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MUTKA: Len Schmidt’s athletic roots leave Merrillville imprint

Updated: February 7, 2014 6:26AM



Total left knee replacement aside, Len Schmidt is walking with a spring in his step nowadays.

It took multiple cortisone shots to convince him to undergo the procedure on Nov. 18, but the former coach/athletic director is looking forward to appearing at Avalon Manor Wednesday evening.

Schmidt will be sharing the spotlight with former Blackhawks star Dennis Hull, the guest speaker at the sold-out 68th annual Gary Old Timers banquet.

Though it’s been 40 years since Schmidt ended his connection with Merrillville High School, his roots undeniably mesh with the campus on East 68th Place.

He played his high school football for Dick Demaree, who coached the Pirates to 164 victories in 30 years before turning it over to Ken Haupt in 1976, then rejoined Demaree as Merrillville’s athletic director.

“I lettered four years at fullback,” said Schmidt, who also received all-conference honors in baseball and fought in the Gary Golden Gloves during high school. “In my junior year I got picked for the Gary All-Star team.”

In 1962 he was chosen for an all-star baseball team to play an exhibition game against the United States Pan-Am team.

“They had Lou Brock on their team, beat us 3-1 on 35th and Broadway, now the site of the IU Northwest campus,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt played his baseball for Ed Engelhart, who doubled as basketball coach and preceded Schmidt as Merrillville athletic director.

Hired by Superintendent Donn Kaupke, Schmidt pioneered swimming and wrestling during his five years at the south suburban school.

Those were transitional years for the Pirates, who spent 25 years in the Calumet Conference and Lake Suburban conferences before joining the Duneland Conference in 1975. The move created some anxious moments.

“I remember Dick (Demaree) saying ‘Oh, my goodness. LaPorte’s going to dominate football.’ They didn’t,” Schmidt said.

Duneland schools account for seven state champs and six runners-up, none of those pigskin honors belonging to LaPorte.

Coach Larry Liddle left a booming Hammond Clark basketball program for Merrillville from 1973-76. His Hall of Fame resume included 20 years as Purdue Calumet coach.

“Had some pretty good upgrades,” Schmidt said. That included football.

Following the lead of Demaree, who coached unbeaten teams in 1949 and 1964, Haupt coached the Pirates to a 30-3 record and their only state football championship (1976).

Never shy about career changes, Schmidt bolted from Merrillville after five years to open a sporting goods store called “The Athlete’s Foot.” His involvement with that lasted two decades and included opening 23 other stores in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

“I had 15 to 20 kids who worked in my Merrillville store and all of them went on to be super successful,” Schmidt said.

His employees included Dan Dakich, who sat out his junior year at Andrean because of an injury, then played and coached at Indiana with a successful stint at Bowling Green in between.

Schmidt now works for North Shore Health Center, a federally funded non-profit with five clinics.

“We see over 10,000 patients a month,” he said. “We turn nobody down.”

Schmidt graduated from Western Michigan, transferring after his freshman year at Arkansas State, then signed on as freshman football coach at Calumet, where he posted a 43-5 record. That convinced legendary Chris Traicoff to promote him to varsity coach.

Winning seasons have been rare on the Ridge Road campus, but Schmidt guided the Warriors to a 6-2-1 record in 1967. What he remembers most was christening his first season with a rare victory over Griffith.

Good genes abound

Both of Schmidt’s sons also played football at Merrillville High. Kevin was a running back on the 1976 state championship team and is a Notre Dame grad. Len Jr. toiled as a defensive back in 1983, started on the basketball team and graduated from Indiana.

Sharing their dad’s passion for handball, Kevin and Len Jr. won college championships in that sport. Kevin’s son, Kyle, is a punter for Ball State, which played Arkansas State Sunday night in the GoDaddy Bowl.

So you think it’s cold?

It may have been frigid in Green Bay when the Packers-49ers shivered through Sunday’s game in zero-minus weather, but it can’t compare with what Michigan City’s Dave Parry endured in his 15 years as an NFL side judge, which included 14 playoff games.

The late official’s most hazardous four hours came in the 1982 “Freeze” game in Cincinnati. Playing in wind-chill conditions of -69 degrees, the Bengals frosted San Diego 27-7. Parry told me he suffered minor frost burns.

Six years later, he worked the infamous 1988 playoff “Fog” game between the Bears and the Eagles. Visibility at Soldier Field was limited to 15 yards for more than half the game, but Philly’s Randall Cunningham passed for 407 yards in a losing effort.

Before becoming supervisor of Big Ten officials, he worked in the 1983 Super Bowl. It’s an experience his son, John, duplicated as a side judge in 2007 and as a referee in Super Bowl XLVI.



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