One thing Sarah Palin is known for is her toughness. In order to deal with her detractors and the lamestream media, she has to have thick skin. She has to be a pit bull with lipstick. A barracuda. No one has been attacked so personally and so consistently in recent years more than Governor Palin, yet through it all she keeps on keeping on with drive, passion, and that winning smile.
Palin's incredible spine of steel and servant's heart come from a foundation in faith and family, but perhaps her tenacity comes from somewhere else. Perhaps sports and all that comes with being a part of a team were the catalyst. Chuck Heath Sr., Palin's father, seems to think so.
"Sarah worked and worked and worked," Heath said. "Because of her terrific work ethic she became my best hurdler and went to state every year. In cross country she became my number one distance runner. She was very versatile."
Heath, who, with his son Chuck, wrote the book, Our Sarah: Made in Alaska, coached all of his children at Wasilla High School where he piloted the track and cross country squads for 11 years.
Growing up, Sarah wasn't alone when it came to athletic prowess in the Heath house. All of her siblings shined in sports. Chuck Jr. played football and basketball while also running track. In high school, he led his league in rushing and became one of the first two players ever selected from Wasilla to play in the North/South Shriners Game. Chuck Jr. was even named a Parade Magazine All-American honorable mention. Despite that great success, big college programs didn't recruit much in Alaska back then. So Chuck Jr. walked on at the University of Idaho, and he made it. He went on to play for the Vandals under then head coach Dennis Erickson. Chuck Jr. still enjoys mixing it up. Now a husband, father, and school teacher, he's a member of a men's hockey team in Alaska.
Heather Heath was another star and she still is. The eldest Heath daughter was an all-state basketball player and a superb all-around athlete. She keeps at it today. Recently, Heather finished second in her age group at the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in New Orleans. She started so far back in the pack that it took her 12 minutes just to reach the starting line, yet she finished with a stellar time of 3:42.
Chuck Heath Sr. calls daughter Molly "the best athlete of all." Molly excelled in basketball and track. When she begrudgingly joined her dad's cross country team, she may have also clinched the funniest sports story of the Heath kids.
"I conned her into running cross country," Mr. Heath said. "She later told me she was running on her ankles hoping she would sprain one." Yet, Molly never quit.
The fact that all the Heath children grew up with sports as a focal point should not come as any surprise. Chuck Sr. himself had quite the athletic career. As a boy he ran track and played basketball and football. During high school in Sandpoint, Idaho, Heath was the starting running back on a gridiron gang that lost only four times in four years and took home four championships.
"I was fortunate to have good blockers," Heath said.
At least one of them was better than just good. Future Hall of Famer Jerry Kramer was on the offensive line that opened holes for Chuck Heath years before Kramer did the same in the NFL for Paul Hornung and Jim Taylor in Green Bay. Heath also made his mark in track, setting a school record in the 100-yard dash that stood for over four decades. After high school, Heath played a year and a half of football at a junior college before separating both shoulders and blowing out a knee. He calls college ball a "different kingdom." His athletic skills however led to scholarship money that allowed Heath to earn his degree.
The most talked about athletic accomplishment for a Heath has to be the girls basketball state championship won by Wasilla High School in 1982. That team was led by a scrappy, little point guard known for her defense that lead to the moniker "Barracuda." Wearing #22, Sarah Heath helped her team win it all and through the experience she took away many life lessons. According to her father, Sarah's success on the court has helped her in politics.
"She learned that if you need to work on a skill you keep at it until you have that skill developed," said Mr. Heath. "She also learned how to work with all kinds of people and personalities."
The Heath/Palin tradition of sports continues today. Sarah is an avid runner and Todd Palin has had remarkable Iron Dog success for years. Todd and Sarah's son Track was an exceptional hockey player, and all of the girls have participated in organized sports as well. Now a new generation is making its mark. Recently, Chuck Jr.'s son Teko won a championship. Teko's hockey team captured the Anchorage city title. Teko was so happy at the end of the game that he Tebowed in front of the crowd. The Heaths continue to play well and act even better.
The Heath children were always very competitive, and they continue to be to this day. However, it's not mandatory, it's simply innate.
"We don't force them to get into sports but we certainly encourage it," Mr. Heath said. "It's just part of my upbringing and their upbringing."
Playing and watching sports in Alaska is often a little different than it is in other states. While Mr. Heath thinks the whole lack of daylight thing is overblown, he does say the time zone makes watching sports unique. "During winter when it is dark most of the time we just go to the gym," Heath told Breitbart Sports. "We run all winter with headlamps and luminous clothing. Nothing slows us down. I am glad though that Chuck Jr. chose football over hockey. It would have been tough watching those outdoor games in twenty-below temperatures."
There are no pro teams or Division I programs in Alaska, which means the NFL, for example, is often a breakfast event. "We enjoy watching football at nine in the morning," Heath said. "Then when the game ends we still have a lot of time to get a lot done."
Chuck Heath Sr. still keeps in touch with his old teammate Jerry Kramer, so naturally the whole group roots for the Packers. Kramer also went to college at Idaho, as did three of the four Heath kids--including Sarah. After that unanimous decision though, things became varied. Chuck Sr. likes to root for teams that have Alaskan players, so right now he is cheering for Carlos Boozer's Chicago Bulls and Mario Chalmers' Miami Heat club. There are several Alaskan players in the NHL too, so the formula is the same. Mr. Heath tends to favor guys like Scottie Gomez of the San Jose Sharks, due to his Alaskan ties.
Meantime, while Chuck Jr. agrees with the Packers and NBA sentiments of his dad, he is a Pittsburgh Penguins backer, despite his sons' love for the Blackhawks and Red Wings. Chuck Jr. also roots for the Yankees, the team he has followed since he was a little kid. Bottom line is, with no home team, anything goes in The Last Frontier when it comes to supporting professional franchises.
The last time I interviewed the two Chucks before this column, it was for a joint appearance on SarahNET Radio. Before we went on the air, Chuck Sr. commented on how he was enjoying an epic Louisville-Notre Dame college basketball game that eventually went to a fifth overtime. Sports is a centerpiece of life for the Heaths and Palins in Alaska, just like it is for so many of us in New York and Chicago and throughout our exceptional country. It's part of the fabric of the United States.
So who does Sarah Palin's dad like in the upcoming NCAA tournament?
"Gonzaga looks pretty good right now," Heath said.
Of course, there's a connection there too. Sarah Palin's all-time favorite player is John Stockton. The Utah Jazz legend played his college ball at Gonzaga (Stockton's son is on Gonzaga's basketball team) and wound up marrying an Alaskan girl. Plus, Stockton was the kind of player that a certain former Wasilla High point guard could appreciate--a player who used smarts and stick-to-itiveness as much as physical skill to get the job done. While serving the people of Alaska, Palin kept a Stockton signed ball in her office. If not Gonzaga, Heath roots for Duke simply because former Blue Devils players Boozer and Trajan Langdon hail from the Great Land.
Even though President Obama plays basketball almost every day (at least when he's not playing golf) Chuck Heath Sr. thinks his youngest daughter could hold her own in a Palin vs. Obama one-on-one hoops battle. "In her prime if Sarah had to guard Obama he'd come out all scratched up," Heath said. "Her defense was her forte. She'd always guard the other team's best player. Plus she had Jason Kidd instincts. A real natural. It'd be interesting. Obama is a lot taller but he would know he had his hands full."
In target shooting things wouldn't be close at all.
"No contest," laughed Heath. "I saw a picture of him shooting a shotgun. He was holding it all wrong. Sarah is a good shot. She's a good skeet shooter. On the rifle range she's very good too."
It seems all the Heaths and Palins are very good at whatever they put their efforts behind. Lessons of hard work learned through participation in a myriad of sports helped pave the way. During a recent speech Governor Palin told the crowd at Southeastern University to influence culture by impacting sports. She's living proof of how that plan of action can pay dividends in several aspects of life.
Follow Kevin Scholla on Twitter @KevinScholla.