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Winning Big in the Game of Life

March 2014 | by Craig DeVrieze


You don't need a St. Ambrose degree to know baseball isn't rocket science.

Or that the challenge of playing college football, significant as that might be, pales next to learning the law at night while upholding it by day.

Or that playing basketball well enough to help launch a campus-wide passion for the women's game is not nearly as rewarding as spending a career on the frontlines for US national security.

Yet, it was under the oaks where Jeff Stebel '07 played baseball and developed an imagination for engineering that has led him to a role in building what may be the next rocket ship the US sends into space.

After playing football well enough at St. Ambrose to win the attention of the Chicago Bears, Mitchell Ware '55 earned a law degree while working in drug enforcement on Chicago's meanest streets. He next worked as a Chicago TV reporter, then led state and city-wide police agencies, then built Illinois' largest minority-led law partnership, and then served as a justice of the Circuit Court of Cook County.

Carleen Forler '89, meanwhile, enjoyed a Hall of Fame career in basketball and softball. She still holds every school record for women's basketball assists and was the floor leader for a Queen Bees squad that finished third in the nation. Forler also kept her eye on the ball in the classroom. The St. Ambrose criminal justice degree she earned has helped her carve a near quarter-century-long career in the Secret Service and the Homeland Security Agency.

Win.

Win.

And win again.

In the scorebook that matters most, it is fully developed lives such as these that truly define success for athletic programs at St. Ambrose University.

***

The concept of the student-athlete has sometimes been muddied at large universities that too often serve as stopovers for professional athletes-in-waiting.

At St. Ambrose, however, academics and athletics are the truest of teammates.

"Just about everybody knew why they were here," said Mike Poster '88, a former Fighting Bees all-district football lineman who is putting his accounting degree to good use as his alma mater's vice president for finance. "They knew they were a step slow or 20 pounds too light to play at a bigger school or even think of going on after that. Definitely, academics was the first thing."

They continue to be. In the past 2½ years alone, 20 St. Ambrose athletes have been recognized as academic All-Americans. Since 2008, 68 SAU teams and 258 individual athletes have been honored as National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Scholars.

The graduation rate for Bees who complete their athletic eligibility here exceeds the national average, and student-athletes are not just getting by; in 2012-13, SAU's student-athletes posted a composite 3.1 grade point average.

Such success doesn't happen by chance. It happens with the help of dedicated coaches, advisers and faculty.

Mandy Streu, an eight-time national qualifier in track and field and the runner-up in the indoor shot put in 2012, graduated this past May with a 3.8 GPA. That's more remarkable than it seems, considering she nearly failed to meet eligibility requirements one semester into her stay at SAU.

"I kind of had the ‘freshman excitement' going that first semester," said Streu, who carried a 4.0 GPA over her final six semesters and now is in her first year as a pre-school special education teacher in Davenport. "After talking to track coach Dan Tomlin '05, '10 MBA and a couple of professors, I cracked the whip and got things under control."

Her story is not atypical.

"I played with guys who might not have stuck it out and gotten a degree," Poster said. "But you could see that once they got to be part of the program and saw their friends not only spending a lot of time in the weight room, but also on academics, that influenced them.

"In a positive way, the peer pressure got to them."

***

Jeff Stebel did not struggle to make the grade.

Told by his older brother at an early age that he would need good grades to compete in sports, Stebel decided not to settle for just good.

"My competitive nature kicked in and I was like, ‘If I have to get good grades, I'm going to get A's and B's,'" said the Rock Island, Ill., native, who graduated from SAU with a 3.4 GPA.

Stebel came to St. Ambrose to play first base. He contributed to a runner-up finish at the NAIA Nationals during his freshman campaign. As a junior, he compiled a .435 batting average.

Not initially on his radar was the SAU industrial engineering degree that has led to his position as a systems engineer working on a potential replacement for NASA's space shuttle.

jeff stebel"I changed my major four or five times before I decided engineering was the best fit," he said.

Once he chose a career path, Stebel excelled. He earned a master's degree at Oregon State University, and then got a job assisting on NASA's Orion Project, which aims to build a vehicle capable of deep space exploration.

Today, he is among 150 bright, young engineering minds working for the Sierra Nevada Corp., which is looking to take the Dream Chaser Project from blueprint to runway and then, potentially, to the International Space Station and beyond.

Dream Chaser is the only vehicle capable of a runway landing among four commercially constructed spacecraft NASA will consider to replace the decommissioned space shuttle. It also is being considered by two foreign nations to carry their crews to the space station.

Clearly, part of something wondrous, Stebel said he does wonder where he might be today were it not for the lure of playing baseball at St. Ambrose.

"Without my educational experiences at SAU," he said, "I would not have had the launching pad to get me to where I am today. When opportunity knocks, you have to take advantage and try and enrich your life and see where it takes you."

***

More than a third of St. Ambrose undergraduate students-and more than half of this year's first-year class-participate in one of the school's 23 varsity sports.

Rosters this year include 20 international students and another 100 who come from beyond Iowa and Illinois. Meanwhile, nearly 19 percent of this year's first-year athletes identify themselves as a minority, continuing an intentional growth in campus-wide ethnic diversity.

"Athletics enhance and expand our campus culture through the multiplicity of experiences and backgrounds student-athletes bring to St. Ambrose," said Sister Joan Lescinski, CSJ, PhD, president of SAU. "These young men and women make this a better and stronger institution in ways that go far beyond athletic performance."

Athletic director and men's basketball coach Ray Shovlain '79, '82 MBA said many of the best lessons student-athletes take away from St. Ambrose are ones they inevitably teach to one another about their varied life stories.

"Every team is a little different," Shovlain said. "It is the group dynamics and interactions that provide life lessons, too. Some of these guys take teammates home. And it is a little different lesson going in either direction."

***

Mitchell Ware became one of two black students on campus in the fall of 1951, when he eagerly accepted a scholarship to play football and basketball at St. Ambrose.

Raised by adoptive working-class parents in Chicago, he still vividly remembers the racial taunts he and teammates from St. Elizabeth High School endured when they visited predominantly white opponents in the Chicago Catholic League.

"One school, they started playing the song Old Black Joe when we came out," Ware said. "Things like that have some kind of affect on you. And then I get to St. Ambrose and here is a school where everybody treats you like they want to betreated."

Mitchell WareThe retired judge still can recite the names of the St. Ambrose teammates, classmates, coaches and professors who readily welcomed him. He also can list in detail a lifelong résumé so extensive, it reads like the outline to a movie script.

After a record-setting career as a St. Ambrose running back and linebacker, Ware was drafted not by the NFL Bears, but instead by the US Army. His two-year stint in the military ended early, though, when Bears coach George Halas wrote the Army asking that Ware be allowed to attend summer training camp. Ware did not make the regular-season roster, but did see action in a preseason game, lining up across from fellow St. Ambrose alum Art Michalik '51.

The end of Ware's football career was the beginning of an accomplished Ambrosian life. He became a narcotics agent to pay his way through law school at the University of DePaul, taking classes at night. After graduating, he joined the DePaul law school faculty and worked simultaneously as a television news reporter.

Ware worked only a year in TV news, but that year was 1968. He covered the Chicago Democratic convention, as well as the bloody confrontations between police and anti-war protestors outside the convention hall that came to epitomize the contentious '60s.

"I covered the Black Panthers and the Weathermen, too," Ware said. "I was not afraid. I didn't mind going into places and trying to get the truth."

Because Ware had been equally intrepid as a narcotics cop, Illinois Gov. Richard Ogilvie asked him in 1969 to take the helm of a start-up, statewide narcotics bureau, making Ware the first black man to lead a statewide law enforcement agency in the US. While still in that role, he served by appointment of President Richard Nixon on a national commission to study drug abuse. In 1972, he became the deputy superintendent of the Chicago Police Department.

Six years later, Ware finally began to practice law full time. He was appointed to the Cook County bench in 1998 and served in that capacity until his retirement five years ago.

Given all he has accomplished, you might think it obvious Ware would have gone on to do great things, even had a St. Ambrose football scholarship not been made available. That is not obvious to him, however.

"St. Ambrose played a big role in my life," Ware said. "It gave me a perspective on a lot of things I really had not been able to envision before going there."

***

The athletics program at St. Ambrose has received a Five-Star Champions of Character rating every year since the NAIA began evaluating member schools on values-based criteria in 2000.

"Our student-athletes annually earn this honor through commitment to service, spirituality, intellectual growth and ethical behavior," Sr. Lescinski said. "Athletics exemplify our mission and vision."

In fact, thanks to lessons learned through sport, Poster said many student-athletes leave SAU uniquely prepared to enrich their own lives and the lives of others.

"You definitely learn the value of hard work and that, to be successful, you have to do the work upfront," Poster said. "You learn what it is like to work as a team and with a team. Leadership comes naturally. You find your voice. Some of the best people on this campus are our athletes."

Finally, while St. Ambrose athletes and teams never will gain the headlines and fan passion that bigger collegiate programs receive, they do bring pride to the campus, something around which to rally on a Saturday afternoon.

"There is an esprit des corps," Poster noted. "I was here during the Lisa Bluder years of women's basketball, and I remember we would all go buy body paint for the post-season games and have a lot of fun."

***

Carleen Forler sparked Bluder's early Queen Bees to a pair of Elite Eight appearances and a third-place national trophy in 1989. But she never felt like the star those burly boys in body paint were cheering for from the stands.

carleen forlerSteadfast, unassuming leadership was Forler's forte then. It remains that today.

As a Secret Service agent in the early '90s, Forler traveled the world and stood guard for a pair of presidents, several foreign heads of state, and, once, for the pope. She also investigated white-collar fraud. When she moved to the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency 17 years ago, she took on major crimes like narcotics and weapons smuggling.

Two years after 9/11, Homeland Security became a division of ICE. As a special agent for the Homeland Security Investigations International Operations Division, Forler now conducts domestic and international criminal investigations. 

Agency protocol limits what she can share about her work, but Forler's commitment is resolute. "It is very much a passion and a way of life," she said.

At SAU, the Dubuque, Iowa native chose a criminal justice major largely because that was the degree her brother Dan Forler '87 was pursuing. From an athlete's perspective, she now can see the natural fit.

"Law enforcement is the ultimate team endeavor," she said. "You set goals, you have vision and you are placed in leadership positions. Being a student-athlete, you have to balance a lot of things. It's the same with law enforcement.

"In my experience at St. Ambrose and in law enforcement, the team is an extension of your family. You develop close relationships. You go through ups and downs. You share successes. You play a role."

Forler hasn't lost track of her teammates, and is particularly tickled that a former SAU teammate now is her nephew's second-grade teacher.

"We had a lot of great girls on the team and they were all dialed into school," she said. "A lot of them went on to have really great careers as teachers, public servants. Well-rounded people."

***

That is true, of course, of the vast majority of former Fighting Bees. They now are lawyers, bankers, teachers, nurses and doctors. They are businessmen and businesswomen, college vice presidents, coaches, law enforcement agents, even builders of rocket ships.

About that last one. Proud as he is of the Dream Chaser, Jeff Stebel makes it clear that his current career never was his ultimate dream. The athlete still lurks within, and if he can find a path to coaching or some kind of later-in-life career in sports, Stebel swears he will.

Athletics are a lifelong passion, after all. And you don't need a St. Ambrose degree to know that rocket science isn't baseball.

MORE LIKE THIS:Athletics, Engineering and Physics, For Alumni, For Athletics, Scene

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