The Marine whose inspiration Jim Harbaugh found letter-perfect

Monday, September 4, 2017 - 8:43pm

On Monday, Anthony Riddle still couldn’t believe what Jim Harbaugh did with his letter.

After all, a 15-minute press conference after Michigan beat Florida — during which Harbaugh explained that Riddle’s letter became his pregame speech — turned him into a celebrity.

His Facebook blew up with requests from journalists and everyday individuals alike, all looking to talk to the man that inspired Harbaugh’s Wolverines. But before that, it started with his sister, Shelle.

“My sister ended up giving me a call,” Riddle said in a phone interview with the Daily. “And she’s like, ‘Hey, my boyfriend just got an ESPN alert that Jim Harbaugh just read some Marine’s letter. Was that you?’ ”

Yes, it was.

***

Before the letter, there was a speech.

Riddle was tasked with writing about his friend, who is set to receive an award in the coming month.

And for the entire offseason, Riddle had heard a collection of analysts say that Michigan was too inexperienced to have success in 2017. Finally, while writing the speech for his friend with ESPN and Big Ten Network on in the background, he decided he needed a break.

So nine days ago, on the Sunday before Michigan’s season opener, instead of finishing his speech, he started writing the letter.

He proofread it.

He Googled Jim Harbaugh’s email address, picking the only one he could find.

He clicked send.

Riddle never expected Harbaugh would read it, let alone reply. He sent the email thinking to himself, “What’s the worst that could happen?”

A day and a half later, a response from Michigan’s coach arrived in his inbox.

“I’m sitting at work, and it says Jim Harbaugh,” Riddle said. “My hands started shaking and I’m like, ‘No way.’ ”

Harbaugh told Riddle that he had put the irrelevance of youth in better perspective than he could have himself, and he admitted as much during his press conference Saturday night.

And he said that he would be sharing the letter with the team. But Riddle expected it to surface in practice and fade away quietly.

But now you know what really happened.

The thing is, it doesn’t stop there.

In his original reply, Harbaugh invited Riddle to Ann Arbor, asking to meet the Jackson, Mich. native and draw on his experiences. On Monday, Harbaugh took it a step further — telling Riddle that he is welcome to be on the field for a game of his choosing.

“It’s hard because I want to be as respectful to him and not take up any unneeded time,” Riddle said. “I think overall it just speaks volumes for what type of a person he is. He could’ve just looked at that letter and said, ‘Oh, I get 50,000 of these a day.’ ”

***

Riddle’s path to the Marines began with a dream that would be familiar to most, but real to him — he wanted to be an astronaut.

In sixth grade, his father told him that if he worked hard, he would be able to get there, but added a word of caution: The men who go to space are some of the smartest people in the world.

Three years later, Riddle entered high school and realized his dream needed some tinkering.

“Going into high school, I didn’t have the greatest grades,” Riddle said. “I didn’t have the worst, I wasn’t dumb by any means. But I obviously didn’t have the grades to be like, ‘All right, I’m going to be an astronaut one day.’ ”

So he set out on a new path. He knew that most astronauts were former pilots and figured that, if he became a good enough pilot, his dream might be attainable after all.

But after evaluating his options for service school, he found himself visiting his brother’s best friend at boot camp in 1996. Then came the revelation.

“From that day on,” Riddle explained, “I said, ‘That’s what I’m doing.’ ”

Just after his high school graduation, he joined the Marines. But two weeks into boot camp, he broke his collarbone.

Riddle was forced into medical rehab, all the while watching everyone else around him move on and graduate. Eventually, he’d had enough.

“It (was) very depressing being in this medical rehab platoon,” Riddle said. “So I was there for about a week and I went back down to the doctor’s office and said, ‘Look, I’m not gonna sit here and watch everyone else move on and train, and I’m not gonna sit here for the next six weeks.’

“And she told me, ‘Well in order for you to get back into a platoon, you have to get down and do push-ups … and then you have to do a physical fitness test.’ ”

He did the push-ups. Then he beat everyone in the physical fitness test. He ran three miles in 17:10, and did 28 pull-ups and 175 sit-ups in two minutes. He still had a broken collarbone.

He graduated boot camp in October of 2000, and, despite only holding the rank of corporal, became a platoon sergeant — a position typically reserved for military members in their early 30s — roughly two years later.

He then led 52 Marines, all under the age of 20, into Iraq. The video of Sadam Hussein’s statue being torn down was filmed from his vehicle.

He did that all before his 22nd birthday. And that’s what he told Jim Harbaugh in his letter.

Now he has a blank check to cash. And he’s spending it the way he wants to.

“(My sister) is a Spartans fan,” Riddle said. “She graduated from (Michigan State), so she’s like, ‘If he offers you to come to a game, that’s the one I want to go to.’

“I said, ‘No, if he offers me to come to a game it’s gonna be against Ohio.’ ”