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CUSHMAN CLASSIC: A Grand Forks legend

Cliff Cushman built a legacy in Grand Forks high school athletics despite attending school locally for only two years. Cushman Field, where Grand Forks football, track and soccer athletes compete, is named after the 1956 Grand Forks Central gradu...

Cushman
Cliff Cushman was a 1956 Central graduate and track standout.
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Cliff Cushman built a legacy in Grand Forks high school athletics despite attending school locally for only two years.

Cushman Field, where Grand Forks football, track and soccer athletes compete, is named after the 1956 Grand Forks Central graduate, who moved to Grand Forks from Ames, Iowa, prior to his junior year in high school.

Central and Red River meet Friday in the Cushman Classic, the annual football game between the two local high school football teams. The Roughriders and Knights boys soccer teams play for the Cushman Cup, which goes to the city champion.

Cushman's widow believes he would be humbled by all the attention.

"Cliff didn't do anything to draw praise or recognition to himself,'' said Carolyn Cushman Blaine, who lives in Fargo. "He was an athlete. He worked hard to accomplish the things he did.

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He certainly would have appreciated all that's been done. I know it would have meant a lot to him.''

September 25 marks the 50th anniversary of the day Cushman was piloting a U.S. Air Force F-105 fighter aircraft that was shot down flying a mission over Hanoi, North Vietnam. He was 28 when he was classified as missing in action. His status was changed from missing to killed in action in 1975. His remains were never found.

The recognition Cushman has attained in the years since are the culmination of many achievements.

He led Central to the state track championship as a senior in 1956, setting three records in the state meet. Cushman went on to win the NCAA 400 meter hurdles championship in 1960 and was silver medalist in the hurdles in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.

"Cliff was a pretty humble guy,'' said Tim Skinner, a track and basketball teammate of Cushman at Central. "I'm sure he wouldn't think all this was necessary. He was a very low-key guy, very quiet.''

For all his accomplishments-state record holder, NCAA champion, Olympic medalist, war hero-a letter to the youth of Grand Forks may be what Cushman is most remembered for in Grand Forks.

In 1964, Cushman's bid for a repeat berth on the U.S. Olympic team ended during tryouts when he hit a hurdle, wiped out and didn't qualify for the team. The race was on a Sunday; that night, flying back to his home in Kansas, Cushman wrote the letter that initially ran in the Herald and later was printed in newspapers, magazines and publications across the country.

"Don't feel sorry for me,'' Cushman started in his inspirational letter, recapping his hitting the fifth hurdle, falling to the ground and lying on the track with skinned elbows, bruised hips, torn knees and injured pride. "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!

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"I would much rather fail knowing I had put forth an honest effort than never to have tried at all.''

Rather than looking for pity, Cushman challenged the local youth to strive to attain, to do their best. "Some of you have never known the satisfaction of doing your best in sports, the joy of 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,'' he wrote, to honor parents, to attend church, to help someone less fortunate and enjoy it, to be physically fit, to read a book not required in a class. "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.''

Carolyn Cushman Blaine watched the Olympic trials on television on a delayed telecast. "I was just heart-broken when I saw it,'' she said. "I knew how much it meant to Cliff. When he hit that hurdle, it changed everything.

"He got the idea for the letter on the plane to express his thoughts. He just thought so strongly that it was something he needed to do. All the things he wrote, he believed in.''

Ken Rio, Cushman's coach at Central, wasn't surprised the star athlete would write the letter even in such a time of personal disappointment.

"That was Cliff Cushman, as humble as can be,'' Rio said. "He was a quiet kid and such a nice person. 'Don't feel sorry for me, I tried my best.' That's how he was.''

Rio calls Cushman the greatest track athlete he coached. "Cliff could do anything,'' Rio said. "He'd be pretty proud (of the local recognition). He liked attention, winning and getting records, but you never heard him brag. He'd finish a race and walk off, no celebrating like you see kids do nowadays. He was the most humble athlete I've ever seen.''

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Cushman did pick himself off the track. He planned to try out for the U.S. Olympic team again in 1968.

Carolyn Cushman Blaine said her late husband talked of attending law school after he was done in the Air Force. He wanted to eventually settle down in North Dakota.

An untimely death serving his country meant those aspirations could never come to fruition. But Cliff Cushman's legacy in Grand Forks lives on, in the recognition he receives in local athletics and the letter he wrote to the youth of Grand Forks. A plaque bearing the text of his letter stands in the northwest corner of Cushman Field

"Cliff's words in that letter are timeless,'' Carolyn Cushman Blaine said.

Related Topics: FOOTBALL
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