MUNSTER -- About 25 years ago, I met a man for the first time. I had read about him in my younger days. The resume was off the charts. A tall, fit man with the Sargent Carter haircut.
My knees were knocking together the first time I met John Friend.
Like the first time I was face to face with longtime Hobart coach Don Howell, I was scared to death standing in the shadows of such greatness.
But I was quickly observant of such kindness, grace and humility, a refreshing aspect these days.
On Friday night at the Lake Central-Munster football game, I met Friend again. The 84-year-old walked slower than before. Age had slowed the Legend of Region sports. But his spirit was the same, simply beautiful.
“This makes you feel good,” Friend said.
In front of a packed house, Munster High officially honored Friend by renaming its athletic complex after the man who started the Mustangs’ sports teams. He was also inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame.
But it took a long time to get here from there, which was a much different place.
He grew up in Lowell but moved to Cedar Lake in fifth grade. His father was a plumber and his mother a housewife. Money was not hanging on trees in the backyard.
“I hitchhiked to Crown Point High School,” Friend said. “It got cold sometimes.”
He was an all-state football and basketball player at C.P. before graduating in 1953.
Yes, these were different times.
“My mother never saw me play one game,” he added.
Friend played basketball at David Lipscomb in Tennessee and was a star there. He graduated and coached at Southern Illinois for a year. He returned home and coached at Merrillville for one year, He assisted Dick Demaree in football and Edward Engelhart in basketball. Both men had the Pirates’ home field and court named after them.
Friend was then off to Pepperdine for three years to coach football and basketball.
“I worked with some great coaches who helped me learn how to get better. I can’t thank them enough,” he said.
He returned to Hammond High and assisted Bernie Krueger to the 1962 Mythical State Championship. At that time the idea of Munster High School began. Kreuger was offered to lead the Mustangs’ athletics and he turned it down. Friend was next on the list.
He accepted. History was made.
Friend was athletic director and football coach for 16 years. He was 119-32 in a time before the current state tournament format. Leroy Marsh took over Munster’s football program as Friend moved on to coach and lead Purdue Calumet’s programs.
“John is a life-long friend and I am so happy he’s getting the recognition he so richly deserves,” Marsh said. “He’s been like a father and big brother to me. I can’t say enough about what John Friend has meant to athletics in Northwest Indiana.”
Friend was hired as Purdue Calumet’s AD in July of 1980. The member of the Indiana Football Hall of Fame, one of six HOFs he’s a member of, had nine state champions at Munster during his reign. Then Friend took his AD knowledge to Hammond, where the athletic programs have had great success through the years.
He is currently Director of Athletics Emeritus at Purdue Northwest.
His wife, Betty, passed away this summer. His children -- Tracy, Jerri and Doug -- were at Munster’s football field on Friday night, where the sign “John E. Friend Athletic Complex” should shine for many years to come.
“I am proud that I started a first-class athletic program with great kids and great coaches,” Friend said. “We worked hard to do things the right way and I believe we accomplished that.”
“First class” and doing things the right way is the perfect way to define John Friend’s life.
Coach, you deserve this honor and I am so happy you got to experience this night.
God bless you and your family, just like you’ve blessed Da Region by just being here for so long.