No, that word belongs at the frontlines and foxholes of foreign soils, with men and women much too far from home and family and far too close to their own mortality.
Hero is a word born not on the gridiron, but on battleships and battlefields or - - as in the case of former Cougar football player Jerry Sage - - behind the barbed wire of Nazi P.O.W. camps.
Sage, a Spokane native, starred as an end for Washington State in the late ‘30s, quickly earning a reputation as the consummate team player and a fierce gridiron gladiator.
In 1941, he volunteered for the newly formed Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S.), the forerunner of the CIA. There, Sage learned the art of the “shadow trade,” and was dubbed “The Dagger,” for his skill at hand-to-hand combat. He first plied his new covert profession as a saboteur in North Africa, slowing down Nazi General Erwin Rommel’s infamous Afrika Corps.
But it was after being captured by the Nazis that Sage truly displayed his indomitable spirit, spending his entire two years as a P.O.W. planning and attempting escapes. Doing so came with a cost, as evidenced by his moniker, “The Cooler King,” given for his lengthy stays in solitary confinement following his many attempts at freedom. Yet his persistence paid off and he escaped for good in 1945.
Sage’s exploits have been recounted in numerous articles over the years, even immortalized on celluloid in the classic 1963 film The Great Escape. The film’s protagonist, portrayed by Steve McQueen, was based largely on Sage's exploits as a P.O.W.
In 1985, the retired Col. Sage penned his autobiography, a thrilling read titled Sage: Dagger of the O.S.S.
THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE
Upon learning of his initial capture, Sage’s Cougar teammate, center and team Captain Chris Rumburg, wept for his good friend, fearing the inevitability of his execution once the Nazis discovered his O.S.S. ties. Thankfully, the Germans never learned they had a spy on their hands.
Sage never had the opportunity to thank his buddy for the concern. In 1944, the transport ship carrying Rumburg sank in the English Channel. He would drown, but only after swimming others to the safety of lifeboats - - even giving up his own life vest --despite being severely wounded.
It wasn’t the only loss that would hit especially close to home for Sage. His high school football coach at North Central in Spokane, Archie Buckley, was killed in action during the 1945 battle of Iwo Jima while aboard the USS Saratoga. Buckley had quarterbacked the 1929 Cougars to a 10-2 record and also starred on both the diamond and hardwood for Washington State.
However, Sage would suffer his greatest war-related heartbreak in 1968, when his son, Captain Terence F. Sage, was killed in Vietnam.
Buckley’s gridiron teammate, end John Hurley, died in 1943 while leading his men to safety through an Italian minefield. A mainstay as an end for the Rose Bowl bound 1930 Cougs, Hurley was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his bravery. He’d previously been awarded the Silver Star for “gallantry in action” during the Sicilian Campaign and his heroism is cited in Pulitzer Prize winning war correspondent Ernie Pyle’s 1944 book, Brave Men.
A NAME ON THE WALL
He - - like Jerry Sage - - is just one of the 58,220 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. You can find his name on panel 23E, row 96. But like every other lost life, there’s so much more to Don Steinbrunner than just a name on this wall of the fallen.
Steinbrunner, a Wickersham native, was a star end for Washington State from 1950-52, earning first team All-West Coast and All-Conference honors following his junior season.
Football glory seamlessly continued with the gentle giant into the National Football League. The sixth-round draft pick of Cleveland in 1953, Steinbrunner saw considerable playing time as an offensive lineman for the Browns that year, including the NFL championship game (the Browns lost to Detroit, 17-16).
Following his rookie season, Steinbrunner, a ROTC enlistee while at Washington State, honored his two-year commitment to the Air Force. When it came time to decide which career path to take in 1955, his love of country won out over his love of the gridiron.
“To him, football was all about sportsmanship and camaraderie,” Steinbrunner’s son, David told Air Force News in 2001. “That’s the same way he felt about the military…and he loved the discipline and organization.”
In 1966, Steinbrunner was called to serve in Vietnam. After being shot in the knee during an engagement, the Major - - a navigator on aerial missions - - could’ve ended his tour of duty but felt his years of experience were too important to shelve stateside.
He was killed on July 10, 1967 when his C-123 Provider was shot down by enemy forces. He was 35 years old and left behind a wife and three children.
Bravery; Courage; Heroism: All nice, colorful “highlight film” prose we like to use to describe something that is likely nothing more than an admirable athletic feat. But these words are far too noble for a mere game.
No, the truly brave and courageous and heroic of this Country don’t hear the applause and cheers of packed stadiums. We’ll never know most of their names, nor will we recognize their faces.
Some of these courageous sat in relative anonymity in the solitary confinement cells of German P.O.W. camps. Some of these brave were lost at Sicily or Iwo Jima or Korea or in a place called Vietnam.
And some of these selfless souls died today in Iraq.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on Day One of the Iraqi War. As is always the case with our historical essays, Richard Fry’s outstanding book,” The Crimson and the Gray,” was an invaluable tool in researching this article.