One of Kansas University's greatest student-athlete heroes missed a gold medal by tripping over a hurdle in quest of such, issued a timeless challenge to us all, then fell from the skies over Vietnam.
Capt. Clifton E. Cushman died in 1966 doing what he considered his patriotic duty - so typical of the incomparable Clif. He instinctively knew how to "do the right thing," or at least try.
Few tracksters have been as versatile as Clif, a member of KU's 1959 NCAA outdoor national championship team and captain of a great 1960 crew. As a high schooler in Grand Forks, N.D., he won state titles in the long jump, high hurdles and mile. At KU, he was a fine cross-country runner as well as a world-class 400-meter hurdler. Numerous records.
At the 1960 Kansas Relays, Cushman was voted the meet's top performer after he won the 400-meter hurdles in :51.2; ran a 1:53.8 half-mile leg on the winning KU two-mile relay team; led off the winning sprint medley relay team with a :48.5 quarter-mile; then anchored the second-place KU mile relay team with a :48.5 quarter. He was an even more outstanding citizen.
In 1960, Clif won an Olympic silver medal at Rome in the metric hurdles and dedicated himself to taking gold in 1964 at Tokyo.
But the '64 U.S. team trials saw the favored Cushman trip over a hurdle in the finals and fail to make the team. It happened on national television; thousands sent condolences. Typical Cushman : he responded with his now-revered "I Dare You" letter to young people, via the Journal-World and the papers in Grand Forks and Des Moines.
Blessed and honored to know the guy, I choke up and shed a tear or more every time I recall Clif's reaction, particularly since his Air Force fighter jet piled in during a 1966 sortie in the Vietnam War - the very autumn after he'd been honored at the April Kansas Relays 40 years ago. Here's his '64 "dare" - as fresh as ever - aimed at the young but appropriate for us old folks, as well:
"Don't feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for some of you! : you watched me hit the fifth hurdle, fall and lie on the track in an inglorious heap of skinned elbows, bruised hips, torn knees and injured pride, unsuccessful in my attempt to make the Olympic team a second time. In a split second all the many years of training, pain, sweat, blisters and agony of running were simply and irrevocably wiped out. But I tried! I would much rather fall knowing I had put forth an honest effort than never to have tried at all.
"This is not to say everyone is capable of making the Olympic team. However, each of you is capable of trying to make your own 'Olympic team,' whether it be the high school football team, the glee club, the honor roll or whatever your goal may be. Unless your reach exceeds your grasp, how can you be sure what you can attain? And don't you think there are things better than cigarettes, hot rod cars, school dropouts, excessive makeup and ducktail grease-cuts?
"Over 15 years ago I saw a star - first place in the Olympic Games. I literally started to run after it. In 1960, I came within three yards of grabbing it; this year I stumbled, fell and watched it recede four more years away. Certainly, I was very disappointed in falling flat on my face. However, there is nothing I can do about it now but get up, pick the cinders from my wounds and take one step followed by one more, until the steps turn into the miles and miles of success.
"I know I may never make it. The odds are against me, but I have something in my favor - desire and faith. Romans 5:3-5 has always had an inspirational meaning to me : 'we rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.'
"At least I am going to try.
"How about you? Would a little extra effort on your part bring up your grade average? Would you have a better chance to make the football team if you stayed an extra 15 minutes and worked on your blocking?
"Let me tell you something about yourselves. You are taller and heavier than any past generation in this country. You are spending more money, enjoying more freedom and driving more cars : yet many of you have never known the satisfaction of doing your best in sports, excelling in class, the wonderful feeling of completing a job, any job, and looking back on it knowing you have done your best.
"I dare you to have your hair cut and not wilt under the comments of your so-called friends. I dare you to clean up your language, I dare you to honor your mother and father. I dare you to go to church without being compelled by your parents. I dare you to unselfishly help someone less fortunate than you and enjoy the wonderful feeling that goes with it. I dare you to be physically fit. I dare you to read a book not required in school. I dare you to look up at the stars, not down in the mud, and set your sights on one of them that, up to now, you thought was unattainable. There is plenty of room at the top but no room for anyone to sit down.
" : You may be surprised at what you can achieve with sincere effort. So get up, pick the cinders out of your wounds and take one more step.
"I dare you!"
Cushman joined the Air Force in 1961, kept in training but flamed out for the '64 Olympics. He and wife Carolyn had just come home with their first child, a son, Colin, now 40 and a musician, when Clif got orders for Vietnam at Thanksgiving-time, 1965. He was able to get back for the Kansas Relays honor in 1966. On Sept. 25, Carolyn came home to find AF officials waiting.
Clif was missing in action, shot down. Carolyn looked and looked. Clif's body was never recovered; he was listed as dead in 1975. There are some 2,500 Americans who never have been returned from Indochina.
It was 40 years ago this very month that KU and America lost one of the finest young men they ever turned out. He remains an inspiration to everyone who knew him, or who know about him and his wonderful approach to life. How about the KU athletic department's arranging an Air Force flyover, a "missing man" peel-off, over Memorial Stadium sometime this football season, long around Sept. 25?
I dare 'em.