Saturday, November 16, 2013

Old ghosts, wild game a birthday present make

My 64th birthday was in October, but a gift arrived two weeks before.
It was up on the Lakeland College scoreboard, lights aglow in the gathering darkness enshrouding Taylor Memorial Field on Oct. 5 in Sheboygan, Wis.
HOME 40, GUEST 34.
Coach Kevin Doherty's Muskies had triumphed in one of the craziest and longest football games I'd ever attended, beating Wisconsin Lutheran in overtime.
Lakeland's season ends Saturday, but that was a memorable homecoming for several reasons.
I had not seen the Muskies play in many, many moons.
Try 46 years.
In fact, the last Lakeland football game I saw, I played in it.
It was Nov. 4, 1967 in Watertown, Wis.
I was 18, a freshman walk-on and the Muskies were blowing out Northwestern College.
With an insurmountable 61-13 lead, assistant coach Gary Wynveen sent me in on defense during garbage time -- the only time I ever got into a game -- during our eighth straight win for the Gateway Conference championship.
It was also our season finale because we just missed the NAIA playoffs.
We'd have done some damage for sure.
That squad was loaded with talent, led by Pat Curran, who played 10 years in the NFL, and ornery players who gave no quarter between the sidelines.
Our head coach was John Thome and he was another reason I'd come back to campus that rainy weekend.
He died in 2011 and the college was dedicating a monument and practice field in his name.
We were his first team at Lakeland and he and athletic director Duane "Moose" Woltzen gave me my chance to be part of something I will cherish always.
Thome coached the Muskies 14 seasons, won seven conference championships and was the program's winningest coach.
His widow, three children and grandchildren were at the ceremony.
Hearing a son and daughter talk so proudly of their dad sent me back.
Coach had gotten engaged to their mother my freshman year.
There were a number of former Muskies present at the ceremony from Thome's teams, but it was just me and Greg Weinfurt, an offensive center, representing the 1967 team, a squad that produced 14 Lakeland Hall of Famers, Weinfurt included.
I was hoping more of our teammates would be there, but time moves on and it hasn't been kind to us all.
Kit Redman had died recently, Greg said.
Kit and I were the two smallest players on the squad, each of us weighing about 145 pounds.
He was a hardnosed kid from Columbus City, Ind., and kicked my butt a few times in practice.
I wondered whether Kit and I could've played for the 2013 Muskies, now an NCAA Division-III program.
It would've been a gas in that wild homecoming game that began at 1 p.m. and didn't end until almost 6 p.m.
Just before halftime, the daylong fog turned into a nasty storm that chased players and fans from the field.
Lightning and a torrential downpour lasted nearly two hours.
It was just like Florida.
I spent some of the downtime cooling out in my rental car, a sweet canary yellow Camaro that drew some amusing reactions on campus.
When I arrived Friday evening, a couple of co-eds yelled out, "Nice car!"
Happened Saturday, too.
Too bad it wasn't 1967 again.
Before the second half resumed, the few of us who remained climbed back into the old stadium stands and I gazed around a place that's still got a hold on my heart, a grip on my soul.
Though mist still cloaked the campus, fall colors were beginning to show in the surrounding forests.
My favorite ghosts were out there and we were together again for a memorable Saturday afternoon in rural Wisconsin.
Lakeland and Lutheran traded touchdowns through the second half.
There would be 999 yards of total offense, 10 touchdowns and 42 first downs before it was over.
We just weren't sure when it would end.
Or how.
The last thing Muskie fans wanted was overtime.
Taylor Field has no lights.
Yet OT was exactly what happened.
The Muskies scored first, but the PAT was blocked.
If Lutheran scored and kicked their PAT, it was game over.
But the Muskies held.
When that fourth-down pass sailed incomplete, they ran together in a mad celebration, joined by the few fans left.
Yours truly was among them.
I shook hands, bumped fists, slapped shoulder pads and congratulated as many Muskies as I could in the merry melee.
A college football commentator, once a player himself, observed a similarly joyous scene after an SEC game earlier this season. He said it was the kind of rapturous moment former players wish they could all share again, but never really can.
I came close.
'Twas a fitting 64th birthday present, indeed.

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