Clifton Emmet “Cliff” Cushman was my friend. Well, to be more accurate, he was the older brother of Marnita, one of my close friends in high school. Cliff was the proverbial golden boy. Loved God, was smart, cute, nice, fun..athletic. That boy could run! His specialty was the 400 meter hurdles, but it seemed he was on the track every time an event was called.
I worshiped him from afar (and from a-near!), started his first (and probably only) fan club which earned me a smile and some kind words from him. Marnita and I attended track meets whenever we could.
Of course, eventually my bubble burst and he graduated and went far away to college. The only time I heard his name was when he had done something magnificent in track and field and it was in the newspaper. Eventually word came that he had made the Olympic team and would be running for the United States in Rome. He was quoted as saying it was the proudest moment of his life.
Those of us in his home town lived and breathed the Olympics that year. Cliff was running and we were cheering for him from afar. He won, of course. Second place in the 400 meter intermediate hurdles. He did a victory lap in North Dakota…going to all the small towns and country schools and encouraging the kids. Letting them try on his medal. Telling them what a wonderful country they lived in.
Then came the day he broke my heart by getting married to some fairy princess from Kansas and they had a little baby named Colin. Cliff was president of the fellowship of Christian athletes and joined the Air Force to become a fighter pilot.
Incredibly it was soon time for the Tokyo Olympic trials in Los Angeles and Cliff was there. Unbelievably, he hit a hurdle during the race and was disqualified and couldn’t be in the Olympics that year. After that stumble, he wrote a letter to the children of Grand Forks (his home town) that was reprinted in papers all over the country.
He said…”In a split second, all the many years of training, pain, sweat, blisters and agony of running were simply and irrevocably wiped out. But I tried! I would much rather fall knowing I had put forth an honest effort than never to have tried at all….
“Over 15 years ago, I saw a star—first place in the Olympic games. In Rome I came within three yards of it; this year, I fell and watched it recede four more years away….Oh, l know I may never make it. The odds are against me, but I have something in my favor—desire and faith. Romans 5:35 has always had an inspirational meaning to me in this regard; “…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us…”
“At least I am going to try. How about you? I dare you to look up at the stars and set your sights on one of them…Who knows? You may be surprised at what you can achieve with sincere effort. So get up, pick the cinders from your wounds and take one more step.
Sincerely, Clifton E. Cushman”
You can find Cliff Cushman’s name on Panel 11E Row 13 of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He was shot down over North Vietnam in September of 1966 and listed as MIA for several years before he was declared dead.
When, his wife Carolyn was notified of his disappearance, she said she knew that somewhere he was running his best race…
Many years have gone by since Cliff Cushman went home to God, but I think of his courage often. I wore a bracelet with his name on it for years and still pray for his family. The track at Red River High School in Grand Forks is named after him. He impacted so many people and left such a grand legacy. Best of all, when I see the stars I know there is no limit to what I can do if I work hard enough. I know because Cliff told me so.