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Big blue championship hearts
Track and field coach Lundberg epitomizes everything good about Charger sports
In a sports world that so many see as tainted by performance enhancing substances and two-ton egos I find Hillsdale College athletics to be refreshingly different.
They are starting to compete at the top of the GLIAC in many of the sports they offer and three GLIAC Player of the Year awards in major sports in one season blows my mind when I look at the Grand Valley's and Wayne State's the Chargers are up against.
It is not those well-deserved accolades or rising win percentages that truly separate Hillsdale College athletics from programs at other institutions I've covered though. It is the fun-loving, seriously committed individuals behind the scenes who define success in ways that create not only better athletes, but truly amazing people.
My half year of working with those associated with the Hillsdale College athletic department, including coaches and players, has lead me to believe that the town's welcoming sign that reads, "It's about the people," holds especially true for those holding down the fort in Charger-land
Let me give you a small peek into just one of my so-called experiences, going back two Fridays.
I went into Charger track and field head coach Bill Lundberg's office. All I really wanted was enough fodder to write an outdoor track and field preview and a little background information on the program. I got that-and a whole lot more, more than I could've ever imagined to be quite honest.
I got a glimpse into the heart of a passionate man with a winning attitude that is certainly not reserved just for athletics.
Lundberg told me a story about how he fatefully ran into legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden in the late 1970s while working at a running camp in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Lundberg said Wooden had a basketball camp going on nearby and the hoops icon just happened to be on a morning walk while Lundberg took his daily jog.
Lundberg said the two men chatted it up for several minutes and Wooden was a kind man, full of wisdom.
As I was taking in the idea of meeting the man best known as the "Westwood Wizard" Lundberg started reciting a Wooden quote from the book "Call Me Coach."
"Tomorrow there will be more to do and failure awaits those who stay with some success made yesterday; tomorrow you must try once more, even harder than before. I think that's from chapter 12 or 13," Lundberg said, admitting at the same time that he tried to copy great coaches like Wooden in his own teaching techniques.
Some coaches like to take the credit for any success their team has, but Lundberg and his Hillsdale counterparts just aren't those kinds of people.
They are the kind of people that get choked up in the middle of interviews because of tragic moments they remember vividly or intimate relationships they've had in the past.
Lundberg slowly and gracefully told me the story behind the naming of the Gina Relays held at the college each year, describing the Relays namesake Gina Van Laar Lanser as a "beautiful and vibrant human being." He went onto to detail how current Hillsdale players and coaches help officiate the relays each year, which shows me the family like atmosphere that exists within the department.
Then he collected himself and went on to tell me of his first run in with Jack McAvoy, the former Charger athlete, coach and athletic director whose legacy will live on forever at the college. His eyes even welled up a bit when he talked about how he would look out the window and see current athletic director Mike Kovalchik and McAvoy walking the football field together near the end of McAvoy's career.
It took me back to earlier this year when McAvoy was honored in a ceremony at the Dow Center, only a few days after tragically losing his daughter. Former Charger athletes flew in from as far as Texas for that event and there was not a dry eye in attendance, including my own, as hundreds of people embraced and grieved with a man they loved so much.
Hillsdale athletics is so much more than wins and losses and the individuals who are the faces of the program prove that to me time and again.
Head football coach Keith Otterbein spent half an hour sharing his faith with me during an interview late last year, women's basketball coach Claudette Charney gladly called me all the way from Missouri even though her team had just lost in the NCAA tournament and on April 2, men's basketball coach John Tharp and the men's and women's basketball teams put on a free clinic for 86 area youth. Maybe I'm missing something, but I fail to understand why every single parent around here isn't dying to take their children to Charger games and events with these types of role models, along with the exciting sports action they help orchestrate.
And to end on a little less serious note, the Charger athletic family definitely knows how to have fun too.
After a little over an hour of one-on-one with Lundberg, we were inter-rupted by a feisty, grinning Otterbein at Lundberg's office door.
"How in God's green Earth can you make him do an hour and a half interview just to say run fast and turn left, Bill?"
Not only do they burn with passion for the blue-and-white tradition and have hearts that beat for others needs ahead of their own, they make you feel welcome and truly make me wonder what in God's green Earth possibly keeps people away from the local college sports scene and in many cases leaves too many empty seats at Charger athletic events.
Read more of RJ's stuff at Hillsdale.net.