Through Personal Journey, Williams, ’77, Salutes Football Teammates

Forty years later, a championship team still gets together, and rallies together

October 14, 2016

By Dr. Darrell K. Williams, ’77

Members of the 1976 Albion football team reunited at the 2015 Air Force-Michigan State football game to support their teammate, Ron Vanderlinden, ’78, the current Air Force linebackers coach. Standing from left: Timothy Luke, ’79, Ron Wasczenski, ’77, Michael Stiltner, ’77, Steve Crane, ’78, Steve Spencer, ’78, (unidentified), Kevin Schaefer, ’77, Mike Cockrin, ’77, Michael Skinner, ’77, Fred Cromie, ’78, Bob Tieche, ’78, Dan Cromie, ’06. Seated: Darrell Williams, ’77.

In 1976 the Albion College football team completed its season undefeated with a 9-0 record. It was a privilege to be a member of that team. We had a few close games, but for the most part the scores were disproportionately in our favor. As a young 20-year-old, I remember that there was something special about that team. From the time we started together four years earlier as freshmen under a newly hired coach, Frank Joranko, we all blossomed together, worked hard together, fought hard together, and always played as a team “together,” looking out for one another.

As one of very few African-American students on the team at that time, I cannot remember any racial incidents within the team. There was some name calling on the field when we had away games and visited other colleges, which Walt Swyers, our athletic trainer, did not tolerate. There were several times when he had to be held back from doing harm to the culprits. But as our team evolved we became one unit, one team that played as a finely tuned instrument. I was a part of the defense that became one of the top NCAA Division III squads in the country. We set numerous records and produced one of the tightest defenses ever seen at Albion College.

Our captains were Dave Abbott, Kevin Schaefer and Rick Otis, who were well deserving of being the leaders of such a dynamic squad. I have always felt it a privilege and honor to have been a part of this team and look back at its accomplishments with fond memories. Most notable was having the team inducted into the Albion College Athletic Hall of Fame in 1994. I have done many things in my life and career, but this surely is near the top of the list. During those years we stuck together and played hard, never leaving a teammate behind, always giving a hand up when it was needed.

Down, but Not Out

Fast-forward 40 years: Not only were they champions on the football field, but these men went on to become champions to me in my life. On December 5, 2014, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Needless to say this news took my wife and me by surprise, as it does most people, and it shook us to our very being. We were devastated, but we knew that a battle would have to be fought to overcome this disease. After informing my children and my immediate family, I then sent an email to some of my Albion teammates, who are my friends. You see, after all of these years, there is a core group of us who continue to socialize, talk and get together several times a year. The biggest event usually revolves around our center, Ron Vanderlinden. Coach Ron has had several coaching positions—from Northwestern, Colorado, Penn State to Air Force—and several of us take a road trip to his games each year.

As I began my cancer treatment, my former teammates, now my friends, rallied around me. They called, texted, emailed to say they were all praying for me and that whatever I needed they and their spouses were there to help. Several visited me. It was an overwhelming experience to hear from each of them and know that I was not alone. Forty years have passed and they were still surrounding me, extending a hand to help me off the turf. The captains (Rick, Dave and Kevin), Tim Luke, Alvin Bonds, James Haskins, Mike Stiltner and Ron Vanderlinden, to name just a few, called when they heard the news. Fred Cromie, Steve Spencer, Kurt Wiese and Craig Miller, to name a few, kept in touch via emails.

I also called an Albion alumna, Angela (Patrick) Copeland, ‘78, who herself is a breast cancer survivor. She had been through it all: surgery, radiation and the dreaded chemotherapy. The first thing she told me was “You will be all right!” That was something I really needed to hear. She had “been there and done that.” She walked me through the diagnosis, through all the procedures and into treatment. I thank God for her guidance, support and direction.

What It Means to Be a Briton

I was struggling and my teammates were there to offer me a hand, to encourage and lift me up. There is something about the Albion College experience; a spirit of camaraderie and lifelong bonds and connections are forged. Mike Williams, ’78, (a Hall of Fame inductee for basketball) came to visit and bring my wife and I lunch. It’s been 40 years, but my teammates will always be champions in my book. While I was at home recovering, attempting to regain my strength, my teammates probably had no idea the positive impact the numerous emails, calls, text, and visits had on my recovery.

What I do understand is that 40 years ago, we, as an amazing team did something that stands in the athletic history books at Albion College. We were undefeated. If allowed to go to the playoffs I am sure we could have gone far, done greater things and perhaps even won a national championship. That would have been incredible, no doubt. Yet today, after all that I have endured on my road to being “cancer free,” all of my teammates are greater champions in my eyes, and I would like to thank each and every one of them for their love and support. I thank you from the bottom of my heart and say what an incredible honor it is to share this part of sports history at Albion College with each of you. You, my friends and teammates, exemplify a “True Champion.”