After the interview ends, a reporter asks Tyler Olbrich if he’ll take him to the shrine dedicated to the late Don Holleder. The Aquinas Institute senior happily obliges. They bound down the stairs and through a set of doors before stopping outside the massive fitness center.
Here, the hallway walls are festooned with mementos from the school’s never-to-be-forgotten alum. There is a framed Sports Illustrated cover of a smiling Holleder in his gold U.S. Military Academy football helmet a week after he engineered an upset of Navy in the fall of 1955. There is a framed copy of his college football All-America certificate, newspaper stories, other photographs and a pencil etching of his name from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. There’s also a large painting of a distinguished-looking Holleder in his dress green military suit.
The reporter pulls out his cellphone to photograph Olbrich standing next to the portrait. “I think Don Holleder would have really liked Tyler,” says Aquinas athletic director Anthony Bianchi, who has accompanied them on their mini-tour. “He would have loved having this kid as a teammate and as a soldier because they both led by putting their teams above themselves.”
It’s wonderful that Aquinas has set up this display to honor one of Rochester’s greatest heroes. But the high school has done an even greater job of honoring him through the development of students like Tyler Olbrich. Although he may not have set out to emulate Holleder, that’s what’s happened. And Monday morning, Olbrich will be among numerous youth league and high school football players nationwide to receive the prestigious Black Lion Award, presented annually in memory of Major Holleder and the men of the 28th Infantry Regiment who were killed in Vietnam.
“To be honest, I didn’t really know that much about him until West Point started recruiting me to play lacrosse during my sophomore year,” said Olbrich, who will attend the Academy this fall. “The Army coaches were well aware of Holleder’s legacy there and here, and that made me want to learn more about him.”
What he discovered was a man who spent a lifetime sacrificing for the greater good. Holleder had been an All-American wide receiver for Army, but was asked by legendary coach Red Blaik to switch to quarterback his senior year even though he had never played the position. Things did not go smoothly. Holleder struggled, losses mounted, and media, fans and many cadets began calling him “Blaik’s Folly.” “Don took it really hard,” said Holleder’s roommate, Perry Smith, in a recent phone interview from Augusta, Ga. “He felt like he had let everybody down—his teammates, his coach, the Academy. But Don would always bounce back, and by game day he was ready to meet a new challenge with optimism.”
His perseverance paid off. Vindication came with a Holleder-led victory against a heavily favored Navy squad in the season finale.
Although drafted by the New York Giants, he eschewed the NFL so he could fulfill his military obligations. He rose to the rank of major and wound up serving several tours of duty in Vietnam, earning a Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Purple Heart, the Soldier’s medal and the Distinguished Service Cross. He paid the ultimate sacrifice on Oct. 17, 1967, when he was gunned down while attempting to evacuate wounded soldiers during battle. A month before his death, Holleder had rescued a comrade from a fiery tank. “From his days at Aquinas to West Point and into his army career, the dominant theme of Don’s life was taking risks, sacrificing for others,” Smith said. “That’s what made him such a great leader.”
Some believe Holleder would have become a general and maybe even chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had his life not been cut short. Several years ago, one of his fellow cadets told me Holleder, not famous classmate Norman Schwarzkopf, would have gained fame for leading the U.S. to victory in the Persian Gulf War.
The Black Lion Award is given to players who “best exemplify the character of Don Holleder: leadership, courage, devotion to duty, self-sacrifice, and—above all—an unselfish concern for the team ahead of himself.” Olbrich clearly checks all the boxes. His freshman year, he might have been better served playing full-time on the junior varsity, but he was promoted to the varsity to play special teams for a squad that won the state championship. His junior year, Aquinas’ starting running back was injured four games into the season, and Olbrich was asked to fill in and play both offense and defense. The Little Irish won the state title again.
Last fall, Olbrich was named captain, and the assignment became more daunting than expected. Although suffering a torn meniscus in his left knee in the first game, he played through the injury and continued to be a positive role model despite several losses. His injury prevented him from covering receivers, so he was moved from linebacker to defensive end. When Aquinas’ punter went down, Olbrich was asked to take over those duties, too.
“It was a frustrating season on many levels,” he said. “We weren’t used to losing. And it was really tough on me because my knee limited me at times from going as hard as I wanted to.” But, like Holleder before him, he persevered and continued to lead, often pulling younger players aside for pep talks. “It’s easy to lead when things are going your way,” Bianchi said. “It’s a lot tougher when they’re not. But Tyler didn’t stop trying. He kept setting a great example.”
An example reminiscent of Don Holleder.
“I didn’t see the parallels until after I was told I won the award and watched a video (“When Duty Calls”) about his life,” Olbrich said. “It’s neat knowing I’m from the same school, and I’m going to follow in his footsteps at West Point. The award is a tremendous honor and kind of reassures me that I’m headed in the right direction.”
The direction of a true hero, who lives on in paintings, photographs, newspaper clips and young men like Tyler Olbrich.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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