Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2008 | Mike Burgener played for Notre Dame in the epic 1966 Notre Dame-Michigan State football game known then as “The Game of the Century.”
When he graduated in 1968, he fulfilled his military commitment as a Marine Corps officer in reconnaissance for special forces.
With such a life history, Burgener, naturally, loved San Diego State University head coach Chuck Long’s idea to open his team’s fall camp at Camp Pendleton. The players spent three days and two nights last week on the historic Marine base sleeping in barracks under boot camp-like conditions.
“I think what Coach Long is trying to do is bring together a group of kids for a common cause, and that’s to get San Diego State football back to what it was years ago,” Burgener said. “When Don Coryell and Claude Gilbert were there, they used to kick butt and take names.
“Coach Long wants an attitude of teamwork. He doesn’t want players thinking selfishly about themselves. He wants players that know they can depend on the guy on their left, the guy on their right and the guys behind them. That’s the kind of leadership and teamwork you are exposed to at Camp Pendleton.”
History is such a fascinating subject. With the United States entangled in a war in Iraq that seems to have no end in sight, it’s hard to imagine a college football team practicing on a military base during the quagmire of the Vietnam War.
That’s why I called Burgener, who is enjoying his first year of retirement from a second career as a longtime teacher and coach at Vista High and later Rancho Buena Vista High.
As much as Burgener approved of Long’s idea, believing it will benefit SDSU football, he acknowledged that his coach, the great Ara Parshegian, couldn’t have done it. The 1960s and 1970s were a period of Vietnam War protests on college campuses and around the country.
“It’s a different time now,” Burgener said. “My favorite commercial is that one when soldiers walk through an airport in uniform. First, one person gets up to clap. Then the rest of the people get up and clap.”
It wasn’t that way when Burgener served.
“When I walked through airports, I always had my uniform on,” Burgener said. “I didn’t shy away from it like other branches of the service. I never got spit on or yelled at, but we were told if anything like that happened to us to not retaliate; just keep walking.”
Although members of the U.S. military have been guilty of atrocities against civilians in Iraq similar to Vietnam, the military isn’t suffering the same broad brush stains of Vietnam.
“Notre Dame was a conservative, all-male school at the time,” Burgener said. “But even at Notre Dame, we had some guys take over the administration building to protest the CIA coming on campus to recruit people.”
The war in Iraq will go a long way toward deciding the election of the next president, but the American military still commands the respect of the public, not to mention a college football, that believes there are leadership skills to be gained on a Marine base.
Maybe that’s because the war in Afghanistan, before President George Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney added a second war in Iraq, was a patriotic response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Maybe it’s because of an all-volunteer military as opposed the draft fueling so many Vietnam protests.
But the difference in times can be certainly measured by the San Diego State football team’s experience. Long’s players embraced his idea before and afterward.
“It was a great idea, and we got a lot out of it,” said Russell Allen, the Aztecs’ senior linebacker from Vista named an All-Mountain West Conference preseason pick. “The other thing is we saw how lucky we are to get to do what we do.”
Long said the experience surpassed even his high expectations.
“It was fantastic,” he said. “It was an eye-opening experience for me. I do a lot of reading about leadership and team building — that’s my job — but they [the Marines] take it to another level.”
For this chapter at least, the wars in Iraq and Vietnam couldn’t be more different.
Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or send a letter to the editor.