Sending in the old guard

Tom Schrage (right) may spend a lot of time warming the bench, but at 33 he feels pleased just to be one of Northern Kentucky's six freshman backcourtmen
February 11, 1980

Tom Schrage is a nut. What married man with two kids would trade a secure job as a union local president to play college basketball? Schrage, that's who. He is the oldest player at Northern Kentucky, a commuter school located just across the river from Cincinnati. The other players call him Pops—not for his deadly jump shot, but because he's 33.

Schrage always wanted to play college ball but never had the time or the opportunity. Scrawny, almost frail as a boy, he started only half the games during his senior year at Covington (Ky.) Catholic High. On graduating he went to a technical school in Louisville to learn electronics. Then, in rapid order, came a stint in the Army, marriage, kids and bills. On weekends he played in industrial leagues. Once he scored 61 points. He went up against college guys, local heroes from the University of Cincinnati. He knew he could play. "You're really great," friends told Schrage after he was named Most Valuable Player in one of the leagues. That set him to wondering how good he might have been...if. There was no doubt Schrage excelled at almost everything he tried. In one 19-day span in the Army he jumped three ranks. At AT&T in Cincinnati he started as a technician, living in a mobile home. Less than 10 years later he headed up Local 4351 of the Communications Workers of America, made $24,000 a year and owned a $100,000 home and an apartment building.

But last April Schrage gave it all up because he wanted to find out if he could play college basketball. His wife, Ginger, was flabbergasted, but after a few arguments she came around. Schrage called a few local college coaches, but got no encouragement. Finally he planted himself in the office of University of Cincinnati Coach Ed Badger, who seemed interested. But then Badger recruited a point guard from Kentucky who was 15 years younger than Schrage. In desperation Schrage turned to his old Covington coach, Mote Hils, now the coach at Northern Kentucky, a Division II school of 8,000 students.

"You're kidding!" Hils exclaimed. Hils, whose salary is $21,000 a year, had never recruited a player who was making more money than he was. But Hils was also coming off his first losing season since 1975 and needed guards, so Schrage got a basketball scholarship.

With the $180 a month from Northern Kentucky, another $450 a month from the GI Bill, the income from his apartment house and Ginger's job as a secretary at Procter & Gamble, Schrage figured he could make it. He started training like Rocky. Last winter he would come home from work around midnight and run several miles through the snowy neighborhood streets. Often icicles would form on his beard. He lifted weights and jumped rope. During the summer Ginger rebounded his practice shots in the driveway. From 15 feet Schrage would shoot 50 times, and if he didn't make at least 40, he'd shoot another 50.

There is a basketball phrase "He plays bigger," referring to players who can compete evenly against taller opponents. Schrage, who is a 5'11" guard, plays bigger, and not only in basketball. Leading a local of 650 members isn't a job for a shallow-witted, frivolous person. Schrage has ash-blond hair, a beard and a puppet's body that is all arms and legs, but his voice is deep and serious, his manner studious and thoughtful. He can lead men. In a bedroom drawer at home is a Bronze Star he won in Vietnam.

But don't get the idea that Schrage is a bare-chested type with a knife between his teeth. He met his wife in church, for instance, and now serves as a deacon and chairman of the finance committee at the Lakeside Christian Church in Lakeside Park, Ky. When he got out of the Army in 1970, it hurt him that many people regarded him as a pariah. They didn't understand that to him Vietnam was a job, something he had to do.

Going to college has turned out to be another tough job. A fire in his apartment house wiped out a large chunk of income and the $20,000 damage was only partially insured; he had to borrow from the bank. And the GI Bill expires in the spring. Plus, Schrage isn't playing a lot; he has seen action in only seven of 19 games and has scored just 0.4 points per appearance. But he had a 3.2 grade average in his first semester of studying business management. If he can keep the roof over his family's head, he plans to go on. "I don't want to get into an area where it's not fair for the rest of my family," he says. "That's what scares me. I had it made before, but I had to give up my retirement at AT&T, even my profit sharing. Before the basketball, my life was set financially. Now there's no guarantee that even with the college education I'll get a better job than I had. Where I worked, there were a lot of college graduates hiring on as clerks, and they were happy to get those jobs."

Schrage is one of six freshman guards at Northern Kentucky, and the only one who doesn't jump as high or run as fast as he did three years ago. "I am slower, but I think: 'Am I slow because I'm older or because I'm not jumping rope enough?' " he asks. He also ruminates about Walt Frazier, who retired at 34. "And he was nothing when he quit. I'll be 34 this May. If one of the greatest ever can fall apart despite playing every day, am I in the same boat? That's what makes it so rough."

When practice started last fall, those nights of winter running had Schrage far ahead of the younger players in conditioning. He led them in a 12-minute run. So far he is the only player who hasn't missed a day of practice, although when he comes home after workouts he barely can get out of his car. "But the next day I feel fine," he says. "It's almost like I'm immune to the pain. I feel that if I broke a toe before a game, I still would be able to go out and play."

The hard part is sitting on the bench, especially for someone accustomed to moving up through the ranks. Schrage is an excellent shooter; somewhere in the last 15 years he picked up the knack of shooting his jumper ambidextrously. But on defense he appears to be wearing his old Army boots. "I'm feeling a little weird because I'm not playing as much as I could," he says. "I know I can be pretty explosive. I'm not satisfied, but that doesn't mean I want to quit. My defense has been bad, but it's improving. I'm going to lift weights and build myself up. Next year I'll be better."

If Schrage had stayed with AT&T, he could've moved up to an even better-paid job with management. Now all he has are two free pairs of basketball shoes each season, an education and a lot of satisfaction. But he's happy with the decision. The game is important to him. Whenever Schrage considered buying a new house, he made sure it had space to put up a goal and a net. When he joined his church, he checked if it had a basketball team. Pulling on his college uniform had a calming effect. Says Schrage, "It resolves forever the question: 'Could I have done it?' It would have followed me for the rest of my life."

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