We turn the microphone over to Tom and Donna Clemente of Lock Haven, Pa., a couple of Penn State lifers who said it better than most of us could:
To: Big Ten Commissioner
From: Tom & Donna Clemente
Date: April 22, 2018
Regarding: Proposal — Michael Sadler Award
Dear Mr. Delany,
College sports are at a crucial turning point and fans look to university and conference leaders to emphasize the student in our student-athlete. We are lifelong Penn State fans, so it may seem odd that we are writing to request consideration to initiate an award named after a past Spartan but hope it [sic] peaks your interest as to why we felt compelled to write this letter.
The Heisman Trophy is awarded annually to the most outstanding player in college football whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity. The recipient of the Heisman Trophy is presented as the “best of the best.” To be admired by and looked upon as a role model by millions of children. At times we feel the Heisman Trophy has been awarded based almost exclusively on athletic ability. We feel that the youth of America are shortchanged when success in sports is held in such high regard and above all things. The NCAA commercial best summarizes this shortcoming: “98 percent of all students will go pro in something other than sports.”
The Big Ten Conference has an outstanding opportunity to correct this shortcoming by celebrating our top scholar athlete who also best exhibits strength of character, leadership and integrity. The Big Ten Championship Game would be an awesome stage to celebrate excellence in our conference this way! The Big Ten and the NCAA need to work harder to draw a sharper line of distinction between collegiate athletics and professional athletics.
WE ARE Penn State fans but WE ARE also huge fans of the Big Ten family. It was heartbreaking when the news broke of the tragic accident that took the lives of Michael Sadler and Sam Foltz. We were playing Michigan State at Happy Valley that same year and wanted to honor Michael and the Spartan nation. We had a flag made in his honor that we flew at our tailgate and proudly displayed as the Spartans took the field. Eventually we sent the flag to his mom and started corresponding with this wonderful woman who continues to work tirelessly to improve the lives of young people through The Michael Sadler Foundation. We started to educate ourselves on Michael’s accomplishments in his short career and the way he clearly inspired people. Michael was the first ever 4-time Academic All-American in MSU history and only the fourth in NCAA history, plus he was a 2-time All-American. … MSU waived the 10-year waiting period and inducted Mike into the MSU Hall of Fame a month after his death because his credentials were “impeccable.” Michael was the type of athlete we hope our kids strive to be like.
As passionate fans of college athletics we are requesting the Big Ten initiate “The Michael Sadler Award” to be given to the Big Ten football player who is selected based on the attributes that Michael embodied. Michael once said he was privileged to receive a college scholarship because education is a lifelong gift. That is exactly what universities and our conference should promote.
Tom & Donna Clemente
Et tu, Jim?
“We have two grandsons — they’re young, but they play football,” Donna tells Land of 10. “And it’s like when it’s Baker Mayfield, no, you’ve got to sit them down and tell them, ‘You don’t want to be like him, please don’t behave like him.’ … it would be really awesome to have an award like that become an award that every student-athlete on that football team is striving for, like a Heisman. ‘I want to win the Mike Sadler Award.’
“It was really clear that as grandparents and as parents, this is the kind of kid you want children to emulate. That was something about Michael, and it was really clear that he touched a lot of lives. And once we got to meet Karen [Sadler, his mother, we realized] her son must have taken after her a lot. And once we got home — we’re on Amazon Smile with The Michael Sadler Foundation, that’s how we buy everything — we wanted to do something. And that’s when we talked about this letter.”
They figured if it was a Penn State fan writing about honoring a Michigan State player, it had a better chance of being read. A woman from Delany’s office reached out a short while later, in early May, to assure the Clementes that it would be. They’ve heard bupkis from the league since, but hope springs eternal.
“The other thing about college football is, to us, it’s the greatest sport there is — we can’t stomach the NFL,” Tom says. “And it’s about them being students and that’s what we wrote to Delany: Let’s get the student out there more than anything else. It’s all about the athlete, it’s not about the student. It’s not about character and integrity as much.
“I think it’s a no-brainer for the Big Ten, I really do. To have it named for Mike, I think, would be very fitting.”
Funny how tragedy tears away at old stitches when you least expect it. Tom and Donna had lost their niece to a car accident, not dissimilar from the one that took the lives of Sadler and Sam Foltz, a few years earlier. She was 19.
“You follow it and you don’t, because it’s heartbreaking to even watch it,” Donna says of the July 2016 incident that killed the two Big Ten punters. “We watched how [our family] struggled.”
Tom and Donna have been going to Penn State football games since 1972. They raised their kids to be Nittany Lions, then sent them to school there. They’d been tailgating outside Beaver Stadium for what felt like forever when, in the fall of 2016, after reading about Michael Sadler’s life story — the football and academic honors, Stanford Law School, all that promise cut mercilessly short, all those threads left dangling — they decided to change it up a bit.
The Clementes purchased a white Michigan State flag, then went to local screen printer to have it inscribed with Sadler’s No. 3, with a tiny We are, and with the following passage:
God Bless Michael Sadler & Spartan Nation
“That’s why we didn’t just want to fly a flag. We wanted to know about the number — all you had to do was research him and wow, this kid had so much to offer. He had his whole life in front of him,” Donna says.
“Only the good die young, they always say that. Yes, it was heartbreaking that Karen made it her job to face this, and it sounds like they were all extremely close. He talked about his mother a lot, so they were definitely tight. And I can’t even imagine … [from] when our niece [died], I have empathy but I can’t put myself there and I pray to God I never have to. But I do know that, wow, what would the story have been if Michael Sadler could have continued on the journey he was on and accomplished everything he wanted to?”
Which is why the Clementes flew a Michigan State flag above their Penn State one at their tailgate on Nov. 26, 2016, when the Spartans visited Happy Valley. And that was only the preamble.
“You can’t take a flag into Beaver Stadium,” Tom chuckles.
They did anyway.
When the Spartans ran onto the field, Tom and Donna, hearts of blue, pulled out their flag of green and white and let it twist in the wind.
“Hey,” a fan behind them shouted, “you’re not supposed to fly that flag in here!”
Tom turned around. The guy behind them quickly skimmed the text on the flag, recognized Michael’s No. 3.
“I mean, he got it right away,” Tom recalls. “I never said a word. I didn’t have to say a word.”
“Oh, sorry,” the guy said.
“He probably thought we were Spartans fans,” Tom says.
“I just turned around and said, ‘It’s not just about the football, dude.’”
Funny how tragedy can bind the souls of strangers, how it opens doors and hearts. The Clementes hung the Sadler flag in their Penn State den for a short while, but decided it would serve a better purpose in the hands of his mother. The school contacted Karen, who “immediately opened it up and there was this beautiful flag, a Spartans flag,” she says. “It was huge.”
Karen reached out with her thanks and the two families stayed in touch over the months that followed. When the Lions visited Michigan State last November, Karen invited the Clementes to meet her at the Spartans football complex the day before.
They wound up with a quick tour — and some funny looks. Tom wore a white Sadler jersey T-shirt but with a blue Penn State turtleneck creeping out underneath; Donna was decked out in a white Lions shirt and a blue Penn State jacket.
At one point they stopped, and Karen pointed to a floor above.
“She said, ‘Look up those steps,’” Donna recalls. “’That is Coach D’s office … and this is Coach D.’”
Which is the story of how coach Mark Dantonio took a minute to talk to a couple of Penn State fans, even posing for pictures with Tom and Karen, the Friday before one of the biggest games in the 2017 Big Ten East race.
“We’re just praying we get to hear from [Delany],” Donna says. “I certainly hope, at least, that he’ll read it. Because I think it’s time. They have to do something to set the bar where it needs to be where it comes to the college athlete.”
It’s not just about the football, dude.