Delts Come Together to Tell Olympic Team Handball Story

October 25, 2018

In the summer of 1969, the U.S. military was struggling in Vietnam militarily and at home politically. Some people no longer viewed soldiers as heroes, as they are today, but as pawns -- or even villains spreading death and destruction.

Something had to be done to remind a skeptical public that their men in uniform were the good guys.

Thus, was born the Army Champs program, a plan to create an all-Army Olympic team. As the war raged in Southeast Asia and protests erupted in cities and campuses across the country, Army athletes were auditioned and trained in the newly-ordained Olympic sport of team handball, a basketball-like game that looked to many like water polo on land. Those who failed to make the team were sent back to their units, most likely to serve in Vietnam. The finalists, the eventual 16 who made the team and beat Canada to qualify for the Games, went on to become the talk of the competition, eventually beating Spain, a renowned world power in the sport.

Now a trio of Delts seeks to tell the Army Champs story as a feature-length documentary film. Dennis Berkholtz (Kansas State University, 1967) was the captain of the American Olympic team handball team in 1972 competing at the summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany. He was a three-year starter for Tex Winter’s Kansas State basketball team and Soldier One in the Army Champs program. Berkholtz went on to coach the 1976 Olympic team handball team and has spent his life promoting the sport, and the Army Champs story.

In 2016, Mark Wright (University of California – Los Angeles, 1972) joined the storytelling effort. Wright is a former UCLA football and basketball player who played on the Men’s National Team Handball team for four years. Wright is also an award-winning filmmaker who is set to produce, write and direct Army Champs. Recently, comedian Bob Sarlatte (University of California, 1972), a football player at Cal and the longtime stadium announcer for the San Francisco 49ers, agreed to serve as the film’s narrator. For all three, Army Champs is a labor of love.

“Army Champs is the overlooked sports miracle story, one that ends not with a gold medal but with a single victory over a top ten international power, an almost impossible feat considering that almost none of the guys on the team had even heard of the sport just two years before,” said Wright, who played the game most of his life and is a three-time national champion. “The interesting thing is that it played out at a time when soldiers were reviled in this country. It led to an us-versus-the world mentality that united the guys in their quest to first qualify for the games, then compete with the best.”

Wright says part of the vision for the film is to shed light on the friendships that were born from the team, bonds that are as strong today as they were almost 50 years ago. Through the film he hopes Army Champs will more precisely define the term “team chemistry.”

Wright, Sarlatte and Berkholtz are now stepping up their efforts to publicize the film and find funding for a $750,000 budget. The International Handball Federation is interested, as are other corporate donors. There may not be an immediate financial return on a film about an unfamiliar sport, but with plans to shoot in 2019 and a release in the Olympic year 2020, these three Delt brothers hope their film will change the state of team handball in America once and for all.