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Reflecting on stars I never saw/Paul Peterson

During a conversation with John Hanner of Houghton a couple of months ago, it occurred to me that I had missed seeing some of the top athletes in the area.

John, a standout athlete at Lake Linden-Hubbell himself, asked my impression of Don Michaelson of L’Anse as a football player.

I thought about it for a moment or two … and then said I had never seen him play a single game.

Between late November of 1967 and early March of 1972, I was out of the area most of the time.

After covering a boys’ high school basketball game between L’Anse and Jeffers in late 1967, I left to find a job in Milwaukee.

One of the seasons for the departure was the hard, cold fact the military draft was breathing hard on my neck, just as it was for many young men in that troubled era.

After a year in the city, I eventually got my draft call in March of 1969. It would be nearly three years before I saw the Copper Country again.

The old slogan of “Join the Navy and see the world” could also have been applied to the U.S. Army back then.

Four years may not seem like a long period of time to some people. After all, our Presidents can serve a complete term in that time. It also takes about that long for some singers to learn the words to the National Anthem. Or a NHL and NBA season to finally end.

During that time I missed seeing standout athletes like Don Michaelson, Mike Usitalo of Calumet, Rich Salani of Hancock, Gary Lange of Houghton and Gary Fors of Ewen-Trout Creek.

They were all so good that three, Usitalo, Salani and Fors, have been inducted into the U.P. Sports Hall of Fame. Michaelson was a Minnesota Junior College Hall of Famer and Lange was selected for the Michigan Tech Hall of Fame.

How good were they?

Michaelson, who once scored six touchdowns in a single game, touching the football six times. He set a U.P. record – later broken by Houghton’s Brady Schaefer and Ontonagon’s Jim Gilmer – for career rushing with nearly 4,600 yards.

He played football Mesabi JC and at Eastern Michigan University and was equally outstanding in track.

Usitalo is considered by many to be the finest athlete ever produced locally. He starred in football, gaining All-U.P. honors in 1970.

But his main sport was hockey. MTU legendary coach John MacInnes compared him to Gordie Howe after he had a sparkling 1970-71 freshman season at Tech. A knee injury would short-circuit his career, but his slap shot is still talked about today.

Salani, who would later play football at Michigan State, was outstanding in football, basketball and track.

Combining with Bill Tarbox, another fine athlete, he helped the Bulldogs end Calumet’s long dominance in the regional track meet in 1969.

Lange’s major sport was basketball. He once scored 60 points in a single game, and combined with teammate Barney Salo for 109 points in the same game.

Lange scored more than 1,400 points in high school and added another 1,049 at MTU.

Fors played on perhaps the most dominant Class D basketball teams ever, the 1971-72 squad. The unbeaten Panthers rolled to the state championship and were seldom challenged.

Fors was talented enough to play at Lake Superior State, setting several records for the Lakers.

They were all great athletes, no question. But ones I unfortunately never had had the privilege of seeing in person …