Oct. 30, 2014
By Steve Kornacki
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- There are so many lessons to be learned through Mike Lantry: compassion, perseverance, duty and accomplishment. He exemplifies them all in spades.
Lantry fought in Vietnam and returned to become a record-setting placekicker for the University of Michigan football team under coach Bo Schembechler and excel as a shot-putter in track and field before becoming a successful businessman.
But it was the kicks he missed and the unpopular war he fought in that put Lantry on a lonely road that only he traveled. And how he overcame scorn to become so much more than a survivor is what makes Lantry an endearing example of how character is formed.
He missed last-second field goals against Ohio State in 1973 and 1974 that would have beaten the Buckeyes and sent Michigan to the Rose Bowl both times. He was vilified for it by some fans while being admired by the "thousands" of others whose letters of inspiration still fill boxes at his home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and can bring him to tears.
"The people who wrote those letters had shocking empathy for me," Lantry said. "Many of them began with, 'You served your country...' And they were very taken aback. They compared my situation to their life's tragedies -- even deaths in their families.
"At that time, it meant everything to me. I wanted to be consoled. Family and friends can only do so much of that. The letters usually ended, 'You'll do well in life. Don't let this setback get you down.' And I appreciated it so much. And while missing that last kick was the last thing I did in intercollegiate athletics, it wasn't a tragedy."
Tragedy was the carnage he witnessed in the Mekong River Delta and along the Cambodian border.
On Feb. 23, 1968, a date he can't forget, when he was a kid trying to find his way, Lantry took his oath at Fort Wayne in Detroit and joined the Army. He thought it was the best thing to do after graduating from Oxford (Mich.) High with no academic aspirations and the military draft looming. And so he ended up in the 3rd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, fighting the most publicly criticized war our country has known in an area southwest of Saigon. But while today's veterans of questionable conflicts are labeled heroes without hesitation, Lantry returned to get an education and participate in athletics in Ann Arbor on a campus that was the center of some of the most vocal anti-war protests of the time.
And so sometime when life has you down and you ponder whether anybody loves or understands you, think of the story of Michael William Lantry and know that the sun comes up every morning, even if some days bring frightening storms.
Lantry, while having lunch recently with members of his alma mater's Student Veterans Association to discuss his life's journey, responded to questions about the things he overcame in life. They had invited Lantry to be the grand marshal of an Army-Navy wheelchair basketball game that will be played at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 9 at Crisler Center (no charge for admission), and he wanted to get to know them better.
"I'll do anything for you guys," Lantry told the gathering of more than a dozen event organizers.
They nodded in appreciation, and SVA president Will Kerkstra, a Marine veteran of Iraq, Afghanistan and Persian Gulf conflicts, asked Lantry how he endured the protests.
"I saw all of that going around," he said. "I carved a narrow path from my dorm room in the South Quad to the athletic facilities down State Street. I really just tried to avoid it all. I can't remember one time when somebody singled me out, but I just wanted to put my military years behind me and focus on my new path. But there was a tremendous amount of protests.
"The American public was just expressing its hatred for the senselessness of the Vietnam War. I let it go in one ear and out the other."
Asked how much support he received on campus, Lantry put his thumb and ring finger together before extending his hand and said, "Zero. None. There was no support."
Then Lantry looked around the table at the SVA members and said, "That's why I'm enlightened by the fact that you guys do what you are doing for your fellow veterans. The military veteran, with that experience, is an added benefit. I am living proof of this. You learn your life's lessons in harm's way."
Kerkstra estimated that there are more than 300 students and in excess of 500 faculty members involved with the SVA at Michigan.
"I needed all the time I had in the military in order to compete academically," said Lantry, whose father was an Army medic in World War II. "I was so immature and had none of the traits to compete that I developed in the Armored Division."
Lantry found his way under trying circumstances.
What: Army-Navy Wheelchair Basketball Game
When: Sunday, Nov. 9, 6:30 p.m. tipoff
Where: Crisler Center
Admission: No charge
Grand Marshall: Michigan alumnus Mike Lantry, Vietnam veteran and Wolverine football and track and field letterwinner
"There were 600,000 troops in Vietnam by the time I left it in 1969," Lantry said. "And in 1971, my freshman year at Michigan, there were still guys over there paying the price with their lives. Those guys were the heroes.
"It was organized chaos over there. Death and destruction were all you heard about, and so you were naturally apprehensive all the time. I grew to be numb to all of it. Everything was so alien to all of us. We were just coping to understand. You very quickly realized it was life and death over there."
So much happened and so much changed in his year there.
"I missed Woodstock," Lantry said. "And they put a man on the moon when I was there. I didn't see it on TV but read about it in 'Stars and Stripes.'
"One night, I was pulling guard duty with my M-16 (rifle), ready to detonate two loaded Claymore mines, when another soldier ran up to me and shouted, 'Hey, Michigan beat Ohio State!' I had no affiliation to Michigan, and how could I know that I would?"
Part two of this story will run Friday (Oct. 31) on MGoBlue.com.