June 6, 2014
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com Online Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - When Greg Wolfe looks at the roster of Big Ten Medal of Honor recipients over the past 100 years, he sees a bar that's set incredibly high.
And now that the former Michigan State hockey standout and academic stalwart who on Friday joined that august group, he feels compelled to do his best to reach that standard, whether in a career that continues to revolve around athletics or by putting his degree in finance to maximum use.
The former student-athletes who parlayed their medals of honor range from astronauts to zoologists, from John Wooden, who was Purdue's 1932 Medal of Honor winner before becoming UCLA's legendary basketball coach, to Uta (Herrmann) Wolfe, the former Minnesota swimmer who specializes in senses and visuomotor control as an assistant professor at St. Thomas University.
"I thought the pressure was going to go away for a while, but now I guess it's back on," said Wolfe, who graduated in May with a 3.6 grade-point average. "I didn't really understand exactly what it was until I did a little research. The more I read, the more it dawned on me that it's a very well-respected and important award. To be recognized in the same light as all the past recipients is extremely humbling.
"There were so many great and successful people who won it before me and that's kind of why I was kind of in shock when I found out I won it. I didn't even know I was being considered. But it's a reflection of work ethic and motivation, and that's what our coaches and staff members demand of us. Without them demanding that of us, then maybe I don't have the success I've had.
"Now I've got to live up to the expectations."
Fourth-year Spartan hockey coach Tom Anastos has no doubt Wolfe will continue what he started at MSU in the areas of leadership, academics and community service. In addition to serving a second term as team captain last season, Wolfe led Michigan State with 13 goals and 31 total points, tied for 12th in the Big Ten. He's a former Big Ten Distinguished Scholar and two-time academic all-conference honoree.
"I think he was always committed, but he came off as quiet when I first met him," Anastos said. "He was coming off the back of his freshman year and I started (as head coach) that March. So when I talk about his growth, it's in his confidence and leadership. He just earned people's respect around him, not because of what he said but because of what he did and how he went about doing things from day to day.
"When he's taking on an assignment or a task, he's all-in. He doesn't kind of just go along to be along, he's right out there rolling up his sleeves up and being one of the leaders. Same thing in hockey. He's one of the first guys on the ice every single day, and one of the last to leave the rink at night."
Anastos believes Wolfe has much in common with past Medal of Honor winners.
"I think he epitomizes what the intended definition of what being a student-athlete's all about," Anastos said. "He's a high achiever because he's so committed to all the different things he does. Academically, he works real hard and is dedicated to his schoolwork, community service-wise he's one of the leaders on our campus and from a hockey perspective, he was the captain of our team and certainly had the respect of all his teammates as a talented, hard-working player."
Wolfe's development as a collegiate student-athlete was unconventional, to say the least. After graduating from Canton High School in 2008, he played two seasons of junior hockey in the United States Hockey League, first with the Chicago Steel, who traded him to the Omaha Lancers.
"When I first got to campus, I was completely lost," Wolfe said. "I had no idea what to expect. But there are so many resources at MSU and people trying to point you in the right direction and help you achieve your goals. I was extremely blessed to have a lot of people behind the scenes that helped me every single day make right decisions and get my schoolwork in order. Although (the Medal of Honor) is an individual award, I couldn't have done anything on my own."
Earning a spot on one of the nation's premier collegiate hockey programs represented only half of Wolfe's mission as a Spartan.
"Hockey is a big part of why I was at Michigan State, but one of my other goals was to do well in school and get my degree, and I'm extremely proud," he said. "From that standpoint, with all the people at the Smith Academic Center, they gave me every resource I could possibly have -- tutors, study table, putting me in touch with people that could help me succeed.
"I was away from school for two years while playing juniors after high school, so I had no idea what to expect. They gave me opportunities and resources and I just tried to take advantage of them. It all seemed to work out. Whenever I had questions, they always had the answers, and when you're surrounded by people like that it's hard not to succeed."
When Wolfe wasn't skating or studying, he was embracing MSU's culture of community service.
A few years ago, Wolfe took part in a food drive that former teammates Torey Krug and Chris Forar helped organize to stock local pantries.
"It's right around Thanksgiving time," Wolfe said. "I was pretty close with Torey, and I wanted to keep it going after he left. At first, it was just the hockey guys doing it, and then it turned into a whole student-athlete event. It grew, and grew and grew."
Wolfe played a leading role in Teams for Toys, an effort by the entire Spartan athletic community to collect donations used to buy Christmas presents for underprivileged children. With Accessible Halloween, he was among the Michigan State student-athletes who turned a local elementary school hallway into a neighborhood where disabled children went "door-to-door" collecting treats.
He and teammate Tanner Sorenson also joined the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program.
"We both had little brothers and we go pick them up and hang with them for a few hours at time a couple times each month," Wolfe said. "It's good to get impressionable kids out and do things, try to give them motivation to do well in school and give them some fun times they may not have if we weren't coming to pick them up.
"As hockey players, we have high expectations placed on us, but in reality, we just go and play hockey and it's fun. It's not like too much of a burden. Taking the extra time to represent the team and MSU in a positive way is a win-win. When you're in the community, it gives you a connection with people. It's a good feeling to do stuff like that and when you're in a position where people put you on a pedestal because you're a Michigan State athlete, it's real important to give back. "
After completing his athletic and academic obligations to MSU, Wolfe played minor league hockey with Reading Royals in the East Coast Hockey League. His short- and long-term goals are all still in front of him.
"I'm definitely going to try and play hockey next year," he said. "I don't know where that will be yet, but that's what I'm passionate about and I want to give it a go and try to work my way up. If it works out, fantastic. If not, then Plan B starts and that's where my degree comes in. It's pretty nice to have a Plan B with a degree in another area that's a passion for me. Coming in, I didn't even know what finance was, and it took other people to explain it for me to even have a clue. It ended up working out really well, so I have to thank those people. "
More than 1,300 student-athletes have received the Medal of Honor since 1915. The award was expanded in 1982 to include women and just 24 of the 8,200 student-athletes competing at the 12 conference schools are honored each year.
Wolfe is MSU's first hockey player to receive the award since Shawn Horcoff in 2000, and while Anastos is awed by the scope of it, he's grateful for the impact Wolfe could have for years to come.
"When you look of the names of those who've earned it, it kind of takes your breath away and you recognize what an incredible honor it is," Anastos said. "For us, especially as we're rebuilding our hockey program, having a person like Greg set such a good standard in all three areas inspires those around him and will certainly help others focus on trying to be very high achievers and the best they're capable of being."