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WERTZ' WARRIORS HEAD NORTH

By Frank DeFrank, Macomb Daily
Saturday, January 31, 2009

What has 42 heads, one Bird and raises tons of money?

If you said Wertz' Warriors, move to the head of the class.

For the 28th consecutive year, a merry band of 42 snowmobilers will set out Sunday for points north on their annual cross-country snowmobile trek to benefit the Michigan Special Olympics.

For seven days, the intrepid outdoorsmen will pilot their snowmobiles through the woods and across the frozen lakes of northern Michigan.

Along the way, they'll stop in Traverse City to meet and mingle with those who benefit most from the ride, the mentally and physically challenged athletes who will compete in the Michigan Special Olympics.

By the time the final snowmobile crosses the finish line in Petoskey on Saturday, the Warriors will have covered nearly 1,000 miles and, hopefully, raised some $400,000-$450,000 for the state's special athletes.


Photo by Ray J. Skowronek
Former Detroit Tigers pitcher Mark "The Bird" Fidrych signs a baseball for Hunter Odell, 8, of Harrison Township at Crews Inn as Hunter's dad, "Digger" Odell, and Dyllon Landry, 9, of Harrison Township look on.

"In all the years, we're up around $7.5 million (raised)," said Donald "Digger" Odell, a former Vietnam-era prisoner of war and longtime member of the Warriors' support crew who will make his 27th trip.

The Warriors were founded by former Detroit Tiger and later Mount Clemens-area beer distributor Vic Wertz. In 1982, Wertz wanted to do something for kids and tapped about 20 of his employees and other friends to make it happen.

Sadly, Wertz never lived to see the ride blossom into the successful event it has become, but his spirit lives on in the annual event. After Wertz' death, Joe Falls, a longtime Detroit sports writer, dubbed the group "Wertz' Warriors," and they've ridden under the moniker ever since.

From the ride's inception, the Detroit Tigers have maintained a significant presence. This year will be no exception as former pitcher and fan favorite Mark "The Bird" Fidrych returns for his 16th year.

"It's all for the (special) athletes," Fidrych said.

Long after his career ended, Fidrych remains popular with baseball fans all over the state. On the snowmobile ride, long lines of fans wait to meet and greet the man who talked to the baseball. And Fidrych remains "until the last autograph is signed," Odell said.

Fidrych said he simply tries to give back a little of what he got from Michigan residents.

"I'm a lucky athlete," Fidrych said. "When the chips were there, the fans were there. When the chips were down, the fans were still there. Almost 30 years later, the people are still there.

"The state of Michigan never forgot me."

After a send-off breakfast at Zuccaro's Country House in Clinton Township, the Warriors will begin their ride Sunday near West Branch.