Northern Kentucky University’s historic appearance in this year’s NCAA basketball tournament brought the Norsemen national media acclaim. But decades earlier it was a decorated Vietnam veteran and father of two playing guard that first placed NKU’s basketball program in the coast-to-coast spotlight.
The Feb. 11, 1980 edition of Sports Illustrated featured articles on three basketball players: Bill Walton, Darryl Dawkins and Ludlow native Tom Schrage—who at age 33 had traded a well-paying job at AT&T for an NKU basketball scholarship. The three-page article on Schrage outlined his nontraditional path to playing college hoops and put NKU on the sports map.
Nearly 40 years later, the story is still fascinating and inspiring.
Following what Schrage recently described as an “average” high school career playing for the late Mote Hils at Covington Catholic, he went to a two-year electronics school and got a job. There was no NKU at the time, only a University of Kentucky extension campus in Park Hills.
Schrage joined the Army in 1967 and deployed to southeast Asia shortly thereafter. Two years in Vietnam earned him multiple commendations, including the Bronze Star, something a humble Schrage today says he was awarded for simply “doing my job really well.” But as was pointed out in Sports Illustrated, “In one 19-day span in the Army he jumped three ranks.”
After the war, Schrage went back to work, but began honing his basketball skills by playing in the industrial leagues. He was named Most Valuable Player in a league where he played against guys who had played professionally overseas. Learning to shoot with either hand, and mimicking Oscar Robertson’s free-throw style, allowed him to once score 61 points on the way to a 37-per-game average.
With the encouragement of family and teammates, Schrage went about seeing if anyone was interested in his on-court talent. He began vigorous workout sessions, which included running through his neighborhood like Rocky Balboa. He negotiated a bit with the University of Cincinnati until they signed Junior Johnson. Xavier sniffed around. Enter Mote Hils again, who at the time was coaching the Norse, a program still in its infancy.
Coach Hils (who admitted in SI he had never signed a player who made more money than him) offered Schrage a scholarship and the 33-year-old freshman headed to college. Interestingly, his very first class was sociology, which he attended with his kid brother, author Bob Schrage.
Later, practicing against guys his brother’s age was a reminder of why his team nickname was “Pops.” The early conditioning paid off. He outran the younger players in a 12-minute run and never missed a practice.
Then the article in Sports Illustrated made him an overnight sensation. Schrage was bombarded with mail from readers who found the story inspirational and he got more national radio interviews than a movie star. He still keeps in contact with a man who was motivated to quit his job, go to college and become a physician.
Today, Schrage remains a fan of the Norse. A season ticket holder, he watched this year’s players jell as a team. Beating Wright State three times last season avenged the biggest loss Schrage’s team experienced. Near the end of the season, he told a BB&T Arena seatmate, “NKU can beat any team in the league.”
And, of course, they did—winning the Horizon League Tournament and earning a berth to the Big Dance.
On his drive back from NKU’s first round NCAA Tourney game in Indianapolis, Schrage thought of Coach Hils and the credit he deserves for giving the program its current solid foundation.
At age 71 Schrage still plays, declaring he can shoot better from the charity stripe with his eyes closed than many college players today—adding that with them open he’d still beat most. Ever the basketball technician, Schrage says he plants his pivot foot every time he turns around in the kitchen.
As for his time on the court at NKU, Schrage wishes he had tried a few years earlier. But as pointed out in Sports Illustrated so many years ago: “Putting on his college uniform had a calming effect. Says Schrage, ‘It resolves the question: Could I have done it? It would have followed me for the rest of my life.’”
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