Remembering Teammates on Memorial Day
May 24, 2013
Memorial Day is for family and friends to remember the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. And the reality is these family and friends think of those who have perished every day since they have passed. That truth lays the same for Kansas’ world-class track standout Bill Dotson who was mentored by teammate and Olympian Cliff Cushman.
The two became the best of friends in their time as teammates at KU. When asked about his friend Cliff, Dotson glows. He describes a passionate man, full of life, talent and a love for others. Although soft spoken, Dotson still can’t think of a more ideal teammate and the duo became even closer after KU. In fact, just two weeks before leaving on his tour of duty in Vietnam, Cushman came to see Dotson.
That would be the last time the two saw each other as Cushman’s plane was shot down in battle.
“It was like I missed my brother when I heard about him being shot down in Vietnam,” Dotson said. “I believe he was there only 18 days when he was shot down. He was loved and admired by everyone on the track team. He was a better person than he was an athlete. No one had anything bad to say about Cliff.”
Cushman was a main cog in Kansas’ 1959 and 1960 NCAA Men’s Track and Field Championship teams. A native of Grand Forks, N.D., Cushman came to KU as a well-rounded star having won state titles in the long jump, high hurdles and mile. At KU, he ran the 400 hurdles for head coach Bill Easton, finishing second in the NCAA championship in 1959. His senior year, 1960, Cushman was the most outstanding performer at the Kansas Relays and later won the NCAA championship in the 400 hurdles.
“I can still remember in my mind’s eye Cushman doing the 400-meter intermediate hurdles, which I think is the toughest event in all of track and field,” KU long-time broadcaster Max Falkenstien said. “I remember seeing that blond hair he had coming around the turns at Memorial Stadium. He was such a tremendous hurdler and sprinter combined in such a very demanding event.”
As a captain on the KU team, Cushman mentored Dotson, a distance standout from Jamestown, Kan., who was two years behind Cushman at Kansas. Dotson literally rewrote the KU records book in distance events. Dotson, a two-time All-American and six-time Big Eight Conference champion, was a three-time American Record holder in the mile (all three times in 1962). He became the first KU and Big Eight athlete and only the fourth collegian to break the four-minute mile. To this day, only two Jayhawks have broken the four-minute mile collegiately, Dotson and Jim Ryun.
“I remember at the (Big Eight) conference meet as a sophomore, Cliff was a senior and he’d coach me a lot,” Dotson said. “He’d say ‘just wait around until that last 330 (yards), that last lap and then just pass everybody and bring it on home. Just outrun all of them.’ And that’s what I did.”
Following KU, Cushman went on to win the silver medal, behind U.S. teammate Glenn Davis, in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. The following year he joined the U.S. Air Force and continued training for the hurdles as well as training to become a jet-fighter pilot. Tripping over a hurdle in the U.S. trials in 1964, Cushman failed to qualify for his second Olympic games. Dotson would go on to be a part of a world-record mile-relay team and earned a spot as U.S. team member for the 1963 Pan American Games.
“I remember another time when I was running in Madison Square Garden in New York City and I was running against some of the best milers in the world,” Dotson said. “Cliff was standing on the side of the track and he said ‘to run around on that last lap, you’re waiting on them. Why didn’t you win it?’ That was the way Cliff was, giving you that type of assurance that you can do it. He was a big brother and mentor. We were both quiet. We weren’t loud in making a lot of commotion. We let our actions speak louder than our words.”
It was 1966 when Cushman received his orders and was sent to fight in the Vietnam War. On Sept. 25, 1966, his wife, Carolyn was notified by Air Force officials that Cushman’s plane had been shot down and he was missing in action. Cushman’s body was never recovered.
“At the time I was with New York Life Insurance Company when he got his orders to go to Vietnam,” Dotson said. “He was crazy about flying. He used to fly those 172 Cessnas when we were in college. I’d go up with him once in a while. He was always trying to max those things out. He came to me a week or two before he went to Vietnam and wanted me to write an insurance policy, which at that time no insurance company would take for a pilot that was in the armed forces, especially if they had their orders to go to Vietnam. I experienced at that time that he knew, and the way he said it, he wasn’t coming back. He had just gotten married and his son was a few months old. He sensed he wasn’t coming back so he wanted an insurance policy. I felt really bad at that time. It kind of strikes you that you know the feeling inside of him that’s going on.”
Many bonds teammates develop in any sport are like family, including two track standouts from North Dakota and small-town Kansas. In practice and competition they share the blood, sweat and tears of the defeats and the victories during their college careers. For Dotson these memories of Cushman are still vivid in his mind today, some 46-plus years after Cushman was declared missing in action while fighting for USA’s freedom in the Vietnam War.
“With Cliff I always say hello every night before I fall asleep,” Dotson said. “I always remember him as one of my best buddies. In spirit or whatever, I always say hello to him and share a few thoughts just about every night. He’s always in my thoughts, especially when I fall asleep. That’s the type of friendship and energy we had between us. He’s always there.”
Memorial Day is a time many will reflect on those who have died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. These individuals are not just family and friends but also teammates.
If you know of a former Jayhawk student-athlete who fought for their country, we’d like to hear from you. Please contact Candace Dunback (cdunbackku.edu) to share your story.