If you're into sports trivia, you may know that Mike Miller of the Memphis Grizzlies grew up in Mitchell, S.Dak., and played high school basketball in the Corn Palace, which was also the home court of Dick Green, the peerless second baseman for the 1972-74 world champion Oakland A's, and Ordell Braase, an All-Pro lineman for the Baltimore Colts in the Johnny Unitas era. Lyle Alzado of the Oakland Raiders went to college in Yankton, birthplace of Adam Vinatieri, the New England Patriots' placekicker whose field goal won the Super Bowl in 2002. Billy Mills, who stunned the Olympic world by winning the 1964 10,000-meter race in Tokyo, was raised on the Pine Ridge reservation. Other South Dakotans who reached the big time include the Byrum brothers, Curt and Tom, on the PGA Tour, and Casey Tibbs, the world champion bronc rider from the '50s who made it to the cover of LIFE magazine.
Even though I've been gone from my home state for more than 40 years, I continue to keep that roster of All-Stars in my mind, but like most South Dakotans, I have another set of hall of fame memories that are in many ways more enduring and more important.
The history of South Dakota sports is written on the high school playing fields and in the tiny gyms of the towns that dot the windswept Great Plains. The achievements or failures of high school teams represent what the native Sioux used to call the Winter Count, the big events represented by symbols painted onto a tanned buffalo hide.
If you pass through my birthplace, Webster, and ask about life there after World War II, they'll probably begin with their high school's three straight Class B basketball tides from 1946 to '48. If you go to Onida, home of the Byrum brothers, someone will surely point out that their second cousin Jim Sutton led the local high school to the 1953 Class B basketball title.
I saw that game and the one two years later in which defending champion Hayti lost in overtime to White River, a thriller that still has a place in my memories even after a lifetime of watching World Series games, NBA Finals and Olympics. In those days there were only two classes for high school sports, A and B, and only boys could play. There were just a handful of schools large enough to qualify for A, but there were a couple hundred B schools, most with fewer than 100 students. Getting to the top of the heap in any of the three high school sports—basketball, football and track—was often a once-in-a-lifetime event. It wasn't unusual for an entire town to close for three days if the high school team made it to the state B basketball championship.
In the very small schools scattered across the prairie, football was a six-man game on an 80-yard field, with 15 yards for a first down and 125-pound freshman defenders trying to pull down 180-pound senior running backs. Few towns could afford lights, so the games were played on Friday afternoons.
There's a benefit to growing up in a state of limited population. Almost everyone gets to suit up, however modest his abilities. I have varsity letters in three sports, and yet no one in Yankton, where I attended high school, is likely to cite my athletic prowess as part of a commentary on my formative years.
That's not to say that people have forgotten my playing days entirely. I was the reserve quarterback on two Eastern South Dakota Conference champion football teams, but what they remember is that I was a starting guard on a basketball team that was upset by a much smaller high school en route to the state tournament in 1958. That was 45 years ago, and it may seem as if enough time has passed to make the locals forget. But, no, they won't, and neither will I.
Recently I moderated on national television a debate among the Democratic candidates for president. One of my teammates from that ignominious loss was present. We chatted after the debate, and I wish I could tell you that we spoke about the great issues of the day. We did not. Instead, we talked about the lingering frustration of that long-ago loss in a high school basketball game. In South Dakota, high school sports memories are forever, for better or worse.