Three years ago left tackle Bernard “Ben” Lueken was the most highly recruited football player at . At 6 feet 5 inches tall and 320 pounds, Lueken had coaches from the University of Missouri, Iowa, Iowa State University, Michigan, Nebraska and Kansas State visiting the high school's campus in Creve Coeur.
But it was Mark Mangino, then the head coach at Kansas, who made four visits during Lueken’s junior and senior years and got him to commit to KU.
Lueken's performance as a true freshman at Kansas was promising, playing in nine games during the 2008 season. But in April 2009, he suffered injuries off the field which left him something of a question mark going into the fall 2009 campaign, and he left before the season started.
After leaving KU, he had one goal in mind: to join the Marines, an idea his father said was in his head before the promising athlete left the KU campus.“He called me one night and said he wanted a bigger challenge,” said Jeff Lueken. “I asked him what could be a bigger challenge than playing in Division I football. He said he wanted join the Marines.”
“Ben was a big kid from middle school through high school,” said Doug Taylor, Chaminade's head football coach. “He was as good of basketball player as a football player in middle school, but decided he wanted to concentrate on football and became a very good football player.”
“Ben was bigger than life,” Taylor said. “His sophomore year he got hooked up with George Turner of Turner’s Gym and went old school in working out and got bigger and stronger. He was our strong tackle on the left side. He was the guy.”
Once at KU, Lueken had to drop 30 pounds, getting down to 290 pounds, Taylor said. When he left the Kansas, the Marines wanted Lueken to drop 40 more pounds.
“When he quit at Kansas, I got calls from all kinds of coaches wanting Ben,” Taylor said. “But Ben stopped by to visit and told me he was joining the Marines. 'This is what I decided I want to do with my life,'" Taylor said Lueken told him.
His dad takes the story over from there.
“The first time he went into the recruiting station he was at 260. They said they would take him, but they would prefer it if he was at 235. He changed his training completely. Instead of training for football, he was training for the Marines. The day he entered the Corps he was at 234 pounds,” Jeff Lueken said.
Taylor is sure Ben’s decision was influenced by his mother, Ann Catherine Lueken, who was in the Marines for six years. She died of breast cancer when Ben was 14 years old. He also thinks that J.B. Gorgen, a former Chaminade assistant coach and former Marine, may have also have helped Lueken keep a focus on some day joining the Marines.
“I thought at some point in his life he’d join the Marines, I just didn’t know when,” Jeff Lueken said. “I couldn’t be a Marine, so I married one and raised one.”
Lueken was interviewed last year by a U.S. Marines web site once he reached basic training in San Diego. He has declined all other interviews since, because he wants to focus on his Marine career, according to military officials reached by Creve Coeur Patch.
“I was playing at the highest level, and I felt like I was wasting my time,” Lueken said in the Marine interview. His high school coach thought he had talent that could one day lead to the NFL, but Lueken had other ideas. “My years of youth could be spent for a better cause. I figured you only have your body and health once. I wanted to put it to good use. College football is pure entertainment. It’s what people watch to get their minds off of real world issues. The Marine Corps is not a game. It deals with real issues,” Ben Lueken said.
After finishing basic training, Lueken went directly to infantry school at camp Pendleton, CA where he graduated Jan. 14.
Correction: Chaminade assistant coach J.B. Gorgen was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this story.