Mundelein learns valuable lessons in winning
Mundelein senior linebacker Dominic Paliani shows off a pin he received from a Vietnam veteran at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago.
The " '67 " stands for 1967, the year the veteran served in Vietnam.
Smaller than a shell, not the kind you would find on a beach but rather on a combat field, the memento nearly floored Dominic Paliani.
It left the wounded Mundelein linebacker overwhelmed and speechless. It might even have healed the senior's spirit.
Paliani's surgically repaired left shoulder, which cost him eight games in what are always nine-game seasons for the Mustangs, didn't seem like that big of a deal. How could it, when Paliani received a gift so small yet so big from a gentleman who knows there are bigger things in life than football?
"It's awesome," Paliani, shaking his head in awe, said of an honorary pin given to a lucky Mundelein player who happened to be him. The military pin, which Paliani promptly pinned to the sling supporting his left arm, was originally given to a gentleman who served in the Vietnam War.
On Thursday night, a night before its season-ending 42-7 loss to Lake Forest, Mundelein's entire football team, clad in game jerseys, found itself in ornate Bourke Hall in Building 4 of the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago. At evening's end, before the Mustangs hopped back on their mini buses and went home, a gentleman generously gave away as a raffle prize his cherished and prestigious military pin, which he received in 1967.
Other Mustangs won military patches, some small, some large. You can bet the players will cherish them as much as any "M" they might have sewn on their letterman's jacket.
"You're all winners to us," a vet, wearing a classy cavalry hat that looked like something Custer wore and pulling winning raffle tickets, said to the Mustangs, losers of all nine games they played this season.
Twenty round tables filled the spacious room. A couple of Mustangs sat at each one, talking life (and a little football) with a military veteran. Players asked questions, listened, learned and shared laughs with gentlemen they had never met.
Maybe an 0-9 season isn't that horrible after all.
"I kind of sensed we'd be a winless team a few weeks ago," Mundelein coach George Kaider explained of his decision to take his players to the former VA hospital, which in October of 2010 became the first federal health care center in the country. "But yet I saw the boys just keep fighting and competing and practicing hard. I knew it would be a difficult week for our team (with the season ending) since Mundelein football hasn't won a game in (back-to-back) years. I wanted to de-emphasize Friday night and put all of the emphasis on a deeper, more memorable experience."
The idea to visit the military vets appealed to Kaider because both his biological father and stepfather are both Vietnam veterans. His biological dad did active service in Vietnam, and his stepfather was stationed in Panama. A social worker at the high school, who's also a friend of Kaider's, suggested the former VA facility.
"These gentlemen have had to overcome adversity and deal with losses in their life," Kaider said. "I wanted the boys to learn some valuable life lessons: You don't give up. You don't quit.
"These guys haven't quit."
Some men in the room were homeless, some had dealt with addiction issues and post-traumatic stress disorder. A young man named Jesus served in northern Iraq.
Kenny List, the chief of community affairs at the Lovell FHCC, says high school classes will occasionally visit the facility, but this was the first time an entire football team had requested a visit.
"We try to share with the public and educate the kids," List said. "The guys like talking with the kids, and the kids like talking with the guys. Both sides get a lot out of it. I think it's a good thing."
Arty Exum, 53, served exactly "18 years, 7 months and 3 days," in the U.S. Navy, he says. The likable gentleman sat at a table with junior defensive end Danny Lake and senior cornerback Jared Prejna. Exum told the boys to respect their parents because they'll miss them when they're gone someday.
One day, Exum was going about his day on a moving ship when he witnessed, "Man overboard." A shipmate had fallen into the icy North Atlantic. A helicopter had to rescue the young man.
"He couldn't have (survived) too much longer," Exum said. "That was a bad day."
Refueling at sea at 2 a.m. falls into the "bad day" category, too, Exum says.
Maybe having to lift weights on an icy winter morning before school starts isn't so bad after all.
"The one thing I learned is that life really isn't as bad as you might think it is," Lake said. "For someone in the military, they really have a lot more to worry about. Going through basic training, that's a lot more difficult than probably anything I've ever done in my entire life."
"We sort of complained about the eight-hour football days over the summer," Prejna said sheepishly. "They're working their butts off for 12 hours a day."
One thing the vets know is teamwork. They talked to the Mustangs about the importance of that.
The vets know how to appreciate life and have fun, too, even when life isn't so fun.
Oh, and they're guys' guys. They know how to bust each other's chops.
"When he joined the Navy, they had paddles," an old Army guy said to an old Navy guy.
"OK, Paul Revere," the old Navy guy countered.
Both men smiled. Mustangs laughed. A good time was had — by all.
That's a win.
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