Saturday, July 12, 2008
Baseball, Hot Dogs, and a Couple of Class Acts
It was the quintessential perfect summer evening. My dad, a former offensive guard from the Muddy Waters era, and I met up with Charger captains Jared Veldheer and Tom Korte at a West Michigan Whitecaps game earlier this week.
Oh yeah, and it was dollar hot dog night to boot. The young lady working the concession stand gave me a "whatever" kind of look when I ordered a dozen hot dogs "to get us started". Then she saw the 6 foot 8, 315 pound pre-season All-American tackle Veldheer next to fellow All-American linebacker Korte over my shoulder and I think she felt like she was getting off easy with only 12 dogs.
$2 beers were available that night at the home of the Tiger's single-A affiliate but both Chargers opted for bottled water. No Otter, they didn't pay me to write that either.
The next three hours led to a lively conversation about what both guys are expecting for the upcoming season, their conditioning progress, and even some tales of life in "The Dale" from the 60's, the 90's, and today.
The biggest thing that both my dad and I took away from that excursion was that not only has Keith Otterbein and his staff loaded this program with talent, but the level of character leading this team is even more admirable.
Korte, a Grand Rapids Catholic Central grad, and Veldheer, a Forest Hills Northern product had just spent a big chunk of their day running a youth football camp for local grade-school kids. Neither has had time for a summer job as both joined 6 other football players and numerous other HC students in the Florida Keys for a 3 week marine biology course. Studying for upcoming post-grad entrance exams is occupying their time as well. Even though both are projected as at least getting a shot at an NFL camp, Veldheer is set on getting into medical school and for Korte it's dental school.
As a 2 year starter at left tackle, Veldheer is yet to give up a sack in 22 games. He was a 2nd team All-GLIAC and 2nd team All-Region selection last year and returns for his junior year as one of the elite offensive lineman in the league. His 435 pound hang-clean in the recent liftathon is a Charger record and his 4.9 second 40 yard dash speed is remarkable for a player his size. He is extremely confident in what the Chargers return offensively for the 2008 season.
"We have great wide receivers, a good running back, good linemen. Troy (Weatherhead) is looking really good throwing at quarterback," Veldheer said. "Plus, he had two years learning from Mark (Nicolet). He's going to be just fine. We should be solid across the board."
The Chargers have a couple of departing senior holes to fill on the offensive line but Veldheer is excited about the newcomers replacing Dan Stapf at center and Chet Crowley at right guard. "Phil Doerfler is going to play center and he is one of the smartest guys we have on this team. He always works really hard. He's not quite as big as Stapf was but he is quick and should add a lot to our group. That other guard spot is still open, but we have enough depth that whoever plays there will help us."
I asked Veldheer if there were any added challenges when it came to being a junior and a team captain. He joins seniors Korte and wide receiver Aaron Waldie. "Not really, I have been here 4 years. Tom and Aaron are the only ones from our class who didn't get redshirted, so we have all been together this whole time." Jared thinks that he and Waldie will compliment each other well. "When you don't have a quarterback as your captain, I think you really need an offensive lineman. The mindset is so different than that of a wide receiver."
D2football.com's draft expert Josh Buchanan recently remarked about Jared, "
I really like Veldheer. He flashes dominance. I think he needs to become more consistent and continue to improve on finishing blocks and with his athletic ability he should become a solid draftable prospect."
Another D2football.com writer Tony Nicolette called Tom Korte "the gold standard when it comes to GLIAC linebackers" and this final season for #47 should be a showcase of one of the nation's best. Not since Todd DeVree in 1999 has a defensive Charger garnered so much attention from the rest of the league. But, spending time with Tom Korte is not spending time with a prima dona. He shrugs off most of the accolades and even jokes about his league leading 6 interceptions last season. "Well, you know, two of those came of fourth down. I probably, and Coach Ligney will tell you, should've knocked them down."
One of the most telling examples of Korte's humbleness and dedication to the "team concept" came when we ran into Charger recruit Cam White. Instead of brushing off the rookie as some seniors might, Tom made sure he introduced Cam and then invited him to watch the rest of the game with us.
I asked Korte if he missed the game of baseball and he said, "A lot." Tom was a standout throughout his high school career at Grand Rapids Catholic Central and there was some speculation during the recruiting process that he might opt to play baseball in college instead of football. He said he "gave playing both a look" once he got to Hillsdale but decided to dedicate his energy to school and football. A love for baseball is evident in the fact that every time Korte visits Fifth Third Ball Park he has to test his arm on the radar gun at the inflatable pitching booth. I agreed not to publish his speed as Tom claimed, "The gun must not have been working right."
Like Veldheer, Korte is extremely confident in the unit he will command on his side of the ball. "This is the best defense we have had in a while," he said. "The secondary is going to be there and Lance Smith is a guy back there who is going to have a break out year." Depth is another big advantage Hillsdale has and Korte thinks that will help the Chargers in other areas as well. "We are so deep at linebacker and especially the skill positions. A guy like Ridge Riebold (RSF LB) could emerge as someone who is dominant on special teams; the same with all of the quick wide receivers. Mike Blanchard (soph. WR) could be another guy who you hear a lot from this year. He has to be one of the fastest, if not the fastest guy on the team."
As the later innings wound down and the Clinton (IA) Lumber Kings pulled away from the Whitecaps, and my dad told some stories about the team flying Purdue Airlines in the 60's up to Northern Michigan...incidently, the kid from WM did have a no hitter through 6 innings until Jared started talking about it...I could not help but be impressed with how polite, smart, and articulate both of these guys are. Their football contributions over the past 3 years have been documented, but what their leadership brings to the program is something immeasurable. The tackles and blocks will be left on the field but what they are instilling by example in the their teammates will continue raise the level of tradition, character, and service for all of Hillsdale College.
Like I said, it was the quintessential perfect summer evening. Thanks guys!
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