STATELINE — By the time former National Football League star Jerry Rice reached the putting green and a volunteer named John Keema, the tournament was pretty much cleared out.
Evening was approaching and nearly all the celebrities and spectators had gone home. Keema was still there because he was a volunteer marshal and was stationed at the putting green.
The better question is, what was Rice still doing there?
“He said he hadn’t been playing at this level for long,” Keema said, “but his goal was to become truly competitive.”
Eighteen years later, the memory is one of Keema’s favorites because Rice was true to his word. The NFL Hall of Famer has become a competitive golfer, and Keema was there every year to watch Rice’s game transform.
After nearly 20 years of volunteering at the American Century Championship, the 91-year-old Keema has seen his share of player transformations and wild tournament moments. He has been volunteering at the American Century Championship at Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course in Stateline since 1994.
Keema volunteers because he likes golf and appreciates watching competitive players. But long before he found himself enjoying celebrity golf on the shores of Lake Tahoe, he was a member of the Army Air Corps in World War II.
Asked how long he served, Keema remembers to the day — March 16, 1943, until Oct. 31, 1963. He retired as a lieutenant colonel and flew B-17s, B-29s, RB45s and RB47s.
During World War II, Keema was a bombardier in the 390th Bomb Group. He flew 25 combat missions over Germany and occupied Europe from July to December 1943.
About one month in, on Aug. 24, 1943, he narrowly escaped death.
Keema and his crew were on their second bombing mission. The target was an airfield in France, and they were hit by anti-aircraft fire just before releasing the bombs. Two of their engines were knocked out and the third was severely damaged.
“Our navigator was killed, and the pilot, co-pilot and myself wounded. As we lost altitude and airspeed, we headed, alone, for the English Channel,” Keema said.
As the wounded plane started diving for the coast, it suddenly was a target. A group of enemy ME109s flew in to finish the job. It would have been over right there, but miraculously a flight of Spitfires, flown by members of the 303 Polish Fighter Squadron, arrived on the scene. The Polish pilots intercepted the ME109s and dove them off, destroying two of the enemy planes.
The Spitfires stayed with Keema and the crew while they ditched in the Channel and were rescued by the British air-sea rescue service.
Keema never did get to a chance to meet the Polish pilots who saved his life. His crew was supposed to make a trip to the base, but had to cancel the flight because of fog.