BY RICH PALZEWIC
From small-town basketball player, to Navy captain, Tony Lesperance has pretty much seen it all.
The recently-retired Upper Peninsula of Michigan resident was honored by the Packers for his 26-plus years of service to our country. The team sent Lesperance a US flag that was flown over Lambeau Field and a football signed by president/CEO Mark Murphy.
“The Packers are a first-class organization,” said Lesperance via phone from Belleville, Illinois, which is 25 miles east of St. Louis, Missouri, and is home to Scott Air Force Base.
“I’ve been a life-long Packer fan who has always supported the team through thick and thin, so it was extremely exciting for me to get the flag and signed football … it means a lot that they would go through the trouble of doing that for me.”
Lesperance grew up in the tiny village of Stephenson about 90 minutes north of Green Bay near the southern tip of the U.P. With a population of less than 900 and a small graduating class, the 6-foot-6 Lesperance was a star player on the Eagles’ basketball team his senior year in 1986, where he earned first-team all-conference honors and played in the inaugural U.P. all-star game.
Lesperance was a huge Packer fan growing up. His dad was a season ticket holder for many years beginning in the early 70s and going through the mid-80s. The two of them would travel down to Green Bay to watch the team play during the lean years well before Brett Favre came to town.
“That’s the key with Packer fans – they don’t jump off the bandwagon when things aren’t going well,” said Lesperance, who estimates he’s gone to 15 games in his lifetime. “When I would go with my dad the stadium was always full no matter how the team was doing. Even with some of the devastating playoff losses we’ve had over the years, it was always better than being a Browns or a Lions’ fan. There were a few times I wanted to break the TV – or several of them – but the good moments outweigh the bad.”
After high-school graduation, Lesperance attended the University of Michigan for a year where he was in the college of engineering. At the same time he had applied to the United States Naval Academy but was one of the last 100 applicants to be denied. He was given a supplemental scholarship from the Navy to attend Michigan under the condition that he apply again the following year – which he did and was accepted this time. He reported to Annapolis in the summer of 1987 and graduated in 1991 with a B.S. degree in chemistry.
“I have a lot of fond memories from being at the academy,” Lesperance said. “The first year was tough because much of it was indoctrination where you learn about the military and were being developed professionally as a new member of the military – lots of rituals and basic military training. As I went through the years things got a little easier, and being on the Chesapeake Bay was great. The academics were rigorous as well. At the end of it I had somewhere around 148 credit hours.”
Lesperance wasn’t recruited to play basketball, but as he put it “was an extra big body” that was noticed while shooting hoops in the summer of ’87 by the varsity basketball coach at the time. He showed enough to be invited for a tryout that fall but was sent down to the JV team that first year and started. The following year he was invited back again to try out for the varsity and made the team.
“It was a lot of fun and I feel very fortunate to have played for two years,” he said. “In the end I wasn’t getting a whole lot of playing time, so I decided it was best for me to concentrate on my degree and what I was going to be doing after graduation. There wasn’t a lot of exposure playing basketball in the U.P. so playing at Navy was just an added little bonus.”
Although Lesperance didn’t get to play on the team with future NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson (he graduated in the spring of ’87), he says the seven-footer came back to the academy a year later to train for the ’88 summer Olympics and played some pick-up games with him.
“David Robinson is a phenomenal man, but some of what I did to him on the basketball court was embarrassing to him,” said a joking Lesperance. “We didn’t let it out to the press because if it had leaked out, he might not have made the Olympics that first time.”
After graduation, Lesperance spent time in Rhode Island, South Carolina, California, Hawaii and Virginia. He received a master’s degree in engineering acoustics in 1997 while in California, before gaining another master’s degree in 2007 (National Security Strategy) from the National War College. He also served at the academy as a battalion officer and was in charge of 750 Midshipmen.
“Ironically, I ended my naval career working at Scott Air Force Base doing a Navy job,” Lesperance said. “The military gave me many opportunities – I’ve stepped foot on six of the seven continents and visited about 50 countries. I still have two states to visit yet … Kansas and Oregon. After I get Kansas done, I’ll buy the cheapest ticket I can to Oregon, spend the night there, eat a steak and fly back. At some point I’d like to do Antarctica as well. I’ve been to every ocean and every major sea. The Navy was very good to me – it can take you anywhere you want to go.”
One of Lesperance’s earliest Packer memories came Oct. 30, 1977, at Lambeau when the Chicago Bears came to town and he got to witness history, as Walter Payton rushed for 205 yards on 23 carries.
“It didn’t turn out well that day, but I did get to see Payton rack up a bunch of yards,” said a laughing Lesperance. “If the Packers were going to lose it was fun to see Payton do what he did.”
Lesperance was also a member of the crowd Dec. 22, 1990, when the Lions beat the Packers 24-17 in two-degree weather.
“It was so cold that day that the beers were freezing,” he said about the fourth-coldest game in Lambeau Field history. “I remember some guys from Pulaski sitting in front of me with their shirts off. They were drinking Jägermeister and passing the bottle around.”
Lesperance’s favorite Packer memory didn’t even happen at Lambeau but at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.
“I was out in Monterrey, California, at the time in 1996,” he said. “I bought a ticket with two of my friends for $100 and went to that game. Everyone was telling me, ‘you don’t want to go and watch the Packers get beat.’ I watched them take a 21-0 lead and beat the 49ers on their home field, 27-17. That’s one of my best memories of watching the Packers. I remember towards the end of the game that a few hundred of us fans moved down to the corner of the end zone. The players came over and were whooping it up with us and we started chanting, ‘go, Pack, go!’ That’s all you could hear at the end of the game.”
Another funny story for Lesperance came in 2004 when he was on a ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
“We had the Armed Forces Radio/TV Service so we got the game on TV,” he said in reference to the Packers NFC Divisional game against the Philadelphia Eagles in Philadelphia. “The game didn’t start until midnight or something like that due to the time change. I had a very busy day the next day, but I stayed up for it … I couldn’t help myself. It was getting close to probably 4:00 a.m. and the Packers were ready to win. They had to punt late and the Eagles got the ball back. The defense was holding them and then came the 4th & 26 play. They eventually loss as we all know. I got a few hours of sleep and was back at it.”
Although Lesperance is not sure what the future holds in his retirement, no matter where he settles or what he pursues, he will always be a Packer fan true and through.