It’s been 50 years since Steve Palma was crowned a state high school track champion and it’s been almost as long since he last talked about it.
Palma, a 1970 Central Montcalm High School graduate and one of seven former Green Hornets athletes to be inducted into the school’s Sports Hall of Fame this Saturday, won the Class C mile distance race in 1970 and was a member of the 1969 state-title winning mile relay team that included teammates Bill Brundage, Dennis Thomsen and Sam Waldron.
Palma, who was a three-sport athlete, playing basketball all four years, track for three and one year for cross country, went on to play basketball and run cross country at Cornerstone University. At that time, his father, a pastor in the Stanton area, moved to Indianapolis, so Palma’s ties to the Stanton community and Central Montcalm ended at that point.
Palma graduated from Cornerstone with a degree in bible and social science and married his girlfriend, Kim, in 1974. They made their home in Grand Rapids, raising five children — Kara, Peter, Marc, David and Hans. Palma was hired at Steelcase where he has held the logistics manager position for the past 39 years.
It wasn’t until the school’s Hall of Fame committee reached out to him to give him some surprising news that his high school career suddenly came back up. Palma was selected as a member of the 2020 Sports Hall of Fame, along with his former high school track coach, Don Rasmussen (1958 Stanton High School graduate), Brian Buskirk (1983 graduate), Melissa (nee Thomas) Gardner (1988), Jennifer (nee Story) Senn (1993), baseball coach Larry Petersen (1957 Stanton High School graduate), and multi-sport coach Bill Thwaites. The 1990-91 boys varsity basketball team will also be a part of the 2020 Hall of Fame selections.
Palma was taken aback by the news.
“To be honest, I was surprised to be chosen. I didn’t even know they had and Hall of Fame and it just wasn’t on my radar,” he chuckled. “It was a wonderful experience in high school, but in some respects, I put that behind me and haven’t thought about it since.”
Palma still has many vivid memories of it all — and he remembers his track career actually started horribly.
“I ran track briefly my freshman year,” he recalls. “It was a disaster. I’m not a big guy or was particularly fast like a sprinter, but I was put on hurdles and me and hurdles, that’s not a good mix. All I had to show for it were cinder burns.”
In his junior year, his father and his friend, Steve Strait, the Central Montcalm Elementary School superintendent at the time, decided to go on a jog together and asked Palma to come along, which he did. He still remembers the smell of the city garbage dump burning near the track the three ran on in Stanton, but that incident sparked something in him.
“Somewhere in there, I decided, OK, I can run,” Palma said. “I was pretty good with endurance so I went out for track the second time.”
Coach Rasmussen, who was a state champion and a school record-holder in the 880-meter run at Stanton High School, made Palma, then a junior, one of his distance runners, where he would team up with Brundage, Thomsen and Waldron.
“They were all very good runners, obviously,” Palma said. “The senior class that year was just an excellent group of guys.”
Palma doesn’t remember the team thinking state finals when the track season started in 1969. In fact, he remembers being surprised when the relay team qualified for the finals, which were held at Central Michigan University.
The Hornets relay team ended up winning on a technicality, as the team that finished ahead of him — Palma cannot recall where that team was from — was disqualified for stepping into the wrong lane.
“It wasn’t a race that was finished by a nose,” he said. “They beat us fairly well. They just lost track of things. So we were fortunate.”
Oddly enough, the same situation came up the following track year in which Palma qualified for the state finals as a senior for the individual mile run.
After trying out cross country for the first time in his athletic career, and placing 11th in the Class C state finals, Palma came into the track season, his senior year, with high confidence.
“I went into the track season knowing that I could do really well,” he said. “I was certainly aiming to win states.”
Palma credits Carson City-Crystal’s Mike Burns for giving him tough competition, which helped him through the season.
“He really pushed me in the dual meets and he was second at the state finals as a sophomore, I think,” Palma said. “He was just a fine, fine runner.”
At the state finals that year, it was a little bit of déjà vu as another runner cut in front of Palma on the second or third lap, breaking his stride.
“I didn’t fall, it wasn’t a huge deal, but when I came in, I found out I was disqualified,” said Palma, who finished first in the race.
Because he and the runner who cut in front of him both had green uniforms, the spotter who saw the infraction mistakenly pointed to Palma as the culprit.
“I knew I had won and so I wasn’t in a panic over it,” Palma said. “Coach R. and our assistant, and some other coaches, were looking out for us, too, so that got all sorted out.”
The mistake was corrected and Palma was then crowned a Class C state champion. He remembers he was glad the year — and the strive to his goal to be state champion — was over.
“As goofy as it sounds, I was relieved because I put a lot of pressure on myself,” he said. “It’s a wonderful accomplishment.”
The thought that a nice little jog with his father and his friend rekindled his interest to run track led to him becoming a state champion and now a Hall of Famer has him shaking his head in blissful wonder.
“It causes me to reflect that some events never would’ve happened if Strait didn’t ask me to run,” Palma said. “With all that, I developed more discipline and I think I’m very grateful for that experience and the discipline I learned along the way.”
The 2020 Central Montcalm Sports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony will be Saturday at Central Montcalm Middle School. A pre-ceremony gathering will be at 4 p.m. and dinner will be at 5 p.m. with the ceremony following. Tickets for the ceremony are $20 per person. Contact the high school at (989) 831-2100 for more information.