Grand Rapids Sports Hall Of Fame Inducts Laker Football Team
2002 Team To Be Honored By GRSHF
By Howie Beardsley
The Grand Rapids Press
GRAND RAPIDS -- Joel Smeenge and John Vander Wal have been considered something of a team ever since roaming the hallways together at Hudsonville High School. So it seems only appropriate that Smeenge and Vander Wal will be reunited once more at the Aug. 9 Grand Rapids Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremonies at Van Andel Arena. Smeenge, an 11-year NFL defender, and Vander Wal, who played 14 seasons in the major leagues, will be joined by Valerie (Sterk) Kemper, who will give the Hall its first volleyball member.
In addition, three other honorees will join as special selections: longtime coach and official Jim Eaddy in the legends category; Grand Valley State's 2002 NCAA Division II championship football squad in the team category; and retiring Grand Rapids Press sports editor Bob Becker as receipient of the Warren Reynolds Lifetime Achievement Award. These six members of the Class of 2007 will boost total Hall membership to 98.
For Smeenge and Vander Wal, it will mark the second time the two long-time friends have entered a Hall of Fame shoulder to shoulder. In November 2003, the pair was inducted into the Western Michigan University Hall of Fame. "It's kind of cool that we both went in together at Western, and now we're going into the Grand Rapids Hall of Fame together," Vander Wal said. "We were really good friends in high school. I was a senior and he was a sophomore, and we hung out together."
Smeenge says entering his hometown Hall of Fame is extra special because it's an honor that again includes Vander Wal. "It's very neat, because we played together in high school, we competed while both of us were stomping around together at Western, and we have remained friends through our professional careers and in retirement from athletics," Smeenge said. "You couldn't write a better script." GRSHF president Mark Kimball describes the Smeenge-Vander Wal relationship as a unique one. "How remarkable that the little community of Hudsonville produced two professional sports figures, who also are good friends, around the same time period," Kimball said. "It's the All-American dream come true, and it's nice we can continue the dream by having both of them become new members of our Hall of Fame, along with three other classy people and a Grand Valley team that began a tremendous Laker football run that is still going strong."
A look at each of the inductees:
Eaddy is 78 and splits his years living in Las Vegas during the winters and back in Grand Rapids during the springs, summers and falls. It was his brother, Don -- an all-state baseball and basketball player who earned 12 varsity letters in baseball, basketball and football at Ottawa Hills before becoming a 1953 baseball All-American at the University of Michigan -- who called to inform him of his selection to the Hall of Fame. "Don called me at 8 in the morning out in Vegas, and said he wanted to congratulate me for being voted into the Grand Rapids Hall," Eaddy said. "I said, 'Come on, Don.' "For both of us to go in is such an honor. I'm really overwhelmed and very, very humbled. I never thought I'd make it up to this level, and that something like this would happen to Jim Eaddy." Eaddy wore many hats as a teacher, administrator/principal, coach and referee. After overcoming racial barriers, he was the first African-American to officiate high school basketball in West Michigan, and the second black official in the Big Ten after officiating in the NCAA Division III Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association and the Division I Mid-American Conference. "I kept putting in applications to officiate in the Big Ten, but kept getting Dear John letters back then before I was finally accepted while in my 40s, which was an old start for a ref," Eaddy said. Eaddy's 11 years as a high school basketball coach included four years at Union and seven at Ottawa Hills, where he led the Bengals to the 1997 state Class A boys basketball championship. Ottawa Hills' 1968, '69 and '97 teams are the only three from West Michigan to win state Class A titles. "Winning the state championship was very, very wonderful. So was being able to officiate two high school basketball finals at Michigan State and working two girls finals," Eaddy said. "But going into the Hall of Fame is so special. I was on its committee for awhile. A lot of great people have come from this area. I am deeply honored." Eaddy was married for 42 years to his wife, Marilyn, who lost her battle with ovarian cancer three years ago. He has two daughters, Michele, 43, and Lisa, 40.
VALERIE (STERK) KEMPER
Volleyball The West Michigan area is considered one of the hotbeds for high school and college volleyball talent. But no one was as good as Kemper, 31. Kemper was an all-state performer as a 1993 graduate of South Christian, and as a standout at Michigan State, she led the Spartans to back-to-back Big Ten championships in 1995 and '96, and to a surprising Division I Final Four berth in 1995. After graduating from MSU in '96, Kemper spent four years as a member of the U.S. Olympic volleyball team. She was one of the final cuts for the 2000 Sydney Games. "Being on the U.S. team was definitely a great experience, and it was an honor to represent my country while wearing USA on my jersey," Kemper said. "I traveled all over the world to represent my country, and while playing against the best in the world, and in major tournaments like the Pan Am Games, the World Championships and the World Cup. "It was heart-crushing not to make the team and play in Sydney. But I figured God had greater plans for me, and I will never forget how much those four years of playing at such a tremendously-high competitive level meant to me." That greater plan came in the form of meeting her husband, Hunter Kemper. "In 2000, the day I found out I would not be traveling with the team to Sydney, I had my first date with Hunter," Valerie said. "God had me stay around just long enough to meet Hunter, which was much more important than making an Olympic team." The Hunters and their four-month-old son, Davis, reside in Colorado Springs, Colo, where Hunter is training as one of the country's top triathletes for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Despite her time with the national volleyball team, Kemper still ranks her success at Michigan State among her most memorable. "I'll never forget my four years at State, and going to the Final Four," she said. "Beating Hawaii in the regional final before a crowd of 10,000 in Hawaii when they were No. 1 was one of the greatest accomplishments in my athletic life." And then there's Kemper's induction into the GRSHF. "It really is an honor," she said. "Grand Rapids will always be my home, with a lot of family there. So to be recognized by people back home, and to be inducted with these other great people, is fantastic."
Football Smeenge will be remembered as one of the top defensive lineman to ever play the game at Western Michigan and for the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars. At Western, the 39-year-old recorded 37 quarterback sacks and set a school record with 18 forced fumbles and 66 tackles for losses. He was the first Mid-American Conference player to be named All-MAC first team three times, and was an honorable mention All-American as a senior. "My biggest memory while in college was obviously winning the MAC championship as a senior and then going to the California Bowl, where we lost to Fresno State," said Smeenge, who starred in basketball, football and track at Hudsonville, and was the school's athlete of the year as a senior. "But my whole high school experience are my greatest memories. The people from the area, those who helped me, my family and friends, the big games ... those are the things that stick with you longer than what you did as a college athlete and a professional." Smeenge was New Orleans' third-round draft pick in 1990, and spent five years as a top substitute and special teams player for the Saints. He was chosen by Jacksonville in the '95 NFL expansion draft, and finished with career 34 sacks that rank second-most in Jaguars history. "I was blessed to be able to enjoy a great career, especially in the NFL," Smeenge said. "Of all my pro memories, the best one was when we played Tennessee in 1999 in the AFC championship game. We lost to the Titans, but that year was just a memorable season." Jacksonville was 13-3 during the '99 regular season. Smeenge retired in 2001 before beginning preseason camp with the Chicago Bears. He lives in Jacksonville with his wife, Donelle, daughters Raquel, 9, and Priscilla, 6, and son Stone, 6. He owns an investment company. He also can't wait to come home to enter the GRSHF. "My relationships with Christ and my family and friends mean more than anything, but it's also quite flattering, to be honest, to go into the Grand Rapids Hall of Fame," Smeenge said. "It probably means as much, or more, to me than any other award I've received, because it's from my hometown area, and from the people I know best."
JOHN VANDER WAL
Baseball Vander Wal, 41, retired from the major leagues after the 2004 season, and remains one of the best pinch-hitters the game's ever seen. After excelling at Hudsonville and Western Michigan, he was a third-round draft pick of the Montreal Expos in 1987 and spent four seasons in the minor leagues before being called up to the majors. While in the big leagues, Vander Wal played for Montreal from 1991-93, Colorado (1994-98), San Diego (1998-99), Pittsburgh (2000-01), San Francisco (2001), the New York Yankees (2002), Milwaukee (2003) and Cincinnati (2004). The first baseman/outfielder had a career .261 batting average, 97 home runs, 430 runs batted in and 374 runs. As a pinch-hitter, Vander Wal left the game ranked first with 28 hits in a season, fifth with 126 all-time hits and third with 17 career homers. "There were a lot of teams and a lot of memories, but two actually come to mind the quickest," Vander Wal said. "The first was my two-run, pinch-hit home run in 1996 against (St. Louis Hall of Fame closer) Dennis Eckersley in Denver. We were eight runs down going into the bottom of the ninth, so he came in just to get some work in. We came back and won the game in literally six minutes, and Eckersley walked off the mound stunned. "The second one was my two-run home run in the 1998 National League Championship Series with San Diego. We lost that game, but the homer put us up at the time, and we did end up going to the World Series." In August, Vander Wal will officially be going into the Grand Rapids Sports Hall of Fame. "This is a huge honor, because it means being voted in by area people who know me since I was playing sports in Hudsonville," he said. "I'm truly tickled to be going in, because there are so many great athletes and great people who are from this area. "All the people who helped me reach my potential, and get to Western and to the majors, are here, like my mother and father, all my coaches and all the people who gave me so much support." Vander Wal resides in Grand Rapids with his wife, Debra, and 10-year-old twins Jacob and Courtney. He's still involved in baseball as his children's Little League coach.
GRAND VALLEY STATE FOOTBALL
2002 NCAA Division II champions In 2001, GVSU suffered a three-point loss to North Dakota to be denied the national crown. The vast majority of that team returned in '02 to run roughshod over the opposition, capped by a 31-24 victory over Valdosta (Ga.) State in the Division II championship game. The Lakers outscored their opponents by a combined 654-231 margin, including a 199-65 margin in four playoff games. Since that inaugural national crown, Grand Valley has gone on to win three more football titles -- including back-to-back championships over the past two seasons -- and a volleyball and women's basketball championship. Grand Valley has claimed the last three U.S. Sports Academy Director's Cups as the top Division II athletic program, and will secure its fourth cup next month. "One of the problems when deciding on a team to vote into the Hall of Fame is figuring out where to start recognizing its success," GRSHF president Mark Kimball said. "But it's obvious that 2002 football championship at Grand Valley sort of got the ball rolling in a big way up to this point in Laker athletics."
BOB BECKER: LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT
For three decades, Bob Becker covered many of the people who are recognized as members of the Grand Rapids Sports Hall of Fame. On Aug. 9, he will join them as the latest winner of the Warren Reynolds Lifetime Achievement Award. "It's a real honor, because it's really amazing when you look at the people this area has produced," said Becker, 63, who will retire this summer from the newspaper business. "You can't help but be impressed when you go down the list of people in our Grand Rapids Hall of Fame. You have major league baseball players, pro basketball players, NFL players, Greg Meyer, Kathy Arendsen, Rosie Zant, .... it's an amazing array of people, and it's very exciting to join such elite company." The Warren Reynolds award is named after the late WOOD-TV sports director and on-air personality who was certainly no stranger to Becker. "Warren and I were really good friends," Becker said. "He was a special person, and one of the most likable, honest and friendly men you could ever meet, so this award is extra special." Grand Rapids Sports Hall of Fame president Mark Kimball said he was pleased with the selection. "Bob is a local legend," Kimball said. "Bob painted the pictures and told the stories for area sports fans for 30 years. He was a strong advocate of women's sports and West Michigan sports. "Behind the scenes, Bob has held roles in helping to make Grand Rapids a well-known minor league sports town, and in the creation of Van Andel Arena. His many accomplishments need to be recognized, and we're excited to be able to do that."