Editor’s note – This is the fourth of a four-part series on the 2016 Times-Gazette Highland County Athletic Hall of Fame inductees. They will be honored Thursday, June 23 at the Ponderosa Banquet Center in Hillsboro, along with 31 senior student-athletes. The 6 p.m. event is open to the public and tickets are available. Call 937-402-2522 for more information.
When he was a little kid Craig Unger didn’t care much for football. But as he matured and became more confident that’s the sport he gravitated toward. It led to him becoming a two-time Division 1-AA All-American and in his senior year one of 25 football players in all collegiate divisions nationwide named a CoSIDA NCAA Academic All-American.
“When it came time for flag football I didn’t want to play. I was kind of a heavy kid and thought it was too much running,” Unger said recently. “But my dad pretty much made me play and to this day I’m thankful for that.”
In those younger days baseball was Unger’s sport of choice, and during his high school years he achieved his highest honor in basketball as a third-team All-Ohio selection. But he was a youth baseball pitcher that lost interest when he hit hurt his arm, then by high school it was obvious that his physical gifts were pointing toward football.
At McClain High School, Unger was a three-year letterman in basketball and football, and a freshman regional qualifier as a thrower in his only year on the track team. In football he was a three-time All-District selection and Buckeye Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year.
His earliest influences in sports, Unger said, came from his mother, Connie Miller’s side of the family, including his grandfather, Earl Miller, Earl’s son, Dusty Miller, a basketball standout at McClain, and his mother. He said his late father, Daryle Unger’s family, was not rooted in athletics, but still his father steered him that way.
But if he’s talking about aathletic influences, Unger said he could not forger his coaches, in particular Randy Closson, Dan Raike, Tim Gossett and Rick Van Matre. He said Closson gave him attention in junior high and told him he could do big things, Raike was his linebacker coach in high school, Gossett helped him develop a mental approach to football, and it was Van Matre that engrained discipline and a competitive nature.
“I owe a lot to them honestly. They were great coaches who made you a great player,” Unger said. “I can’t say enough about any of them and I don’t want to single out any one. I learned things from each of them.”
As his high school career wound down Unger had his sights set on playing Division I football at Miami (OH) University.
“I was dead set on Miami as a preferred walk-on. But they had some coaching changes and at the last minute I went to Morehead (State University) with dad and really liked it. At the time that was the spot for me and I hit it off with the coaches,” Unger said.
Unger ended up starting almost his entire four years at the Kentucky school. He said that heading into the first game of his freshman season he was listed as the third string middle linebacker. But the starter suffered a career-ending injury that first game, then the very next game the original starter’s backup, East Clinton graduate Kevin Chance, was lost for the season to a knee injury. Unger stepped in and started every game thereafter.
His junior and senior years he was Pioneer League Co-Defensive Player of the Year and a NCAA 1-AA All-American. He was also the team leader in tackles and was named the MSU 2003-04 Male Student-Athlete of the Year. But the CoSIDA Award was the big one because it came with a post graduate scholarship.
Unger graduated from Morehead with a bachelor’s degree in business with a concentration in finance, then received his master’s degree in finance from the University of Kentucky.
After college Unger considered professional football and even had some tryouts with the Arena League and other places. But he said he knew he could make more money with his degree than he could in the Arena League. So he went to work.
He worked for PNC Bank in Cincinnati for 10 years and about a year ago took a job as a financial adviser with U.S. Bancorp Investments.
Looking back over his athletic career Unger said the memories are endless. But he said that what stands out about his collegiate days are the bus rides, practices and workouts.
“But the biggest thing I remember is looking up in the stands every game and seeing and mom, grandpa, sisters and dad, when was alive. That was the best part of it,” Unger said. “In high school you play with guys you’ve grown up with your whole life and that’s a completely different experience from playing with guys you just met in college. Both are great in their own capacity.”
If his name ever came in a conversation about former athletes, Unger said he’d like people to remember that he wasn’t the biggest, the fastest or the strongest.
“I put a lot of time and effort into understanding the game,” he said. “But I think probably what I take my most pride in is my work ethic. I never quit and I would never give up.”
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.