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Jon Huntsman's Senior Games dream 25 years on

Jon Huntsman Sr.'s vision was that an event called the World Senior Games, even if held in a remote corner of Southwest Utah, would eventually draw thousands of what others might dismiss as the elderly for the chance to recreate and compete with their peers.

So it is that 25 years after their founding that the games this year will attract about 10,000 seniors who, over the next two weeks, will compete in everything from track and field to badminton, pickelball, lawn bowling, volleyball, square dancing and even bridge. Some of the competitors are in their 90s.

john and karen huntsman
Jon and Karen Hunstman from Games website

The event, under Huntsman's fathering, has grown over its quarter century into a major tourism attraction in Southern Utah and thus a major opportunity to expose the now rapidly growing city of St. George during its most appealing fall season. You can't drive far beyond the red rock mesas, what is referred to locally as "color country," that edge the city without encountering the aspens that by early October stretch north and east toward various national and state parks.

I've been drawn to the games because of the "world" name since I first heard of them in 2003 and made up my mind to compete in the 100 and 200 meters in my age group once I learned that they weren't really world games. That means some competitors really were world class while others like me, who weren't, could still compete, and that's always been the magic draw.

In that 2003 competition, I managed to finish sixth in both the 100 and 200 out of fields of 24 in each event. But the reality was that those at the front of the pack in both events were, in fact, world class and thus it was satisfying just to be in the same race in which I could see them in the distance.

The two guys way out ahead that day were a Southern California pharmacist named Gary Sims, who had never run competitively until he was 50, and John Ross, a professor at the University of Edinburgh who was European champion in both events earlier that same year. They've been dueling it out each year since. Sims holds the meet record for both the 100 and 200 in the 70-74 age group and Ross the meet record for the 100 in the 60-64 age group.

I'm entered as a competitor in the games again this year in the 100 meters for the 70-74 age group and will be looking forward to seeing Sims and Ross in the distance ahead of me as the race unfolds, a bit of familiarity that's important since age brings brushes with the unfamiliar as part of its baggage

There's a special import for me with this year's trip to St. George in that it's an outgrowth of my new-found commitment to do today what I might yesterday have put off until tomorrow. Successful recovery from colon cancer surgery in late May while various friends are battling the disease, or have lost their battles, prompts my new "do it today" mantra.

The games were actually founded by a dreamer named John Morgan Jr. who envisioned and named the games.

 Two years later, Huntsman, founder and CEO of what would eventually be the world's largest chemicals company, caught the vision of the event's potential for the region and the state. Thus he and his wife, Karen, became the major sponsor of what has ever since been the Huntsman World Senior Games.

The visitors the event has attracted each fall may well have had at least something to do with the dramatic growth of the area, with St, George becoming one of the nation's fastest growing metropolitan areas from 1990 on, now with a population of 75,000.

And in that growth and advances in the economy may be the lesson of Huntsman's vision that other states and regions might emulate.

Huntsman, 73, has stepped up to executive chairman of what is now a publicly traded (as of 2005) $9 billion world's largest chemicals company with 12,000 employees. But he and Karen still open each year's Senior Games event, where the participants now number in the thousands each October.

Huntsman is, of course, the father of the former Utah governor, China ambassador and a Republican presidential hopeful, Jon Huntsman Jr.

All of which brings me to the final point about the Jon and Karen Huntsman and their commitments to community in Utah.

It was after his surgery for prostate cancer some 15 years ago that Huntsman set out to establish a world-class cancer research and treatment center, a dream he's pleased to say is now realized with the Huntsman Cancer Institute and Hospital in Salt Lake City.

The Huntsman family continues to serve as principal benefactors and fundraisers for the Huntsman Cancer Institute with what he describes as "the ultimate goal" of eradicating the most challenging forms of cancer.

And it's on that final note about the Huntsmans' commitment to community and overcoming as great a challenge as cancer that I sense a common thread in their commitments and the commitments of those who travel to St. George each year to participate and compete.

The producer of a recent movie on the senior games said: "What drew us to the senior games was the positivity. These people have an unparalleled zeal for life. When you're 90 and 100 years old and have endured life's challenges and still have such a positive attitude, it's beyond impressive. We felt it was worth a film."

In a sense the producer summed up in his way what's become my view: Life is a race to be appreciated for the joy of participation and whether world class -- or a bit slower --making in to the finish line ahead of cancer, or any other physical or mental obstacle, is really the sweetest race to win.

 

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Before basketball at Gonzaga there was football

Before there was basketball at Gonzaga, there was football. And just as a Stockton (John) in the backcourt in the mid-80s set the stage for the Spokane school's subsequent hoop prominence, a Stockton (Houston) in the backfield 60 years earlier keyed a 20-year quest in which Gonzaga sought to use football as the key to fame.
 
Appearances by Gonzaga University basketball teams in NCAA post-season play have become almost the norm over the past decade. But the Bulldogs also made a post-season appearance on the football field, a Christmas-day game in 1922 that was intended to match Gonzaga against Notre Dame.
 
The idea for the long-ago game was a promoter's dream: a post-season contest between the Notre Dame team of Knute Rockne and the Gonzaga team coached by Charles E. "Gus" Dorais, the man who had quarterbacked the Irish while Rockne played end.
 
This is the story of how that game came about and the effect the outcome had over the next two turbulent decades as Gonzaga pursued a dream of gridiron glory, only to become entangled in a morass that threatened financial ruin for the tiny school.
 
Gonzaga, like Notre Dame, had been calling itself the fighting Irish for years. In fact, the nickname bulldogs was used for the first time in 1921.
 
According to legend, the decision on whether Rockne or Dorais would be hired as Notre Dame's new head coach came down to a coin flip that Rockne won. Dorais stayed a year as the assistant then headed to Spokane in 1920, sought out by the little Jesuit school to fulfill its dream of national prominence through football, starting with hiring a "dream" coach.
 
Dorais spent his first couple of seasons beginning to build a reputation among Northwest schools. Then in 1922, Houston Stockton, John's grandfather, who had been singled out for All-American honorable mention as a freshman at St. Mary's in Oakland the previous year, transferred to Gonzaga.
 
Stockton quickly began to make his mark as a Bulldog. In the home opener in a new $100,000 stadium before an overflow crowd of 5,600, Stockton turned in a stunning single-game performance, scoring six touchdowns and kicking 10 conversions for 46 points as Gonzaga beat Wyoming, 77-0.
 
The Bulldogs beat College of Puget Sound, 34-0, Montana, 37-6, and Montana State, 12-0, in a Bozeman snowstorm. They lost 10-7 to Washington State College on a late-game field goal.
 
Then came the official invitation from San Diego officials for the dream-game clash between Rockne's and Dorais' teams. But Notre Dame was upset by Nebraska in its season finale and Rockne decided to turn down the invitation.
 
 So West Virginia, undefeated in the 1922 season, victor over the Pittsburgh team that went to the Rose Bowl that season and a club generally regarded as one of the two or three best in the nation, was invited instead.
 
The odds against Gonzaga were overwhelming and the way the game unfolded bore that out as West Virginia took a 21-0 lead into the fourth quarter. Then Gonzaga found itself. The Bulldogs scored two touchdowns, one by Stockton, in 10 minutes. With two minutes to go, Stockton (who rushed for 110 yards that final quarter) found future Gonzaga coach Mike Pecarovich in the end zone. But he dropped the ball. Final score: West Virginia 21, Gonzaga 13.
 
The game got an eight-column headline in the New York Times sports pages as Gonzaga won praise from coast to coast, lauded as "the Notre Dame of the West." A Chicago Tribune sports writer enthused that "West Virginia won. But it wasn't a Christmas present. Pulling a bone from an angry bulldog is not like getting a toy drum from Santa Claus."
 
Dorais and Stockton teamed for two more years, including an undefeated 1924 season. Then Stockton moved on to professional ball with the Frankfort Yellowjackets, predecessor to the Philadelphia Eagles, and Dorais headed for the University of Detroit where he spent most of his coaching career.
 
A number of great players followed Stockton as Gonzaga stars. George (Automatic) Karamatic, who won a place on the 1936 All-America team, and Tony Canadeo, known as the "Grey Ghost of Gonzaga" for his prematurely gray hair, went on in pro ball to set the Green Bay Packers single-season rushing record.
 
Ray Flaherty, a member of the 1924 undefeated team, subsequently starred with the New York Giants for nearly a decade. Then he became coach of the Washington Redskins, guiding them to two NFL titles and five division titles, with his teams always including a cadre of Gonzaga players whom Flaherty routinely drafted..
 
The outbreak of war ended Gonzaga's football program, one that was doomed to end at some point, having cost the school $60,000 in its worst year and providing less than a dime of profit in the best.
 
 It's been almost seven decades now since the blue-and-white uniforms were packed away for the last time. And 60 years since the dilapidated wooden grandstands of Gonzaga Stadium were razed to make room for the Crosby Library.
 
 Old photographs carefully packed away in the basement of the Administration Building are the last tangible reminders of the days when Gonzaga pursued the mirage of big-time college football fame.
 
Gonzaga was among the first of a score of little colleges, mostly private schools, around the West to pursue an Ozymandian delusion that football could be the ticket to a wealthy campus and national renown.
 
Down through the years, sports has inevitably been the vehicle that colleges and universities have sought to use to gain prominence and recognition, as Seattle University is doing in seeking to restore the one-time luster of big-time basketball at the school.
 
For Gonzaga, basketball has indeed brought the prominence and financial success that football was never destined to do. But football will always be the ghost in Gonzaga's closet.
 
(The above is gleaned from old files compiled from long-ago newspaper clippings by a then-Gonzaga student who imagined that a book on Gonzaga football awaited in his journalistic future. But all that really came of that research was an article in the student newspaper in the mid-60s that stirred a short-lived student movement to revive football. The effort died quickly when the then-basketball coach advised a skeptical administration that the cost of athletic tape alone would be $20,000.)

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