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  • 20 Oct 2014

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Breakfast with the amazing Andy Landforce, 96-year-old 1942 OSU Beavers Rose Bowl player

ANDY LANDFORCEAndy Landforce walks briskly into the dining room at Tommy's Restaurant in Corvallis, looking very much like the loser in a mixed-martial arts brawl.

The 5-8, 165-pound Landforce's wears a butterfly bandage over the mouse under his left eye. His broken left hand is wrapped to the elbow, and his right pinky has more zigs and zags than U.S. Route 20 to Newport.

It's the result of a recent spill off a curb that has left Landforce a bit perplexed and makes shaking hands difficult.

It's a particular cause for concern when you consider Landforce is 96.

"I don't pay much attention to my age, but my doctor was amazed," Landforce says. "When he found out about my fall, he was real concerned about brain damage. He was telling me how lucky I was that I didn't break a hip."

This is my first face-to-face meeting with Landforce, the only living member of Oregon State's Rose Bowl team of 1942. We've spoken on the phone a couple of times as I've researched for a book I'm writing, "Civil War Football -- Oregon vs. Oregon State," which will be published next July.

I'd never heard of Landforce before I began the book project. At the close of an interview with Steve Bielenberg -- he's the guy who punched the Duck mascot before the 1971 Civil War game at Autzen Stadium -- the former OSU defensive end asked, "Have you spoken with Andy Landforce?"

Bielenberg filled me in on Landforce and gave me his phone number. The next day, I called Andy and found myself totally charmed by this delightful old gentleman whose repertoire and portfolio extend far beyond football.

Through the book project, I've become acquainted with Billy Main, the ex-Beaver halfback great of the late 1960s. Main, who lives in Lafayette, Calif., arranged to meet me and with his daughter, Kimberly -- a budding OSU freshman -- for breakfast prior to the Beavers' season opener with Eastern Washington two weeks ago.

During our conversation, the subject of Andy Landforce came up. When I told him about Landforce, Main was intrigued and said meeting Landforce was now firmly on his bucket list.

In a matter of minutes, our breakfast group had a fourth.

Landforce -- who spent 30 years as a fish and wildlife specialist at Oregon State, then worked another 15 years as a professional fishing guide -- remembered Main and remarked, "what a nice boost for an ego to have someone of that stature show interest in me."

So it was that Main and I were a bit shocked to see Landforce in such a state of physical disrepair at Tommy's. Andy soon proved, though, that there was no brain damage, that he was none the worse for wear and every bit the remarkable creature he has been through nearly a century of life on this planet.

Landforce was not a star on the famed Oregon State team that beat Duke 20-16 in the transplanted Rose Bowl game at Durham, N.C. -- the only Rose Bowl game ever staged outside of Pasadena.

Nor was he a starter. He describes himself as a "third-string right halfback" who backed up star Bob Dethman for coach Lon Stiner's Beavers.

"I only got in games when we got way ahead," Landforce allows. "I was little, but I could leave some of the real good guys in their tracks in practice. I was pretty quick, and even though I was little, I enjoyed a good collision."

Landforce went out for the Oregon State College football team only as a senior. He was president of the student body, "and that was a way of bringing the student body closer to the team," he says, articulating a theory that seems quaint and a bit farfetched in this much different period more than 70 years later.

As he slowly works on a bowl of oatmeal, Landforce launches into a story about turning out for high school football as a 15-year-old freshman in Snoqualmie, Wash., in 1932, the adopted son of a couple that ran a farm.

"I was a farm boy in a logging community where farmers' kids are supposed to be too stupid to do anything else" but farm, Landforce says. "I turned out for football as a 5-8, 150-pound freshman. There were 23 of us; I get the No. 23 jacket. I was finding it real fun. I could hit you and knock you flat from the side.

"Then it came time to learn to tackle straight on. I couldn't do it. Every time you'd come running straight at me, I'm kicking out. The coach kept saying, 'Andy, you got a pad on your head and your shoulders and power in your legs, now drive under him.' I flat-out couldn't do it.

"Mother Landforce absolutely didn't want me to play ball. There was work to do on the farm. Father Landforce had never seen a ballgame in his life, but I told him I enjoyed it. I could throw the ball, and I could duck some of the bigger guys when I was running the ball. But I couldn't tackle straight on. It was terrible. Nobody wants to be called a sissy."

One afternoon a few days after practice begins, Landforce approached his father.

"He was out milking cows," Andy says. "That was always the best time for us to visit. Father Landforce asked, 'How did practice go today?' In the little town of Snoqualmie, you don't lie. So I said, 'I quit. I can't tackle straight on.' Big silence. Then he said, 'Andrew, you let yourself down. You let the team down. What did the coach say?' I told him I didn't talk to the coach -- it's none of his business. He said, 'You have to talk to the coach and apologize to the team for quitting.'

"Well, I couldn't do that. I couldn't hardly sleep that night. The next day I went into study hall and Coach Clay said, 'Andy, we missed you at practice last night. I hope you're not injured.' I told him I can't tackle straight on. He said, 'You're one of the better players. We'd like to have you on the team. You looked like you were enjoying it.' "

Landforce chose to rejoin the team. In Snoqualmie's third game, against Issaquah, came a breakthrough.

"We were playing our regular seven-diamond defense," he recalls. "They put me in for Art Martindale at end. Here comes the ball carrier straight at me. I lowered my head, hit him straight on and knocked him flat, for a gain of one yard. Just then I know what it means when a tackler says, 'Bring on the whole team.' The emotions are fabulous. The next play was an end-around, and I dropped him for two yards loss. When I came out of the game, I stood beside the coach and I want a compliment real badly. I want recognition for one of the biggest achievements in my life. Nothing. Never said anything."

That night, Andy and his father were milking cows when he was asked how the game went.

"I tell him I got to play two plays and I tackled the guy straight on and nobody said a word," Landforce says. "Big silence. Then Father Landforce said, 'You know, Andrew, the coach didn't have any reason to compliment you. You just did what you were supposed to do.'

"Think about the challenges we all have in life, and we just do what we were supposed to. It was a big guidepost in my life all the way through. I'm sitting here today because I didn't quit. And if it weren't for football, I wouldn't be here, either."

After Landforce graduated from high school in 1935, he spent two years working in gold mines in Fairbanks, Alaska. He was thinking about a career as a meat cutter.

"We cut our own veal and other meats on the farm," he says. "It was a way I could get away from common labor."

While in Alaska, though, a biological surveyor told him if he got a degree in fisheries and wildlife at Oregon State, he'd guarantee him a job "at top dollar."

Landforce enrolled at OSC in 1938 and quickly made a name for himself. Meanwhile, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, changing the lives of male college students throughout the country.

"The (military) orders came to a lot of men at Oregon State," he says. "They had to quit school right then and go into the service. Because I was student body president and active in the ROTC program, I was deferred."

Upon graduation in 1942, though, Landforce's deferment was lifted.

"You can't imagine what a disappointment I went through when I got the mail and I was ordered into the service," he says.

Nevertheless, Landforce launched into a distinguished Army career, much of it spent as commander of a company of 300 black soldiers that served more than two years in Europe. He was the only white, taking over for a white commander who had been murdered by one of his black troops.

"I took over a mutinous company," he says. "I learned how to be a supervisor of people I didn't know anything about. I didn't know the customs of the African-American soldiers. My sergeant pointed out the six soldiers I had to be aware of. I always carried a loaded gun with me through those years. I count my blessings that I made it through."

As the war neared an end in 1945, the company was ordered to the South Pacific.

"We went from Munich to France, then on a ship through the Mediterranean Sea and the Panama Canal, to the Solomon Islands and up to New Guinea, and we finally hit the beaches in the Philippines," he says. "It was an interesting, intense experience."

Upon his discharge from the Army in 1946, Landforce was hired by Oregon State as a fish and wildlife extension agent, serving for eight years in Joseph in Wallowa County. In 1954, he moved to Corvallis to begin a 20-year stint as a specialist in wildlife management on campus. He retired in 1973 and spent the next 15 years as a fishing guide, working the Alsea, Siletz, Deschutes and Rogue rivers.

"Met some of the finest people you'd ever want to meet," he says.

Andy and his wife, Evelyn, lived a wonderful life through their years in Corvallis, raising daughters Diane and Debora and son John. They were married 69 years until Evelyn succumbed to cancer a year and a half ago at age 89.

"He misses her tremendously," says Debora, 61, who works in Eugene but lives in Corvallis. "They were an amazing, fine-tuned team. In his early 90s, he was a full-time care-giver for mom during her three-year battle with cancer. Cooking, house cleaning, personal care, getting up at night with her, doctor's appointments. … we didn't have any in-home care. That's how dedicated and capable he was.

"We helped some toward the end and were continually offering to pay for help, but he felt strongly that's what he wanted to do, that it was part of his role. He performed it beautifully. When I think of things I'm very proud of him for, that's at the top of the list. It was astounding. We were relieved for him in some ways when it ended."

Debora believes her father has dealt well with the natural grieving process of losing a life partner. Andy says he has his moments.

"The other day, I finished breakfast and the dishes and was in the front room reading the newspaper," he says. "And I found myself saying, 'Hey, Evelyn, did you read this column?' Then it hits you: She's not there and never will be.

"But isn't it wonderful that you feel this badly? You had all the years to prepare to get to the point where you feel this terrible for the loss of the love of your life. Every once in a while, when you get on the edge of depression, you start counting your blessings for having lived a tremendous, colorful life. People have helped me, and I like to help people. That has a lot of emotional value."

Friends abound.

"Social support is the No. 1 factor in grief," Debora says. "He has support from so many people who knew them and loved them as a couple. People have really stepped up. We have to get on Dad's calendar to see him. He prioritizes us, thank goodness, but you can't by any means assume you can go over and have dinner with Dad. People are going to be over there."

People who meet Landforce today are immediately struck by how lucid he is of mind and sound of body. Born on Feb. 7, 1917, he is closing in on on a century of life.

"You're a slam dunk for 100," Main tells Landforce during breakfast.

"Thank you, Billy," Landforce says with a laugh. "You know what? I have a friend who bought a birthday card for a 100-year-old. And he says to me, 'You gotta live to be 100, so I get my money's worth.'

"The key is eating right, exercise and keeping the heart moving."

"Do you drink whiskey?" Main asks mischievously.

"No, never have," Landforce says. "Never drank, never smoked. I never started. In this world we live in, every person can be your teacher if you're willing to learn. My friends have taught me not to do some things. I had friends in high school when we played ball, good guys from nice families. On Saturday nights in the summertime, we'd go out dancing and they'd get drunk and their personality would change."

Landforce stays active. One of his favorite means of exercise is hiking up Bald Hill three times a week.

"Need to get my heart up to at least 80 (beats a minute)," he says. "I have to really push it. You have to grit your teeth to get it up to 90."

I was surprised to learn Landforce is still driving.

"He drives great," Debora says. After he took his recent spill, "I followed him to the doctor and back. When we go fishing, he pulls the boat trailer with his (Toyota) 4runner and off we go. He has a pretty good sense of what's safe and not, which I appreciate. He puts his own limits."

That's right, Landforce remains a hunter and a fisherman. The last time he went hunting -- for deer -- was last year. The last time he went fishing -- for bass -- was last week. By himself, at nearby Lake Winkle.

"Didn't get any fish," he says. "Still fun. Very moderate exercise, and I've been successful enough over the years. The pleasure of casting while fishing for bass and putting a lure through some of the spots … it takes total concentration. You're angling. Bass fishing is like shooting free throws. You have a little target to hit, and every once in a while I make a good free throw.

"I sit there in the middle (of the boat), line up three fishing rods and put them out with a couple of different lures. You want to be nice to those fish and give them some choices."

Andy was thrilled when on Debora's recent birthday, she asked him to take her fishing.

"That kind of subconscious bonding and love in the family goes back forever," he says.

It's something Landforce and his kids have done together forever.

"But he also loves going out on his own," she says, "and it's very unusual for Dad to not catch a fish on every trip. He loves taking other people, all his fishing buddies, but there's something about being out on the water alone that's very restorative to him. It's his formula for rest and meditation."

Landforce continues to attend Oregon State football games. He has had season tickets since 1954.

"Do you like Mike Riley as a coach?" Main asks him.

"I like him as a person," Landforce says. "Mike and his wife (Dee) go walking the same place I do. I know him real well. He reminds me very much of Lon Stiner. He's a positive-thinking person. I've never heard him make a derogatory statement about the ballplayers. When you make a mistake, that's history. Just learn from it and go on."

When I ask Debora about the secret to her father's longevity, she offers a lengthy, thoughtful response.

"There are a number of things," she says. "He is so involved with people and with the activities he loves. We laugh sometimes. He says, 'I'm too busy to die.' The Oregon State football season is starting. The bass are still biting. His social calendar is totally full. He has people he needs to see. He corresponds a lot, writes letters to friends. There is always somebody he wants to get back to.

"Friends stay with him if they come into town. He is very involved in our lives. The three of (his children) take turns being with him every weekend, and we love it. Every day when he wakes up, there is something he really wants to do. He's active, with purposeful things to do."

Landforce continues to live at the home on West Hills Road home where he and Evelyn lived for more than 50 years. He has more than an acre of land on the property.

"He just barely got the lawn mowed and fertilized before it rained last week," Debora says. "He has to pick the pears and blueberries and tend to the roses. There's always something that needs to be done seasonally."

Fitness and health has been a life-long focus.

"You would never find anybody more tuned to his own body in a good way than Dad," she says. "It's been amazing forever. He continued to be very athletic. He knows exactly what he needs to do to keep his body functioning. After he wakes up, he stretches, drinks a glass of water and begins exercises he does several times a day. We all learn about the importance of those things, but then we don't do them. He does them.

"At night, he lies down flat on the floor beside his bed to relax his spine. He does sit-ups and pushups and flexion exercises for his legs, so when he goes to bed, he is completely relaxed. He goes to bed in this state he knows he needs to be in."

Landforce gets in exercise outdoors every day the weather permits. The hike up Bald Hill is his favorite.

"He walks until he gets to his target heart rate and maintains it for 12 minutes," Debora says. "He'll sometimes run backward or sideways for his balance. He has three routes he takes -- short, medium and long. He used to shoot baskets until his backboard got dilapidated. Every day there is something he does that is intentionally active to get the heart rate up."

Diet is critical, too.

"He eats fish three to four times a week -- usually steelhead, salmon or trout," Debora says. "He has gotten fresh Omega 3 and fish oil in his diet throughout his whole life. My mom was an excellent cook who studied nutrition at Oregon State. He had excellently planned-out meals three times a day for his entire life, and that has to make a difference. I credit Mom a lot for his health. She encouraged him every day to get out and do what he needed to do.

"And his job was very active -- cleaning fish ponds, hiking, traveling the state. Then after he retired, being a fishing guide was a natural extension, and he worked into his 70s doing that. For 45 years, doing something you absolutely love every day -- that has to help."

Debora has one more thought.

"I would add 'gratitude,' " she says. "Since he came from nothing and lived through the Depression, he never takes anything for granted and is profoundly grateful for all that he is given, be it in the form of help, time or treasure. He is the least entitled person I know. He is completely non-pretentious and does not see himself as being more or deserving more than anyone else. He is a joy to be around for so many reasons, but his genuine gratitude for others, and for life itself, stands out.

"He has the habit of spontaneously thanking others. Those who have crossed his path often are the recipient of a phone call or note to express his gratitude. He allots time each day to connect with those who have helped him and made his life better. When I call him to see how his day is going, he tells me first about where he took his walk that day, and then who he had a chance to get a note off to. These rituals of living frame his day and his attitude.

"Dad was not raised in a religious environment, so the practice of gratitude did not come from the wisdom traditions. For him, it is simply what he has found works over a lifetime of learning."

During the course of our breakfast, Landforce relates a story about a person he knew during his time living in Joseph more than 60 years ago, when Ted Daggett was 12 and Landforce a young man. Part of Landforce's duties at the time was to run the 4-H club, of which Daggett was a member.

"Teddy is now living in a retirement home in Joseph," Landforce says. "He recently fell down and broke a hip. While he was laying there thinking of all the people who have influenced his life, he decided to call me. We talked about the things we did so many years ago."

A few days later, when I check with Landforce via phone, he says Daggett and his wife are en route to Corvallis for a visit with a man to whom he feels indebted.

"When a 76-year-old man thanks you for what you did for him when he was 12, that feeds your ego," Landforce says. "It warms the cockles of your heart. It also makes you know you're getting pretty far down twilight lane."

So far, Landforce remains extraordinarily self-sufficient. I asked Debora if the children had considered moving Andy into a retirement home.

"That's never going to happen," she says. "Nothing against the homes --- there are some really nice ones. But Dad is the kind of person who will go along 100 percent, and if anything happens where he can't be active and proactive in his life, I don't think he'll have a prolonged illness. He's too finely tuned."

Debora is reading her father's intentions right.

"My goal is to keep active right up to the very end," he says, "then conk out and don't bother the family."

As we bid each adieu upon our first meeting, Landforce offers a salutation:

"Wishing you a day of happiness without a special reason."

Ah, but breakfast with Andy Landforce is a special reason.

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