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Just beyond the swollen banks of the Mississippi River lives an ex-Marine who hasn't seen his oldest son in a year.

He's a 70-something creature of habit who never misses Sunday mass or the Green Bay Packers. Most of his days are spent in the shadow of his garage, working on antique furniture and listening to old-time country music.

He doesn't socialize as much as he once did. Yet the best days of his life are still those when his children and their families come around.

He grew up poor, forced to insert cardboard in the soles of his shoes because there was no money for new ones. His dad was never around to support he and his five sisters, or to put coal in the furnace in the middle of the night.

Ask him about sports and the subject quickly turns to boxing. He grew up on Friday Night Fights and there's nothing he enjoys more - except maybe a Packers win over the Bears, which usually nets about $15 in wagers with his longtime buddies.

He's far from perfect. He once painted his wife's car with a brush and he's not the slickest of communicators. He'll walk into a Dairy Queen and inquire, "Got any cones here?"

Like his three sons, he can be overly-competitive. During heated games of driveway basketball he's been known to punch the ball into the neighbor's yard. He also likes to chuck his golf ball after a particularly bad round.

But he's not arrogant. He'll tell you he played Way Back for the St. Columbkille's football team, then laugh as he explains it's the guy who fetches the ball after a field goal.

His idiosyncrasies are dwarfed by his greatest achievement: He never quit on his family. Not during the recession of the early 1980s when he lost his job at the local meat packing plant. Not when cancer and heart problems altered his existence. Not even in his midlife crisis, although there's a chance he never had one because guys born in the 1930s don't buy into that bull.

He was there the day his oldest son wandered into a dangerous situation at a hotel pool in Rochester, Minn. He was there to save his middle son from choking to death, and there to corral his youngest son the day he came within a few feet of being killed by a reckless driver.

Somehow that ex-Marine finds his way into everything this columnist writes. His passion for sports serves as a foundation for his oldest son's career.

Sportswriters and sports fans admire athletes for their character. A lot of folks reveled in the New York Giants' comeback win over the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Stories like that sell newspapers and videos.

Today is a day to salute everyday heroes like Jim Speltz. Fathers that never bolted or hid in a bottle during trying times. Guys that have always been there for their kids - playing catch in the driveway, throwing passes in the yard, driving 12 hours to help on college moving day.

It seems those guys are becoming fewer and farther between. When you look at your child's class list and half the students come from broken families, it strikes a chord.

Tonight a phone call from Missoula to the old ex-Marine in eastern Iowa will be placed. We'll talk about the U.S. Open and the Celtics and all those things dads and sons discuss on Father's Day.

We won't talk about Semper Fi - that Marine motto he's lived by in the absence of his own father figure. But his four children know well its meaning.

Always faithful. Always there.

Thanks dad.

Sports columnist Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or bill.speltz@lee.net.

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