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Vin Mannix looks back at season as a Lakeland Muskie

The field no longer bore the chalk yard lines etched in memory.

Instead there were saplings and tall grass fed by a stream that ran out of a large culvert, coursing along the eastern edge of campus bordered by Sheboygan County Road M.

Across the road from the old practice field remained a familiar backdrop, hilly farmland like much of the surrounding Wisconsin countryside dotted with silos.

The terrain was virtually the same that August in 1967 when I arrived at Lakeland College for preseason football practice, a 17-year-old walk-on from Kinnelon, N.J.

Forty-five years later it hadn't changed all that much.

Nor had my affection for the place, a distant horizon from my youth.

My favorite old ghosts were stirring, roused by Lakeland's 150th anniversary celebration last June, a marvelous summer weekend at the old school.

There were new dorms, a new performing arts center, a new gym and yonder was the football stadium, Taylor Field.

Nestled against the woods on the west side of campus, it was a pleasant change from when we played our home games at Kohler High School's field.

The highlight of the weekend was the athletic banquet saluting "Seasons of the Muskies."

What's a muskie?

When I got accepted at Lakeland, I thought it was the handsome sled dog. Duh!

Turns out it's a fierce game

fish, an appropriate nickname.

After losing the season opener to Upper Iowa, the Muskies went 8-1, blowing out seven teams en route to the Gateway Conference championship.

The league is long gone.

Some of its schools, too.

Milton College -- Seattle Seahawks quarterback Dave Krieg was perhaps its most famous alum -- closed in 1982.

We trounced them, 47-0.

The 1967 Lakeland Muskies were a powerhouse.

The reasons were many.

One of them was Pat Curran, the keynote speaker at the banquet.

The son of a tough Irish motorcycle cop in Milwaukee, he was a load at fullback, an NAIA All-American who went on to play tight end for a decade with the Los Angeles Rams and San Diego Chargers.

I'd written about Curran's NFL career over the years, but it was still fun to hear him talk about Roman Gabriel, Deacon Jones and going mano-a-mano with Dick Butkus and Mean Joe Green.

To be one of his old Muskie teammates in the audience that night was meaningful, too.

Bob Loffredo, a tough middle guard from Pitcairn, Pa., who loved busting people's chops and ballcarriers, a vice president for Snap-On Tools.

Jack Rayburn, a hard-nosed linebacker from Wilmington, Ill., a retired principal.

Greg Weinfurt, a thinking man's center from Waukesha, Wis, a retired educator and coach.

Lakeland College Hall-of-Famers all.

What was I doing in such stellar company?

I grew up a fan of Vince Lombardi, the lionized coach of the Green Bay Packers just up the interstate, and had chased an outlandish dream of playing college football.

That's what I wrote the athletic director, the beloved Duane "Moose" Woltzen, requesting a tryout.

I'd gotten cut from my high school team, but I still wanted to play.

Lakeland gave me a shot.

Primarily I was a scout-teamer, one of the scrubs who got beat up every week running the opponent's offense and defense against the varsity.

That old practice field was where I got most of my reps.

Funny how the experience gets better as each fall goes by.

It was a time in my life I have grown to appreciate as I get older, even though I was at Lakeland only one year.

Being part of that team was a kinship I cherish.

Ours was a bond forged in the August heat through November's cold, a camaraderie that has endured over the years.

On a trip to San Diego in the 1980s, I visited Curran, who became the Chargers' business manager after his playing days were over.

As we sat in his office at Jack Murphy Stadium, who should pop in but Dan Fouts, their iconic quarterback.

Curran introduced me to the future Hall of Famer, adding emphatically, "Lakeland College."

It was a proud moment.

Though we had gathered from around the country to honor Curran that summer night and renew our ties, I thought about other teammates who were no longer with us.

Guard Tom Brock.

Tight end Vern Freemore.

Quarterback Paul Maki.

Running back Mike Newton.

Head coach John Thome.

All of them gone too soon.

Especially Warren Young.

He was our middle linebacker, Chicago born, ghetto tough and built like a fire hydrant.

He hit like one, too.

I know.

Young also had a big heart.

He helped me get over this new experience called homesickness.

I remember listening to my transistor radio at night during two-a-days and hearing, "W-O-K-Y, Milwaukeeeee!" Or,"W-L-S, Chicagoooh!"

The towns around us had names like Belgium, Kiel, New Holstein, Oostburg and Waldo.

I was a long way from home, all right.

So were other young teammates who'd come to this remote campus of 700 students from places like Columbia City, Ind., Lawrenceville, Ill., and Trafford, Pa.

Warren Young would round us up and take us to the Muskie Inn, a second-floor lounge at the campus union. We'd push back the tables and chairs while he filled the jukebox with change, playing every R&B tune in it, and we'd boogie our blues away.

"Soul Man" by Sam & Dave.

"Cold Sweat" by James Brown.

"Heard it through the Grapevine" by Gladys Knight & The Pips (No, not Marvin Gaye's version).

Whenever I hear that last song I can see Warren Young dancing.

He was the warden at the maximum security prison in Waupun, Wis., when he died of heart disease in 1988.

He was 40.

I'll always have a place for him in my heart.

The same goes for Curran, Loffredo, Rayburn and Weinfurt.

They were the big brothers I never had.

After the June banquet, we hung out for a few more hours and promised to keep in touch, hugged each other and said our goodbyes.

Sherri and I stayed one more day to tour the campus, including the Todd Wehr Athletic Center.

Now an NCAA Division III program, the Muskies have won enough championships to fill two massive trophy cases along the walls on the opposite sides of the lobby in the spacious complex.

There was one trophy I wanted to find.

Its bronze face was faded with age, but beneath the words Gateway Conference Champions and 1967 Lakeland Muskies you could still make out the rows of names.

Including the one at the bottom of the third row:

V. Mannix

It's surreal to see your name engraved like that 45 years later.

Reading the names of other former teammates was mesmerizing and they came right back to me.

Bill Eernisse. Doug Hamilton. Jeff Krein. Joe Lauricella. George Lax. Winston Long. Joe Mirabelli. Joe Pacifico. Jay Parkins. Bob Rank. Kit Redman. Gary Zuffelato.

All of them were freshmen with me.

Where are they now?

As my wife and I strolled to our rental car afterward we passed the Muskies' old practice field.

I stopped to gaze around once more.

I could almost hear coach's whistle, the crash of pads and helmets, a chorus of shouts echoing out of our past.

But the field was peaceful, a tableau on which we remain forever young.

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix