Similar to his three English setters, Keith Nord has always ranged far and wide. “I want to be moving,’’ he said. “I don’t like to sit.’’
A Minnetonka kid, Nord was a star quarterback in high school, though when he showed up in St. Cloud to call plays for the Huskies, he stood only 5-9 and tipped the scales at 150. But he was fast: He ran the 440 in 50.1. And tough. Switched to defensive back, he loved to hit — and has the surgical rap sheet to prove it: 25 operations, including two torn Achilles’ tendons and five vertebrae fusions of his neck.
Nord was recalling this the other day in his west metro home, and recalling as well the years 1979 through 1985, when he was a defensive back and kick returner for the Vikings. He had promised himself when he was a kid that someday he’d play in the NFL
“It was just something I knew I would do,’’ he said. “Something I had to do.’’
Now 61 years old, Nord’s wholesome good looks are reminiscent of the fresh-faced kid he once was. But he’s not so much interested in football anymore, and doesn’t often watch it on TV. Spectating never was his thing. Also, he thinks the sport might have seen its time. “I don’t think I’d want my son playing,’’ he said.
As Nord spoke, two of his setters, Sky and Joe, frolicked in the backyard while Jenn, his wife, stood nearby. Filtering home from school were Emerson, 17; Easton, 13; and Avery, 8. Nord also has two daughters from a previous marriage, Katie, 32, and Alex, 29.
Outside, the day was fresh and the sky, blue. Perfect, Nord was thinking, for a long run and a sweaty workout. And more perfect still for lacing up a pair of boots, dropping a couple of chilled 7½s in his Parker 12 gauge and setting out behind Sky and Joe in Minnesota’s North Woods or on North Dakota’s prairies.
The latter landscapes were particularly on his mind. This was September and already sharp-tailed grouse were legal in North Dakota, as was his favorite winged quarry, Hungarian partridge.
Striding endless grasslands in pursuit of these birds is for Nord every bit as life-affirming as playing defensive back for the Vikings.
As a bonus, this fall, Nord and a buddy, Kurt Boerner of the Twin Cities, had planned to hole up after their hunts in a dream shack they had built this summer in northwest North Dakota.
Surrounded by wavy stands of blue grama, threadleaf sedge, prairie junegrass and little bluestem, the 24-foot-square structure’s only neighbors besides grouse and partridge are bobolinks, Baird’s and Brewer’s sparrows, Dickcissels, sedge wrens and loggerhead shrikes.
That would have been this fall.
Except this past spring, Nord felt crummy. His stomach hurt, and his daily runs were a struggle. After his doctor figured out what was happening, Nord called Todd Saville, a schoolboy chum from Minnetonka, and said, “I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news’’
“Good news first,’’ Saville said.
“The good news is I know now why I haven’t felt well,’’ Nord said. “The bad news is I have cancer.’’
The disease is aggressive, and Nord’s time is short.
• • •
Steve Dils was a Vikings quarterback and longtime roommate of Nord’s. Drafted out of Stanford by the Vikings in 1979, Dils played 10 seasons in the NFL. Nord, he said, was his best teammate, ever.
“Keith’s such a solid guy, with an incredible work ethic,’’ said Dils, who lives in Atlanta. “When he called and told me how aggressive his cancer was, I got up there to see him. I brought a tape of the game against the Redskins, which we won at RFK [Stadium], which was the first game I started and in which Keith returned a punt for a touchdown. Watching the tape was the first time his kids had seen him play football.’’
Intent on proving himself to opponents and teammates alike, Nord, Dils said, stood up to anyone.
“I remember once in practice when Keith was a rookie, he popped Wally [Hilgenberg],’’ Dils said. Another time, Vikings coach Bud Grant cut short a desultory Thanksgiving Day practice, saying, “How about you, Nord? You want to fight anyone else before we leave?’’
The Vikings, under Grant, paid Nord a $500 signing bonus when he arrived as a free agent out of St. Cloud State.
“Keith was smart, with good athletic ability and he didn’t make mistakes,’’ Grant said. “He was a Minnesota kid, which gave us some common denominators to talk about. But he didn’t get preferential treatment from me. He earned his money.’’
Toward the end of his playing days, Nord studied for an MBA in finance. But he had gained a reputation as a public speaker and was asked ever more frequently to provide keynotes to corporate groups and to speak at banquets and in schools.
Charley Nelson was a teacher in Red Wing when he met Nord.
“We hired Keith to do leadership training with kids,’’ Nelson said. “He impressed me immediately, as he did the kids. He’s an incredible listener. And if you spend time with him, you’ll end up wanting to be a better person, because he will challenge you to do that.’’
Nord parlayed his proclivity for motivational speaking and leadership training into a 30-year career, working with employees of companies such as 3M, Red Wing Shoes and Northwestern Mutual Life, among many others.
“It always fascinated me,’’ Nord will say, “how people become as good as they can be at something. I mean the best they can be. How do people do that? Studying that, I broke it down into leadership goals. That’s what I often spoke about. To me, it’s fascinating.’’
A ruffed grouse hunter since his teen years, Nord while growing up brokered as much time as he could in the field, given his obligations to football. In college, his dad, Lynn, picked him up on Saturday mornings after Friday night games and together they headed north for grouse or to western Minnesota for pheasants.
He met Boerner, his prairie-hunting kindred spirit, in 1998.
“Keith is a hard-hunting guy whose dogs are always well trained,’’ Boerner said. “And like me, Keith likes to hunt alone with his dogs. So oftentimes when we’re in North Dakota, we’ll split up. Then, when we get back together, Keith is always enthusiastic; always asking about how many points my dogs had, and how many flushes.’’
At home, Nord was thinking about this the other day, about fall hunting and birds and dogs and the prairie shack he might never see.
“I like to walk,’’ he said. “I like to see what’s out there.’’