His record was 18-2-2, his manager was Angelo Dundee, and he trained alongside Muhammad Ali and the other world champions at the famous 5th Street Gym in Miami Beach, Florida.
Under the circumstances, says Don T. Lutz, “I had a feeling there was going to be more to me than just Wisconsin Golden Gloves champion.”
He turned out to be 100 percent right. But not because of what he was in the ring, but rather because in 61 years, no punch, war, or anything else that has knocked Don Lutz down has been able to keep him from getting back up. His life – and the kindred lives and service of all the military veterans we honor today – is a tribute to the kind of spirit and valor that outshine any championship belt.
After his father died when Lutz was five-years-old, Don and his sister and brother were raised by their mother in West Allis, Wisconsin, with help from two aunts. In school, he was policed by Catholic nuns. Not surprisingly, by the time he was 12, “I wanted to do something men did,” he says. So his mother turned him over to a neighbor who had been a boxer, and pretty soon a ring and punching bags were set up in the Lutz garage.
Don won three Golden Gloves championships, and was good enough to fight in the 1964 U.S. Olympic Trials. He lost, but caught the eye of Dundee, who told Lutz that if he ever got down to Miami Beach to look him up.
Just a year out high school, Lutz had no car and no money. But he lived just a block away from State Fair Park. He walked over, got a job with the Royal American Show that operated the midway rides, and worked his way to Florida as a carnie. That’s how much he wanted it.
In addition to Ali, who won the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston that year, Dundee’s fighters at the time included champions Willie Pastrano (light heavyweight), Ralph Dupas (junior middleweight), Luis Rodriquez (welterweight), and Sugar Ramos (featherweight); plus plenty of top-flight contenders.
“When you’re around those kind of guys, you get good just by osmosis sometimes,” Lutz says. “Being with the champs got you feeling like you had a chance.”
He reveled in the life. “I wish I could explain how much a thrill I get when I fight,” the young middleweight wrote to a friend in 1966. “When I’m in shape and am fighting the way I can really fight, I’m there – really there. Nothing else really matters.”
But then in December of that year the 21-year-old Lutz was notified to report for induction into the U.S. Army.
America had been at war in Vietnam for two years, and as our military effort there escalated many young men of draft age fled to Canada to avoid conscription. Drafted too, Ali declared himself a conscientious objector, was convicted of violating the Selective Service Act, and as the legal wheels slowly turned lost three of his prime boxing years.
At Dundee’s insistence, Lutz attended Miami Dade Jr. College while he boxed. The trainer even loaned him tuition money. Like a lot of other students, Lutz could have obtained a student deferment from the military. But his father had been a disabled veteran of World War I, and two uncles were killed in World War II.
That wasn’t all of it, though. “I got to live in this country, and some of the things I got to do were grand and great, like go to school and live where I wanted,” he says. “So I decided that if they wanted two years of my life, they got it.”
Don Lutz wants this made clear: “I’m not a ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ or ‘America, Right- or-Wrong’ guy. But I am a product of my family, and did what I thought was right. I made my choice, and I’ll stand by it.”
Even though that choice turned the next decade of his life into a nightmare.
“You see,” he says, “the war was ghastly. It was ungodly.”
The Army gave him 10 weeks of medical training and made him a battlefield medic. “The third tracheotomy I ever saw being done,” he says, “I was doing it.”
But the worst duty of his 18 months in the jungles of Vietnam was something called triage, which meant that when the casualties mounted up it was up to Lutz, as senior medic, to decide who could be saved and who would be left behind to die.
“I did a lot of triage. I left a lot of kids to die. You couldn’t help them all.”
But a lot of times Lutz had to be dragged away after holding as many of the dying as he could, because “19-year-old kids shouldn’t have to die by themselves.”
His own number almost came up several times. Three times Lutz was in helicopters that crashed. Once he was the only survivor. Another time, he was sleeping when an enemy rocket hit his bunker. Thinking him dead, his comrades stacked Lutz’s unconscious body with the other corpses, and then reacted as if he were a ghost when he suddenly rose, blood streaming from his ears and mouth, to help tend to the wounded.
To escape the insanity, Lutz and some buddies went to orphanages to hold babies.
“It was a nice getaway,” he says. “We did it because we had to do it, or that war would have eaten us up.”
His Vietnam tour ended when Lutz took a spray of bullets in the leg. He spent two and a half months in a Veterans Administration hospital in Miami, where Ali almost caused a riot when he came to visit him.
In addition to the leg wounds, Lutz came home with incessant ringing in his ears, two Purple Hearts, and the Bronze Star.
The ringing has never gone away. The medals he threw away after people protesting the Vietnam War spit on him for fighting in it. For Lutz and other returning soldiers, the homecoming was almost as bad as the war itself.
“It’s a little known fact,” he says, “that more Vietnam veterans committed suicide than were killed in action.”
He could have been one of them. Tortured by nightmares and depression, Lutz became an alcoholic and slept with guns under his pillow.
He wanted to box again, but Dundee saw that he wasn’t the same and declined to book him. So on his own Lutz took fights all over the world, often using phony names. He mostly lost, and found what little peace he had in a prayer printed on a holy card he had picked up one day amidst some battlefield litter in Vietnam and saved:
“Oh Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”
Then he came home to Wisconsin for a family reunion and found Zeta again.
They had been friends in high school, but went their separate ways, she says, because “he wanted to be the middleweight champion of the world, and I wanted to go to college.” Eventually she married someone else, had two kids and got divorced.
When Zeta saw Lutz again after all those year, “I knew this was not the same person I went to high school with.”
When they started dating again, she told him, “I don’t do guns.” Lutz got rid of his arsenal and started going to Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1979, they got married. The doctors had told Lutz that fatherhood was out for him on account of his war injuries, so their daughter Melissa was a wonderful surprise.
The Lutzes went to counseling together and started counseling other Vietnam-era couples. But Don continued to suffering from interminable headaches, and problems with his short-term memory.
“The things he wanted to do he couldn’t, because he couldn’t remember things,” she says.
Don worked at the Milwaukee County Detention Center. Twice he received commendations for using CPR to revive kids who had tried to hang themselves. But he still lost his job because on a required written exam he had trouble listing in their right order the steps used in CPR.
Medical tests disclosed a mass of dead brain cells. But the Veterans Administration doctors blamed boxing for that and refused to grant him the war-related disability status Zeta insisted he deserved.
It took her eight years, but she finally tracked down the soldiers who had pulled him, seemingly dead, out of the hole in the ground where his bunk had been when that Vietcong shell exploded. Lutz was granted war disability status that helped him get hired as a tree-trimmer by Milwaukee County. Once his crew came upon the scene of a car accident on the freeway. Lutz administered first-aid to the injured, and received another commendation.
Sometimes Lutz was so exuberant that his crew bosses insisted he get drug tested. But he wasn’t high on anything artificial or chemical. He was just deliriously happy to be alive, thrilled with his wife and three kids and the opportunity to take care of them, and as in awe of the miracle of life as only someone who has seen death too many times can be.
In 1996, Lutz was chosen to run with the Olympic torch as it made its way to the Games in Atlanta. He wore shorts, a t-shirt, and military combat boots, as a tribute to the 55,000 Americans who never came home from Vietnam. May 30 of that year was officially proclaimed “Don Lutz Day” in Milwaukee County, in recognition of his “outstanding accomplishments and commitment to the community.”
Don and Zeta are retired now, and enjoy their lives more than ever. “I’ve had it all,” he says. “I know, because I’ve been down there in the gutter. I’m fulfilled.”
Even without the boxing glory that once seemed his destiny. Looking back now, Lutz says, “I was just a shot away from being ordinary. I can use ‘Nam as an excuse, but the truth is I just wasn’t good enough.”
His old trainer isn’t so sure about that. “If he didn’t go to Vietnam, he’d have licked an awful lot of good fighters,” says Angelo Dundee. “That happened to a lot of them in that war. It sucked the goodness right out of them.”
The Hall of Fame trainer knows one thing for sure: “Don is a sweetheart. All good things should happen to him.”
The best, of course, is Zeta. “We laugh a lot,” she says. “We know and appreciate what we have. Our favorite thing is to be together.”
But the self-described “schmuck who just keeps going on” gives boxing some of the credit, too, for how things turned out. “It gives you a little sense of who you are,” says Don. “I learned from boxing how to analyze things – that and Hemingway’s thing: grace under pressure.
“It saved me. It made me keep getting up.”