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About 20 years ago, I got into the Special Olympics world. My brother, Stephen, was an athlete and was at the age where he could start going to the state games, both winter and summer. My dad took over as his coach and they found snowshoeing would be his best sport to begin with.
Steve was good at snowshoeing. Taking after our mom’s side of the family, he was long and tall, very helpful when running with huge shoes on your feet in the snow. It was quickly evident he needed to go to the State Winter Games to see if he could medal in some of these events.
I didn’t g up to Traverse City every year but when I was in college, I volunteered twice. I went to the Opening Ceremonies every time I was there. The stars of the show were these guys in green jackets. They were normal looking guys lead by a Tigers legend. They were the Wertz Warriors.
The Wertz Warriors were an endurance snowmobile group started in 1982 by former Detroit Tigers player Vic Wertz. He wanted to raise money for the Special Olympics through a long ride through Northern Michigan. He got together a group of six friends to join and they took off. From there they started raising more money, adding more riders and support crew and it has grown to a group that can pay FULLY for the Special Olympics State Winter Games by themselves.
Wertz died just three years after starting the ride but those early riders kept it going, adding Tigers legend Mark The Bird” Fidrych to the roster. He was there when I started in with Special Olympics.
I never gave a whole lot of thought to the group other than supreme thanks. Even then, if they weren’t there, my parents would have paid for my brother to go…it wasn’t my money. But I quickly realized, not many athletes had that luxury of a family that could pay the way for an experience like the State Winter Games and a stay at a resort like Grand Traverse for three days. But because of the Wertz Warriors, they could.
I started working for 9&10 News in 2010. When it came time for the State Winter Games to roll around I, of course, pitched going out to cover them on their ride. I covered their ride for five years as a reporter on the outside, looking in, looking for a way to get the story done early in the day so I could be free to go up to the Opening Ceremonies on Wednesday to be with my family.
While covering the group, the chairman, Ken Mattei was always pushing me to join. They are desperate for new members, especially young ones. I always brushed it off, I didn’t own a sled and barely had ay experience riding one. But Ken persisted.
Eventually in 2016, I broke down and decided to join. At the time I lived in Grand Rapids and every other rider was in metro Detroit or up in Northern Michigan. Ken supplied me with a sled and I didn’t raise any funds, just paid my own way. I only rode for the first half of the week because February is sweeps month in our business and I couldn’t take it off. I was a Wertz Warrior though, at that point.
After that, I got clearance to take the whole week to ride and have done so ever since. When the weather cooperated, we rode across Northern Michigan, stopping in small towns, at local establishments raising money, collecting checks and bringing up the awareness of our cause.
Every year we pay $285,000 to Special Olympics Michigan to COMPLETELY cover the cost of the Winter Games but we regularly raise more than $400,000, with the rest going back to the local Special Olympics areas in the form of grants.
So I say all that to say, Sunday we kick off our 2019 ride. Mother Nature has gifted us with PLENTY of snow and a *bit* of cold weather for the week. We should be able to ride every mile of our ride this year which is very exciting, as long as we avoid frostbite.
I will be here with you every evening of the ride recapping the day’s events and looking ahead to the next day’s itinerary. I will have photos and vides of the action, including a story Tuesday night when we stop in Cadillac and we will be live on Michigan This Morning on Wednesday, January 30th as we take off from Cadillac on our way to the Opening Ceremonies in Traverse City.
Please keep checking in as the week progresses and support the Wertz Warriors and Special Olympics Michigan in every way you can. The difference we can all make in their lives in priceless.
See you along the trail.
10:00 AM – Skidway Lake American Legion
12:00 PM – Sand Lake Sports Bar
1:45 PM – T&C Sports Lounge (Au Gres)
3:30 PM – Hank’s (Alger)
4:30 PM – Home Pub (Alger)
5:45 PM Quality Inn (West Branch)