He walks slightly hunched over, bent forward at the waist, perhaps not unexpected for a man of 87. Yet despite the obvious frailties of age, he still presents an imposing figure, tall and, though well past his playing days, displaying a naturally athletic frame.

His voice is strong, undiminished, projecting the authority that set him apart as a commanding leader in both his playing and coaching career. His mind — and, in particular, his wit — are still sharp, exhibiting a renowned dry sense of humor that continues to color his comments and retorts, charming his audience.

Bud Grant still draws a crowd. The featured speaker at a breakfast meeting of a business-networking club, there were more than 100 people in the room – unusually high attendance for the event. The club president introduced Grant, former coach of the National Football League (NFL) Minnesota Vikings. The coach rose from his seat and walked deliberately to the lectern.

The venue was a country club in Edina, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. A member of the club had invited me to attend as his guest. When he extended the invitation, he made a point of noting that Bud Grant would be speaking. That held little interest for me; in fact, I almost declined. A retired NFL coach? Please, not another event where a long-retired coach tells stories, spouts sporting clichés and fills the time with platitudes. “There’s no ‘I’ in team.” “It’s never over ‘til it’s over.” I thought: I’ve heard it all before.

Only stars

But not wanting to appear rude or ungrateful, I accepted, thinking to myself, Why not, let’s network with some new people. As I learned, the event would have almost nothing to do with sports. What “Coach Bud” shared that morning was not only a surprise – it revealed a depth of feeling that I’d never before heard from a sports figure.

“I’m sure you all have things you want to know about pro football,” he told the crowd, many of them his contemporaries, an audience of rapt, almost entirely male football fans. “We’ll have plenty of time to get into that in the question-and-answer session.”

Instead, he said he wanted to talk about something else.

“I know a lot of fans look up to football players and other athletes as heroes,” he said. “But they’re not heroes. They’re only stars. There aren’t heroes in pro football. Let me tell you about some guys I knew who really were heroes.”

Grant talked about growing up in Superior, Wis., and having many friends whose families worked in mining, lumber and other area industries. In the fall of 1941, he entered high school. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December of that year, he was too young to enlist. Many of his friends were, like he, star athletes. As they had graduated or would soon finish high school, they were eligible to join up the military. Just 18 or 19 years old, but eager to serve the war effort.

One of them told Grant that he’d soon be leaving. “He told me he was joining the Marines,” Grant said. Like many other servicemen, he came home once on leave and told Grant that he would be shipping out to the South Pacific. “We talked a lot, and he asked me if I would write to him. Yeah, in those days, guys wrote to other guys.”

Grant and the young Marine kept up a correspondence. “Then came word that he’d been in a battle in — now, what was the name of that island again?” Grant paused, struggling briefly, trying to remember the name.

“Oh yeah, Tarawa,” he said, and in the hushed room there were nods and murmurs of men who knew full well what that hell meant for young American soldiers. “He didn’t make it.”

An appreciation

Grant then told stories about others who left Superior to serve:

  • The gunner on a “Flying Fortress” who flew many bombing missions over Germany. Not long before the eventual end of the war, the plane was shot down, the entire crew lost.
  • The sailor who served on a submarine. “I just couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be in a submarine,” Grant recalled. Eventually, he would encounter in an engagement with Japanese ships, who sank the sub. “My friend and his fellow sailors are at the bottom of the ocean, not far from Japan.”
  • And the airman who, after many successful sorties, participated in one more mission: the test-flight of a newly developed jet airplane.

“He’d already flown many missions,,” Grant said, his voice beginning to crack, his tone almost plaintive. “His service was completed. He could have just come home. But, instead, he volunteered, because he decided it was  his duty.

“But during the flight the plane exploded, and he was lost,” Grant said, his eyes welling with tears, stopping to pause amid the silence of the room.

Grant would go on to join the service in 1945, as the war was ending, but serving his country nonetheless. Returning from the army, he would star in both basketball and football at the University of Minnesota, and later coaching – as head coach, first, in Canada, then later in the NFL.

Following his talk, Grant took questions from the floor – all of them about football. I don’t remember any of them.

It’s said that as we grow old and enter our “twilight” years, we gain a true appreciation for what’s truly important in life. That morning, it was clear that Bud Grant had gained that appreciation many years before.

“Athletes are only stars: they’re not heroes,” he repeated. “Those young men I knew many years ago in Superior, Wisconsin – those were the real heroes.”