Merriam-Webster defines Spartan as a person of great courage and self-discipline and A Spartan Game The Life and Loss of Don Holleder is just about a perfect story of such a person. Yet I find it somewhat difficult to share how immense Don’s life was today. Many heroes on the gridiron and battlefield have been lost to our collective memory simply because HDTV, the internet and social media did not exist in the 1940s.
Since the 9/11 attacks only a handful of professional athletes have chosen to serve our country over money. Pat Tillman, the former Arizona Cardinal defensive back turned down a multi-million dollar NFL contact extension to enlist in the Army only to be killed under questionable circumstances in Afghanistan. If you found Pat’s story compelling then A Spartan Game reveals how Don Holleder played and lived on a much higher stratosphere. Pat was killed two years after leaving the NFL. Don Holleder was killed 11 years after leaving West Point but within three months of arriving in Vietnam.
The early chapters of A Spartan Game reveals Don’s family history, his extended background and amazing success playing high school football and basketball in Rochester New York. His high school team actually traveled to my hometown of Toledo Ohio in the early 1950s to play Toledo Central Catholic in basketball. I was surprised to read so many Catholic schools in the 1940s and ’50s traveled extensively throughout the country. Don was an extraordinarily gifted athlete and he excelled in football.
Don was expecting to attend Notre Dame on a football scholarship but something changed his life. After his senior football season but before he graduated Don’s father died suddenly. His father never told Don he wished for his son to attend West Point. It was only after his father’s wishes were revealed by his mother that Don focused solely on attending West Point.
His first two years were focused on adjustments to the military and academic demands of West Point with plenty of stories surrounding his life as a plebes and yearling. However it was Don’s cow and firsties years (junior and senior) that are the focus of his true athletic and leadership qualities.
Holleder was named All-American offensive end in his junior year at West Point. The stories in this book about his game performances are amazing even by today’s standards of athletic achievement. As an offensive end early in the season he was averaging 40 yards per catch with many resulting in touchdowns. It was refreshing to read there was not the level of “hype” that surrounds college football today on cable television, radio & the internet. Author Terry Tippets has done honorable work in tracking down old newspaper clippings of Don’s high school and college athletic accomplishments. Terry completes the image of Don in his youth.
I must admit it is odd to read about how Army and Navy were college football powerhouses in the 1940s and 1950s. At the same time Army was a destination school for many leaders after World War II. Norman Schwarzkopf was a classmate and football teammate. One of Don’s coaches was Vince Lombardi. The book reveals many other men at West Point would later lead men in battle. When Don’s squad was in need of a new leader, he was chosen. Don was a leader among men who were leaders in their own right. What an amazing life he led at West Point.
Don’s life again was not without adversity. This is where Don separated himself as a true Spartan. Army lost a top talented quarterback, Peter Vann after the 1954 season. Army’s head coach Red Blaik shocked the college football world in 1995 by moving his All-American offensive end position to quarterback. Not only did Army have two quarterbacks on the team already, Don had never played that position in his life. There was talk of a Heisman trophy for Don in what would be back-to-back years as a two time All-American. Can you even imagine this happening today? How strange this must have been when Don was told of his coach’s decision. He was chosen over two other Army quarterbacks because Don Holleder was a leader. True leadership cannot be taught. You have it or you don’t and Don was a natural leader. That is what his coach saw in him that made him make this radical change. It should not surprise you that Don placed team above himself and took the challenge. Army had a disappointing year (by their standards) with Don quarterbacking Army to a record of 6-3-1.
Yet there was one game that would make up for their three losses. Army’s rivalry against Navy proved his coach’s decision was correct. Don led Army to a major upset over Navy by throwing just two passes the entire game. For his efforts and leadership Don was placed on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
In the 40s and 50s Army Navy games were played in Philadelphia’s old Municipal Stadium that seated 102,000. Today when we think of large stadiums the University of Michigan’s “Big House” comes to mind in the midwest…but it had not yet been renovated to exceed the capacity where Army vs. Navy was played in 1954. Its still amazing to realize in 2014 that only Michigan, Penn State, Tennessee and Ohio State have larger stadiums than Municipal Stadium had in the 1940s. Even today Alabama does not hold 102,000 seats.
Don won many awards his last year at Army. Vince Lombardi, his old Army coach announced the New York Giants would draft him. Yet Don stated he would honor his military commitment and not play professional football. Tippets writes extensively how Don bounced around Europe and Hawaii and back to West Point to be an assistant coach following his graduation and commission as an officer. Then Don asked to be sent to Vietnam on July 21 1967. He was an S3 field grade officer (leading the execution of strategy and tactics implemented by the division, brigade, and battalion commanders) for First Brigade commander Colonel William Caldwell. He was assigned to the 1st Division, known as The Big Red One which included the 2/28 Infantry Black Lions.
In October 1967 he was involved in the Battle of Ong Thanh. Today we have learned this was an ambush that killed many American soldiers. The Battle is best summed by David Maraniss‘ book They Marched into Sunlight.
As an officer Don was flying overhead during the battle. He recognized many soldiers and officers were killed including the entire command group. Don landed, and after reviewing options ran to the battlefield to secure reinforcements and get the forward elements of the remaining Black Lions under control. He was shot by a sniper and soon died in the arms of the Black Lion’s medic.
Tippets includes a copy of the Western Union telegram announcing Don’s death. It arrived after 9:00pm on the day he was killed. One of the many mourners that attended his funeral was Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi. For the rest of his life, Lombardi kept in his Bible a small tassled prayer card from Holleder’s memorial service.
Here are two YouTube videos about Don leading up to his Army graduation:
Part 1 of 2
Part 2 of 2
The Army chose to award General John Hay the Silver Star for his role at Ong Thanh. However Hay was never at the battle. And much like Pat Tillman’s death this remains simply an insult to every solider killed in the ambush and to a final act of leadership by Don Holleder.
Maybe Tippets’ greatest accomplishment is sharing the frustrating years of detailed work to correct this egregious error. It shows how true a leader Don was in being awarded the Distinguished Service Cross on April 27, 2012 — 45 years after his death. His Spartan story echoes loudly today. We are fortunate to have our military academies filled with young men and women to lead our country.