smiles he brings to the faces of everyone around the program, he would understand that he has.
“Sam will be missed when he’s gone,” Matheny said. “He’s had such a positive impact with his upbeatness and his energy.”