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Maj. Cliff Cushman: An inspiration and hero

Tonight's Grand Forks high school football game between Red River and Central is the 13th installment of the Cushman Classic. But this game has a bit more meaning than that. It was 43 years ago today when Maj. Cliff Cushman's fighter plane was sh...

Cushman
Cliff Cushman was a 1956 Central graduate and track standout.

Tonight's Grand Forks high school football game between Red River and Central is the 13th installment of the Cushman Classic.

But this game has a bit more meaning than that.

It was 43 years ago today when Maj. Cliff Cushman's fighter plane was shot down northeast of Hanoi, Vietnam.

Cushman was a 1956 Central graduate and track standout who went on to athletic fame at the University of Kansas, as well as with the U.S Olympic team. He also is well known for his open letter to Grand Forks youth after his failed attempt at the 1964 Olympic trials, urging them to never give up on their goals.

"He left quite a legacy with his athletic ability and his perspective on setting goals," said Todd Olson, Grand Forks Schools athletic director.

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"He achieved great things on the athletic field, but he never forgot his home town," said Mike Berg, who coached Central in the first Cushman Classic. "That speaks to the kind of person he was."

Cushman came to Grand Forks from Iowa as a teenager and helped lead Central to the State Class A Championship in 1956.

Arnie Bakke was a school administrator and track starter at the time.

"He had talent galore," Bakke said. "He was a personable young man with a superb attitude and he wasn't afraid to work."

Ken Rio, Cushman's track coach, remembered Cushman was also on Central's 1956 state championship basketball team.

"He had so much talent," Rio told the Herald in 2001. "He stood 6 feet, and he could dunk the basketball."

After graduation, Cushman went on to star at the University of Kansas, where he was part of an NCAA Championship team his senior year. He earned a berth on the U.S. Olympic team and competed in the 1960 Olympics in Rome, earning a silver medal in the 400-meter hurdles with a time of 49.6 seconds.

His goal of winning a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics ended with a fall at the team trials in Los Angeles. Four days later, Cushman turned a negative into a positive by writing his "Open Letter to Youth" that appeared in the Herald.

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"'Unless your reach exceeds your grasp, how can you be sure what you can attain?'" Olson quoted from the letter. "That's a pretty timeless message for young people."

Cushman was posthumously awarded the Silver Star, the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Purple Heart. He was among the first 32 members inducted into the Grand Forks Central High School Hall of Fame in 1991. His picture is displayed in the Central gym.

His letter is engraved in bronze at the north end of Cushman Field, adding to the atmosphere of what Berg calls "one of the great events that we have in town."

"High school football is one of the great American traditions," Berg said. "The teams get together on the field after the game, trophies are presented and, even if they didn't attend Central or Red River, people become participants. The game adds an extra element that brings the community together."

Reach Johnson at (701) 780-1262; (800) 477-6572, ext. 262; or send e-mail to jjohnson2@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: CENTRAL HIGH SCHOOLFOOTBALL
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