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Recalling WNY's homegrown Army hero

The Sports Illustrated Vault as the name implies -- is filled with treasures from the magazine's storied past. The vault, located at SI.com, includes a searchable database of the covers of every issue of the magazine.

Images of the Super Bowl Bills, streaking Sabres teams and the old NBA Braves can all be found on SI covers. So can Buffalo native Bob Lanier, who shared a cover with three other players after his St. Bonaventure basketball team made it to the NCAA Final Four.

There's another Buffalo-born athlete who had an SI cover all to himself. Don Holleder, who grew up on Emslie Street before moving to the Rochester area at age 13, smiles on the cover from Nov. 28, 1955. He was the cover boy for SI's preview of the Army-Navy football game, which in the mid-'50s was a major contest between ranked teams.

Holleder was Army's quarterback in 1955, though he was not on anyone's list of the top 20 college QBs that year. He had been a first-team All-American the previous two years playing "end," or receiver. He was a favorite target of quarterback Pete Vann, who graduated after the '54 season.

Army's coach, Earl "Red" Blaik, along with offensive assistant Vince Lombardi, came up with the idea of moving Holleder to quarterback. The coaches knew he would be a project at the position, but they figured his leadership skills and athleticism would go a long way, particularly against the Midshipmen.

Holleder was asked to give up the security of being a star in order to play a new position at which the team had its greatest need. He did it without hesitation.

Herman Hickman of Sports Illustrated set the scene:

"Of course, Colonel Blaik's Great Experiment was designed primarily for use against Navy. Holleder, one of the greatest competitors football has ever seen, may be a bear at his new position in the game that matters.

"Psychologically, the outcome favors Army. Colonel Blaik probably wants this one more than any game since his first victory over Navy in 1944."

Mission accomplished. Holleder, playing both offense and defense, led Army to a 14 victory over a heavily favored Navy team that included the nation's leading passer, George Welsh.

It's been 55 years since Holleder's triumph in the rivalry game that today in Philadelphia will be played for the 111th time. Holleder permanently etched his name into the history of Army football for his unselfish leadership. In the future, however, he would be called upon to make much bigger sacrifices.

Lombardi had ties to the NFL's New York Giants, who selected Holleder in the eighth round of the 1956 draft. But he never played a down of pro football, choosing a full-time Army career instead.

Over the next decade he rose to the rank of major. He spent some of those years back at West Point as an assistant football coach. Jim Zimmerman, a first cousin of Holleder who lives in Cambria, says Holleder was being groomed to become athletic director at the school.

No one who knew Holleder was surprised when he decided in 1967 that he belonged over in Vietnam, taking part in the war effort.

Holleder, operations officer with the 2nd Battalion 28th Infantry, 1st Infantry Division, led a mission to rescue fellow soldiers who had been ambushed in Ong Thanh, 40 miles from Saigon. He was shot down by a Vietcong sniper, dying in the arms of an Army medic in October of '67.

Perry Smith, Holleder's former roommate at West Point, wrote about his late friend in a 2007 newspaper essay:

"Holly died as he had lived," Smith wrote. "The willingness to make great sacrifices prevailed to the minute of his death. At his funeral at Arlington National Cemetery were his wife, his four small daughters, hundreds of friends and coaches Red Blaik and Vince Lombardi, Holleder's offensive coach."

Zimmerman grew up in Buffalo idolizing his cousin, who before college made frequent trips back to the city to spend time with family.

"I remember watching the Ed Sullivan Show on TV, and the college All-Americans were introduced," Zimmerman said. "Don was up there, and I'll never forget seeing him introduced. I was so proud of what he had done at West Point.

"He used to tell us stories at the Christmas dinner table. West Point was pretty difficult academically. At night they had lights out, and the only place that had a light on at night was the bathroom, so Don would spend half the night in the bathroom just to study."

It was quite a blow to his family when Holleder died at age 33.

"He could've done a hell of a lot more in life," Zimmerman said. "Him and Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf were in the same graduating class at West Point. Some people thought Don had the brighter future."

West Point's indoor sports arena is the Donald W. Holleder Center. He was inducted to the National Football Foundation Hall of Fame in 1985.

Jack Schultz of Hamburg is another cousin of Holleder. The two spent a lot of time together as kids. Schultz said when Holleder was drafted by the Giants he showed no interest in changing his military career plans.

"Lombardi approached Don [about playing for the Giants]," Schultz said. "When Don came home, he told his grandfather, 'There's no way I'm going to play professional football. My Army career comes first.' When Don committed to anything, he committed totally."

e-mail: gconnors@buffnews.com

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