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Trucking People
Two fathers, one journey
Plagued by thoughts of "I should have ..." Mark Lemke put his thoughts into words and Sports Illustrated put his words into print, sending the trucking father down a road that led to the Super Bowl.

By Reed Black
staff writer

 

On Feb. 4, 2007, one of the people in the stands cheering the Indianapolis Colts to a 29-17 victory over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI was OOIDA member Mark Lemke.

But Mark, an over-the-road trucker from Sheldon, IA, had taken a far different road to Miami than the other 74,511 fans.

His road led him to a room in a beachfront resort where he and Colts head coach Tony Dungy shared hugs and prayers.

Actually, the journey stretched back to Sheldon and to the evening of July 7, 2006 – just eight months earlier.

That night, Mark’s 19-year-old son, Cory, decided to try out a friend’s new motorcycle. Unfamiliar with the bike, he crashed into a van. The following day he was declared dead.

Mark lost not only his son and golfing partner, but his best friend.

“We golfed from one end of the country to the other together,” he said.

“For me and Cory that was our getting away time … just shoot the breeze and shoot the ball and have some fun.”

And because they enjoyed kidding each other, Mark wasn’t surprised when Cory once called four times from a golf course at Myrtle Beach, SC, to let dad know what he was missing.

“While I was out here driving truck … just rubbing it in,” Mark recalled, laughing.

As the days and weeks passed following Cory’s death, Mark felt the need to let the world know what a wonderful, athletically talented young man Cory had been.

So he composed a letter to Sports Illustrated – hoping the publication would include Cory’s picture and accomplishments on its “Faces in the Crowd” page.

The letter, addressed to columnist Rick Reilly, read in part, as follows:

“I am not much of a writer, but since about 1996 I have wanted to nominate this kid for Faces in the Crowd.

“I should have started with all the junior golf tournaments he won at ages 6 to 10.

“I should have sent in something when he was written up as a golf prodigy in our paper at age 12.

“I should have sent in something when he got two holes-in-one in the summer after 8th grade.

“I should have nominated him for being a three-time state qualifier and holding most all individual scoring records at his high school.

“This young man was my very best friend. We were golfing partners for 16 years. You see, this young man was my son.

“He was killed in a motorcycle accident.

“Cory’s real accomplishments were being the best friend a guy could ask for … the most loving and best son a father could ask for … and a truly gentle and loving kid with the greatest smile in these United States.

“I don’t know how I will cope without him. I hurt so much, and I miss him so much – just to talk to or watch sports together. God, I loved that boy so much.

“Please accept this nomination!

“(signed) Mark Lemke, Cory’s father.”

At Sports Illustrated, Rick Reilly saw the letter.

But, as he read the list of Cory’s accomplishments, he wasn’t prepared for the line, “He was killed in a motorcycle accident.”

“It just knocked me right in the gut. Just took the wind out of me. I was not ready for the ending,” said Reilly, who has a teenage son.

While Mark had only asked that Cory be included among the brief profiles of “Faces in the Crowd,” Reilly took it much further.

He interviewed Mark by phone while the trucker was on the road. Reilly could hear the air brakes as the tractor-trailer pulled over.

“The depth of his grief was unimaginable to me,” Reilly said. “There are some things that knock even big men over backwards.”

Reilly devoted an entire page to Mark and Cory Lemke – complete with Mark’s letter to Sports Illustrated.

“We had hundreds and hundreds of letters and e-mails,” Reilly said.

Readers wrote in with comments like, “I went down and held my son.”  “I told my own son, ‘I want you to know how much I love you. Please be careful. I would just be cut in half if you were gone,’ ” Reilly said.

One of the thousands of people who read Reilly’s column was Coach Dungy.

Dungy’s 18-year-old son, James, died just before Christmas in 2005 – eight months before Cory Lemke was killed – and the coach decided to reach out to the Iowa trucker.

In a recent three-way telephone interview with Mark and Dungy, the coach told “Land Line Now” he called Mark at home in the fall of last year.  

“Over the last year and a half, whenever I’ve come across things like that, I’ve tried to reach out to people,” Dungy said. “I’d be there as a friend if he needed one.”

Mark said he was “very surprised” to get a phone call from the Colts coach, and that Dungy was “very generous with his compassion.”

That call lead to a series of e-mail exchanges and more phone calls.

Dungy said he felt he could help Mark because Dungy was a little further down the road in terms of dealing with the grief of losing a son.  

“I had lost a son earlier than Mark,” he said, “and I was able to share with him that it is a very, very tough thing. But you do get better. Life goes on. And he has some things to look forward to. And I could share this with him because I was slightly ahead of him in the process.”

As the fall of 2006 turned to winter, the Indianapolis Colts started looking very much like a team bound for the Super Bowl.

Mark, a longtime Vikings fan, now had two teams to root for.

And once the Colts beat the Chiefs, Ravens and Pats to cinch a trip to Miami, Mark decided to ask coach Dungy for a ticket.  

“I kind of hinted around,” he said. Dungy promptly agreed and rejected Mark’s suggestion that he simply leave the ticket at the will-call window.

Instead, Dungy invited Mark to meet with him and his pastor at the resort where the Colts were staying. So, the day before the big game, Mark met coach Dungy face to face. Dungy said they talked and prayed together.  

“That was the best part of the trip,” Mark said. “The Super Bowl was just icing on the cake.” The following day, Super Sunday, Mark put aside his Vikings bias and cheered for Dungy’s Indianapolis Colts.

Dungy’s read on the weekend: “We (had) shared a lot of emotional ties and experiences and to meet Mark and enjoy some time with him … and then having him come to a game when we won – and share that experience with me – it was tremendous.”

Mark’s response during the three-way phone call: “I just can’t tell you how appreciative I am of your support and your help and your kindness and friendship.”

After the Super Bowl, Dungy’s road led him back to Indianapolis to get ready for the 2007 season.

Can they repeat?

“It’s going to take a good team to beat us,” he said.

Mark’s road is still rough in terms of dealing with his loss.

But Dungy thinks what he’s tried to pass on to Mark will be passed on to others.  

“I know so many people have helped me,” Dungy said, “and I know Mark, in turn, is going to reach out and help other people.”

And, in a way, Mark is already reaching out.  

“All I know is any guys out there driving truck … I know you can’t be home all the time and that’s the tough part. But God, even if you’re mad at your kid … if you could just stop and tell your son or daughter how much you love them. It’s just so important,” Mark said.

In August, Dungy’s road took him and his team to Terre Haute, IN, for training camp and preparations to try to defend their championship. Among their pre-season rivals were the Chicago Bears, whom they outscored by 12 points to earn their Super Bowl rings.

About the same time, Mark’s road took him from Sheldon, IA, to Myrtle Beach and the golf courses where his son had played award-winning rounds in the past.

The occasion this year was the 24th Annual World Amateur Handicap Championship.

At Mark’s request, the tournament directors had decided that the Parent-Child Championship would, from now on, be named after Cory Lemke.

So Mark, who’d played in the tourney 12 times himself, needed to be there.

After all, when they announced the winners of the Cory Lemke Championship, Mark would present the trophy.

 

reed_black@ooida.com

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