Valley Pike: Real-life ‘Hoosier’

Posted: October 24, 2012

Real-life ‘Hoosier’

“Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead.”

— 1 Samuel 17:49

“Remember David? We didn’t have any stones.”

— Rollin Cutter

WOODSTOCK — One was a marbles champion. Another excelled at mumblety-peg, a game played with a pocket knife.

Still another played the piano by ear. If he didn’t know a song, he’d ask you to hum a few bars and then, more often than not, he’d bang it out on the keys.

Many in the group were fine baseball players, veterans of the ol’ Knot-Hole Gang for kids at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field, less than two hours away.

But their collective passion, as it was for so many boys in Indiana back then (and now), was basketball, and they honed their skills on goals nailed to the sides of a barns, with gunny sacks serving as nets.

All told, they were champions, whose fame endures not only amidst the Indiana sycamores, but across America as well. They were the boys of Milan High, the real-life inspiration for the similarly enduring — and thoroughly endearing — motion picture “Hoosiers.”

What they weren’t was anything like the kids who essentially portrayed them in the film. “We were too vanilla,” says Rollin Cutter, a sophomore guard on that magical 1954 Milan team, matter-of-factly.

Two weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure to hear Rollin speak to the Woodstock Rotary, of which his daughter Marcia, a resident of Stephens City who works in Shenandoah County, is a member.

I am a huge — make that HUGE — “Hoosiers” fan, so when informed by my buddies Ken Rice and Bob Claytor (I was Bob’s guest) of Rollin’s appearance, I knew it was something I would not want to miss.

It wasn’t. From Rollin I learned the two Hoosiers, David Anspaugh and Angelo Pizzo, who made the film, stuck to the basic facts: tiny rural school (Milan, but Hickory in the flick) beats big-city power (Muncie Central/South Bend Central) on a last-second shot in the state’s legendary but since discontinued open championship.

But that’s where the similarities end. Their coach was not a grizzled veteran (of the college ranks andthe Navy) who falls for the comely assistant principal, but rather a “meek and mild” twentysomething. And, as Rollin’s wife, Maridee, hastened to tell me, there was no “Shooter” either, the alcoholic assistant coach who wins a game by running the “Picket Fence” play.

Still, much as the movie depicts the mythical Hickory Huskers, the Milan Indians were special, the pride of a small Midwestern town that still finds reason to be proud of them to this day. A small museum in downtown Milan honors the team and its accomplishments, as well it should, for this group remains an accomplished bunch.

Nine of the 10 players went on to college, and six — Rollin included — became teachers and coaches. One is a science professor. The piano player? Well, he ended up on Broadway. And the player who hit the tell-tale shot, Bobby Plump, owns a restaurant, “Plump’s Last Shot,” that his teammates kiddingly call “Plump’s Lucky Shot.”

They hold a reunion every year where the golden memories continue to glow. Rollin especially recalls how, on the night of the championship game, his friends and neighbors sang “Happy Birthday” to him from the stands of Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse. And he remembers the celebratory bonfire.

“I stopped by my favorite girl’s house that day,” he said. “I brought her back to the bonfire, and I brought her here today.”

Some things, you see, are forever. “Milan is still compared to David,” Rollin says. “They call it a legendary game, a legendary time. But in Ripley County where I grew up, they just call it the ‘Milan Miracle.’”