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People often use similar vocabulary to describe football and the military—sometimes with real-life examples. Not far removed from the glory of winning the 1967 Big Ten championship, team captain-turned-infantryman Tom Sakal found himself in waist-deep mud in the sweltering jungles of Vietnam.
This Saturday, Sakal will see both those aspects of his life recognized at the Golden Gophers’ football game against Maryland. Minnesota is holding a Salute to Service Members along with recognition for various champions from Gopher programs.
Sakal earned All-Big Ten and team MVP honors as the 1967 Gophers earned conference rings with an 8-2 record. They won Paul Bunyan’s Axe, the Little Brown Jug and Floyd of Rosedale and were undefeated at Memorial Stadium. Bob Stein was named an All-American, and John Williams and future athletic director McKinley Boston joined him and Sakal on the all-conference roster. Future Hall of Famer Charlie Sanders and Ed Duren made the second team.
"We talked to (the 2017 team) today about embracing your past to create your future," current head coach P.J. Fleck said. "We want to bring the championships back to Minnesota. That doesn't happen overnight, and I said that from day one in my press conference and every time I've talked, doesn't happen overnight. When it happens, we'll find out, right? Because the timeframe's not guaranteed, either, but the one thing I'll say is, we want to make sure, when the 1967 team watches our game, they're inspired. It brings them back to their day."
Even after 50 years, Sakal takes pride in his role as captain and often serves as a spokesman for the team, including when the Gophers received a legacy award at the Minnesota Football Honors event in May. He looks forward to seeing many of his teammates again and hopefully inspiring the current Gophers with his team’s example.
“We have guys from that team who became doctors, dentists, attorneys, educators, school administrators, coaches on all levels – high school, collegiate, as well as professional,” he said. “We’ve had people who have gone into professional sports as executives, guys who have become presidents or chief executive officers of companies, not only in the United States, but around the world, and some who have become very, very successful as independent entrepreneurs. This not only was a very talented group of athletes, but their lives after sports have proven them to be very successful individuals as well.”
After being drafted—first by the Minnesota Vikings and next by the United States Army—Sakal went into the insurance business after his time in Vietnam. He worked his way up at Allstate before becoming a senior executive at AIG based out of Hong Kong, he was later promoted to senior vice president and managed the company in Indonesia. Sakal, whose long-time goal was to run a company, spent the last five years of his career as Prudential’s president and CEO for Thailand. He believes the experience of playing for a championship team helped him and his teammates succeed off the field later in life.
“To win a championship requires a lot of things,” he said. “First and foremost, it’s a commitment and a goal. … When you develop that type of a commitment and the willingness to sacrifice and do all the things to attain that goal, I think those are traits that you carry with you the rest of your life.”
Sakal said he has “no doubt” his football experience also helped him through the horrific experience of combat with the 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam.
“When you go through some of the experiences that I did, it’s very easy to give up, to quit,”
Sakal said. “But there’s that discipline that has been instilled in you from the athletic field. … Coach (Murray) Warmath used to always say the most important time in the game is the last two minutes when the ball’s on your 5-yard line and your back’s against the goal. That’s where you separate the men from the boys. That carried on for me, personally, from a mental standpoint, to my military discipline.”
Sakal said his military service is one of his proudest accomplishments. Like his 1967 Big Ten title, it’s something that will never be taken away.
“I certainly respect (other veterans),” Sakal said. “I love those guys, and I realize and appreciate everything they’re going through. Knowing that they’re being honored on the same day as our championship team of 50 years ago, I think it’s very unique.”
On Saturday, a group of former Navy SEALs will parachute into TCF Bank Stadium after speaking to the Gophers in August. The team visited Heisman Trophy winner Bruce Smith’s grave at Fort Snelling National Cemetery. But a link closer to home will make this Salute to Service Members even more meaningful for junior running back Shannon Brooks. His older brother, Kalyn, is in the Marines.
“My birthday is October 9 and his is October 10, so we’re the same age for one day,” Shannon said.
The brothers are close in age and did everything together growing up, including playing on the same sports teams. Kalyn hoped to play college football like Shannon, but when that didn’t happen he dedicated himself to military service.
“It was a big step for him, something he’s thought about for a long time, though,” Shannon said. “He had to lose a lot of weight. He did a lot of work to get to where he can join. I’m really proud of him. It made me happy that he was going to be doing that and serving our country.”
Brooks said his older brother’s toughness inspires him. The two have not seen each other for months, as Kalyn has been deployed on a ship. He is not allowed to disclose his location, but he is able to call Shannon occasionally.
Shannon was hoping his brother would be back on dry land in time to attend the game against Maryland. If Kalyn isn’t back yet, Shannon will be looking forward to seeing him soon, and to honoring him and other past and present military members this weekend.
“It’s always been special because of the people that served our country and give their life to do that,” Brooks. “But now it’s really special and cool to know my brother’s out there doing that, serving our country and protecting us.”
Justine Buerkle is an assistant director of athletic communications at the University of Minnesota, and a contributing writer to GopherSports.com and Ski-U-Mah Magazine.
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