Big Rapids teammates and a West Point weekend

Big Rapids teammates and a West Point weekend

PHOTO: Somebody doesn’t belong in the this group. L-R: Me; Rollie Stichweh, Army Hall of Fame QB, rival of Navy’s Roger Staubach in epic 1963 and 1964 Army-Navy Games, served in Vietnam; Robert Jones, a Stichweh classmate and teammate, Vietnam War POW for five years at Hanoi Hilton torture chamber same years as John McCain; and (Ret.) Col. Rick Steinke, West Point grad and Big Rapids High QB.

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By TOM SHANAHAN 

WEST POINT — David Halberstam wrote a short yet under-appreciated book among his many bestsellers about a 60-year bond between four Boston Red Sox teammates soon to cross the river.

The great Ted Williams’ health was first failing him in 2001 when Bobby Doerr, Dominic DiMaggio and Johnny Pesky planned a road trip to visit him. They were “my guys,” Williams liked to say.

Halberstam’s book, “The Teammates, A Portrait of a Friendship,” was published in 2003.

Borrowing from the theme, “Big Rapids Teammates” is about four friends growing in the Michigan college town of Ferris State University on the Muskegon River. We played sports, changing with the seasons. You couldn’t ask for a better small-town experience than Big Rapids.

Although our reunion thankfully didn’t involve a death watch, it was about a long-time bond. It was planned around a weekend trip to West Point, including Army’s football game on Oct. 23 against Wake Forest at sold out Michie Stadium.

West Point was a homecoming for (Ret.) Army Colonel Rick Steinke, Class of 1978. It was a bucket list trip for the rest of us: Me; Rex Schuberg, the quasi-mayor of Big Rapids and patriarch of a third-generation business, Schuberg Insurance; and Mike Fortino, a restauranteur and businessman. Mike’s father grew Casa Nova Restaurant into a Big Rapids establishment.

The trip was also an extension of attending the 2018 Army-Navy Game in Philadelphia.

Col. Steinke, a quarterback at Big Rapids High, and I were teammates as early as Little League baseball. Our team was sponsored by the “The Pioneer,” our proud local newspaper.

Col. Steinke and me overlooking the Hudson River at point in the river where the chain link was spread to block British ships,

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That was especially prescient for me. I wanted to be a sportswriter since middle school. Not long after I graduated from Michigan State, I spent most of my career at the San Diego Union-Tribune.

In 2014, I published “Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans and the integration of college football.” Foreword by Tony Dungy. I’m working on a second book about Michigan State’s role leading integration that has been unfairly overlooked by history. Daugherty’s Spartans have been dispossessed by revisionist history gilding Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s segregationist history. 

Col. Steinke was an artillery officer and later an Associate Dean at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies located in Germany. He’s also an author, having published “Next Mission, U.S. Defense Attache to France.” It’s a memoir of his time serving in Paris as the 2003 Iraq War broke out. He’s working on a second book, this one a military-based novel.

In 2019, Big Rapids High honored him as the alumnus of the year for the school’s 150th anniversary. Michigan U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow sent an aid to the reunion with a proclamation.

Rex and I met in third grade at Riverview Elementary School. My family moved to Big Rapids when my father landed a job as a professor at Ferris State.

The Saturday morning Cadet Review draws a crowd on The Plain outside of Washington Hall. The parade needs to be seen to be appreciated.

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At Riverview, kickball was the favored recess activity. In fifth grade, we played one game the entire school year. Colin Kelly and I chose teams. I can’t remember why we played just one game, but every recess was a game within a game. The final score ended up in the 1,000s. 

Rex and I also played hundreds of rounds of golf at Meceola Country Club, while assuming the personas of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Meceola’s Saturday morning lessons with club pro Norm Bennett always included girls. Becky Southworth and others were very good players.

Looking back, I believe my Meceola experience made me more accepting of women’s sports. In the Title IX salad days of the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of my sports journalism peers mocked the distaff side.

Rex also was a high school running back and track and field champion. He continued his athletic career on the Ferris track team.

Fortino and I were basketball starters dating to our 7th– and 8th-grade middle school teams. You couldn’t have two better basketball teammates than Mike and Byron Kramer. Byron, now a cross country and track coach at Brenau University in Georgia, was our basketball savant. Mike and Byron both played basketball at Ferris for a legendary coach, Jim Wink.

My high school basketball coach told me he’d call a junior college coach who was a friend of his about me if I was interested. I wanted to tell him, “Are you out of your mind? I’ve been admitted to Michigan State. I planned to write about Big Ten sports for the college paper The State News.”

Our West Point plan was to meet at the Newark Liberty International Airport for the drive across the New York state border and up the Hudson River to West Point. We flew in from Utah, Col. Steinke; North Carolina, me; and Michigan, Rex and Mike.

But, similar to Halberstam’s book, life got in the way.

Doerr was unable to travel to see Williams at the last moment for his own health reasons. Similarly, health precautions, in the form of COVID-19 exposure (not infections, thankfully), led to Rex and Mike having to drop out. But they were with us in spirit through phone calls, texts and them watching on TV the game-turned-shootout. Wake Forest won, 70-56.

WEST POINT    

Walking across the West Point campus is like looking into a kaleidoscope of images. They alternate between you feeling big about your country and small about your place among heroes.

You feel big about your country based on the diverse faces of the Cadets – male, female, white, African-American, Hispanic and Asian American. They are future officers that will hopefully lead American democracy to an era that recovers from the steps backward taken under President Donald Trump’s narrow-minded divisiveness that splintered the country. Trump’s aim, with the help of sycophants, is personal profit. It’s certainly not “Duty, Honor, Country,” the West Point motto.

You feel small before the the statues of giants and campus atmosphere dripping with history. The lives of the heroes were formed at West Point as future officers. Their stories were brought back to campus in the form of bronze statues.

And simply being in the presence of dedicated Cadets who volunteered to serve their country during an endless war on terrorism can humble you. What have I contributed?

Col. Steinke, as a West Point grad who knew the lay of the land, was able to provide a thorough campus tour on Friday and Saturday:

— The statues of Grant, MacArthur, Eisenhower, Patton and the Buffalo Soldier.

General George Patton’s statue and me in front of the USMA Library.

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— Trophy Point, dating to 1897, overlooking the Hudson River.

— The view above the Hudson where an iron link chain was spread across the river during the Revolutionary War to prevent British ships from reaching New York City.

— A chance to walk down the halls of Thayer Hall and see the small ratio of students to professors/instructors.

— Dinner Friday night at the Thayer Hotel, MacArthur’s Riverview Restaurant.

— The Plain for the Saturday morning Cadet Review, an event that has to be seen to fully appreciate.

— The Apron outside Washington Hall – the Cadets’ dormitory with wings separated by the spacious “mess hall” in the middle. Cadets reported to the Apron for formation at 6 a.m. every day.

— The West Point Black Knights Parachute team on gameday at Michie Stadium. It’s a spectacular show with precise landings where X-marked the spot at the center of football field. As one of the Cadets descended, the public address announcer gave his name and hometown. He landed squarely on the X with the softness of a cat’s paws. His home town of Traverse City, near Big Rapids, added a touch of home-state pride to the experience.

— The game itself on the banks of the Hudson River.  The over-and-under betting line in Las Vegas was 54 points. Both Army and Wake Forest topped it on their own while setting a combined stadium record of 126 points.

MACARTHUR’S SPEECH, “DUTY, COUNTRY HONOR”

Army five-star General Douglas MacArthur was a West Point graduate, a decorated World War I hero, West Point Superintendent who modernized the curriculum, Medal of Honor recipient and, of course, the commander who led the World War II Pacific campaign and surrender of Japan.

MacArthur has long captivated me, particularly through a movie and two books. The 1977 movie “MacArthur” starred American iconic actor Gregory Peck playing the role of an iconic American general. The two books were, “American Caesar” by William Manchester and the “The Coldest Winter,” Halberstam’s book on the Korean War.

MacArthur was invited back to West Point on May 12, 1962 to receive the Thayer Award, a prestigious West Point career honor. He was 82 and in failing health. Because he knew it was likely his final return trip “home,” he delivered a special speech, “Duty, Honor, Country,” to the assembled Cadets in the “mess hall.” The 31-minute extemporaneous delivery has been considered one of America’s great speeches.

He famously ended it mentioning his twilight years in the context of the Corps of Cadets seated before him:

“Today marks my final roll call with you, but I want you to know that when I cross the river my last conscious thoughts will be of The Corps, and The Corps, and The Corps.

“I bid you farewell.”

For me, added the 1977 movie has an added Big Rapids touch. For the speech scene, Peck delivered it at the mess hall for assembled Cadets. A young Col. Steinke was a among them. That’s enough to make any buff of history and movies envious.

From the lower left counter clockwise: Cadet Marco Risi, Col. Rick Steinke, retired Army sergeant John Heath, me and the Cadets that invited us to join them for lunch in the mess hall.

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For those reasons, the mess hall – a colloquialism that belies the size and grandeur of the Washington Hall facility — was the highest priority on my list of tour boxes to check. It was a chance to grasp a sliver of a slice of MacArthur’s inner-sanctum — as well as that moment replayed by Peck.

Col. Steinke said before the lights went up, Peck was seated and seemingly talking to himself. Then it was action. Peck stood and delivered his lines flawlessly. It was then clear he had been merely rehearsing.

Through a stroke of luck, we were admitted for lunch for me to take in the sights and sounds, thanks to Cadet Marco Risi. He’s a senior and son of an officer who served with Col. Steinke in Europe. Risi cut through the red tape.

When I later showed the picture of us having lunch to Army Director of Football Communications Eric Heppding, he nodded respectfully and said, “Not many people get to do that.”

Another box to check was meeting Rollie Stichweh, Army’s Hall of Fame quarterback. He was Navy QB Roger Staubach’s rival in the epic 1963 and 1964 Army-Navy Games that the teams split. Stichweh later served in Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Staubach and Stichweh remained such close friends, when Rollie was enshrined in the Army Hall of Fame, Staubach rescheduled a planned business trip so he could attend and speak.

In recent years, Stichweh was invited to serve on committees to study why Army football had fallen so far behind Navy and Air Force in the first decade of the 21st century. The recommendations, combined with hiring Jeff Monken as head coach, have brought back the program. Army has won the Commander-in-Chief Trophy in the Army, Navy and Air Force rivalry three of the last four years.

When I mentioned to Monken on Friday I was meeting Stichweh on Saturday prior to the kickoff, he said, “He’s a great man.”

I had quoted Rollie many times in phone interviews, but this was a chance to meet him since he lives nearby in Connecticut and attends most games. He told us where to meet him at the stadium. His guest for the Wake Forest game was Robert Jones, a West Point classmate and teammate. Jones was a Vietnam War Prisoner of War for five years, 1968 to 1973, at the Hanoi Hilton, the same torture house that held the late John McCain.

As much as I enjoyed finally meeting Rollie, Col. Steinke and I agreed when we shook hands with Robert Jones, we never felt more reverence for a man. He looked back at us with friendly eyes, but there was no mistaking his were eyes of steel.

I proceeded to tell Stichweh and Jones about lunch at the mess hall. I explained the reason I especially enjoyed it was my vicarious link to history through my friend having watched Gregory Peck film the scene.

Stichweh and Jones proceeded to tell me they were at the mess hall in real time for the historic MacArthur speech. They were West Point freshmen in the spring of 1962.

Such irony made me shrink to the height of one of the stadium bleachers seats.

Army coach Jeff Monken graciously gave Col. Steinke (L) and me a minute to say hello in his office.

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Stichweh and Jones, while telling us about listening to MacArthur’s 1962 speech, said they later heard MacArthur felt nervous upon stopping beforehand at the Superintendent’s house that was near the mess hall. So, MacArthur’s wife, Jeanne, took him into a room to rehearse and calm his nerves.

The speech was delivered extemporaneously, but MacArthur did open with an anecdote written on a 3-x-5 note card. It was a joke he told on himself. Upon leaving the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan for the drive up the Hudson River, a doorman held the door.

“Where are you headed, General?

“West Point.”

“Oh, it’s a beautiful place. Have you ever been there?”

MacArthur waited for the laughs to die down …. and then began his eloquent words.

Now, should anyone ask me if I’ve been to West Point, I have my answer.

“Yes, I have. It’s an inspiring place.”

The Buffalo Soldier statue and me at West Point. The father of Gary Steele, the first West Point Black football letterman, was a Buffalo solider stationed at West Point.

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