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I Dare You!

Cliff Cushman - I Dare You
Written by: Matt Berglund

Editors' Note: Matt Berglund is an English teacher and the head wrestling coach at Grand Forks Central High School in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Berglund also is the yearbook and newspaper adviser and a member of the NFHS Coaches Publications Committee.

Picture this scene: An Olympic silver medalist in the starting blocks at the Olympic Trials, preparing to earn a trip back to the Games in hopes of capturing a gold medal that narrowly eluded him four years earlier. Standing in his way are 10 hurdles – literally and figuratively. Halfway down the home straightaway, his foot clips one of those hurdles and his chances of chasing his Olympic dream go crashing down with him, at least for another four years.

This is not a hypothetical situation, however. It is the true story of American track star Cliff Cushman. Click for photo of Cliff.

Often in sports, we hear the inspirational stories of those who make the winning shot, catch the touchdown pass or cross the finish line first. But what of those who miss the shot, drop the pass, or in the case of Cliff Cushman, end up in a tangled heap on the track. Cushman could have felt many emotions following his fall: devastation, disappointment, anger, frustration, self-pity. Instead, shortly after the Trials, he wrote an open letter to the youth of his hometown that essentially said, “Don’t feel sorry for me.”

Here is Cushman’s letter, originally published in 1964, but as relevant and poignant now as it was 50 years ago.

To the youth: "Don't feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for some of you! You may have seen the U.S. Olympic Trials on television September 13. If so, you watched me hit the fifth hurdle, fall and lie on the track in an inglorious heap of skinned elbows, bruised hips, torn knees and injured pride, unsuccessful in my attempt to make the Olympic team for the second time.

In a split second all the many years of training, pain, sweat, blisters and agony of running were simply and irrevocably wiped out. But I tried! I would much rather fail knowing I had to put forth an honest effort than never to have tried at all.

This is not to say that everybody is capable of making the Olympic team. However, each of you is capable of trying to make your own personal Olympic team, whether it be the high school football team, the glee club, the honor roll or whatever your goal may be.

Unless your reach exceeds your grasp, how can you be sure what you can attain? And don't you think there are things better than cigarettes, hot rod cars, school dropouts, excessive make-up and ducktail grease cuts?

Over 15 years ago I saw a star – first place in the Olympic Games. I literally started to run after it. In 1960, I came within three yards of grabbing it; this year I stumbled, fell and watched it recede four more years away.

Certainly, I was very disappointed in falling flat on my face. However, there is nothing I can do about it now but get up, pick the cinders from my wounds and take one more step followed by one more and one more, until the steps turn into the miles and the miles of success.

I know I may never make it. The odds are against me, but I have something in my favor – desire and faith. Romans 5: 3-5 has always had an inspiration to me in this regard: "... we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.' At least I am going to try.

How about you? Would a little extra effort on your part bring up your grade average? Would you have a better chance to make the football team if you stayed an extra 15 minutes after practice and worked on your blocking?

Let me tell you something about yourselves. You are taller and heavier than any past generation in this country. You are spending more money, enjoying more freedom and driving more cars than ever before, yet many of you have never known the satisfaction of doing your best in sports, the joy of excelling the class, the wonderful feeling of completing a job, any job, and looking back on it knowing that you have done your best.

I dare you to have your hair cut and not wilt under the comments of your so-called friends. I dare you to clean up your language. I dare you to honor your father and mother. I dare you to go to church without having to be compelled to go by your parents.

I dare you to unselfishly help someone less fortunate than yourself and enjoy the wonderful feeling that goes with it. I dare you too to become physically fit. I dare you to read a book that is not required in school. I dare you to look up at the stars, not down at the mud, and set your sights on one of them that, up to now, you thought was unattainable. There is plenty of room at the top, but no room for anyone to sit down. Who knows? You may be surprised at what you can achieve with sincere effort. So get up, pick the cinders out of your wounds and take one more step.

I dare you. –Clifton E. Cushman

Sadly, Cushman would never get another shot at his Olympic dream because his life ended heroically just two years later. An Air Force combat pilot, Cushman was shot down in Vietnam in September of 1966, leaving behind a wife and young son. But his life and letter to the youth will forever serve as an inspiration for generations to come.

Often, our current youth are referred to as the “look at me” generation through their endless self-promotion with Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts, but Cushman stressed the importance of reaching for the stars while still keeping your feet firmly on the ground. It’s one thing to have dreams and aspirations; it’s quite another to be willing to put in the time, effort and sacrifice to achieve them. Cushman’s letter to the youth has a timeless message (even though some may need to do a Google search on “duck tail grease cuts”). His theme of humility and perseverance after a catastrophe is one rarely heard. So, take up his challenge. I dare you.

Reprinted from the Kansas State High School Activities Jounal - January 2016