SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — Jon Bot and a few of his high school friends recently got together in the Battle Lake area in Minnesota to celebrate friendships that dated back nearly a half-century. On paper it was a fishing trip, complete with a trophy catch that got away.
This was a real trophy, though, not a walleye. And this trophy came back.
In 1974 Luverne High School won the Southwest Conference football title under Coach Elmer Menage. They got a big trophy to commemorate that, complete with a picture of the team attached.
For decades they'd all assumed that it was still sitting somewhere prominent at Luverne High School, but that was before Bot's friend Brian DeJongh texted him a photo of the trophy at I-29 Antiques & Collectibles, a huge structure near Tea where thousands of things defying categorization are up for sale, the Argus Leader reported.
"I saw the picture in the text but I didn't understand why he was sending it to me," said Bot, a longtime bar and restaurant owner in Sioux Falls known widely as Jono. "And where did he see it? An antique store? Why would such a valuable piece of hardware be in an antique store? I mean, how many football conference titles has Luverne won?"
Bot played up the outrage for a laugh, but he was intrigued enough to start telling people about it. Soon after, he and his friend Rob Wallner made a trip to Tea to hunt it down.
"I had no idea that place was that big," said Bot. "It seemed like miles and miles of all these trinkets. Rob and I walked what seemed like a couple blocks and I finally said, 'Rob, we're never going to find this. It's a needle in a haystack. Let's split up and you go one way and I'll go the other for the next 15 minutes.'"
Fifteen minutes later, he heard Wallner yell off in the distance.
"Let's meet at the front of the store!" Bot yelled back.
Bot discovered the trophy was priced at $28. He was miffed that it wasn't selling for more, but not miffed enough to actually pay the $200 he told the cashier he had been willing to spend.
"The first night I brought it out at home and put it on the kitchen counter," Bot said. "My wife Susan saw it and said, 'Well what's this trophy you're so proud of?' She picked me out in the picture and seemed very impressed."
The next day Bot saw that it had been moved to the garage.
There was the fishing trip coming up, though, set up by Pete Olsen, who had a lake cabin and wanted to get the gang together this summer for Bot, who has been in a difficult fight with a rare form of cancer the last two years.
"I walked into the cabin to get a beer and it was sitting there on the table," Olsen said. "I knew exactly what it was right away. We took a picture of each guy holding the trophy with the others standing behind him. We all took turns embellishing that trophy. It had been lost and now it was found."
Word has traveled among other members of the 1974 Luverne Cardinals football team, which had suffered through a serious dry spell in the years prior to earning the conference championship.
Bot, a junior on the team that year, tried to get one of the seniors to believe that Coach Menage had sent the trophy to him years earlier with a note explaining that he was the real MVP that season and it was only right that Bot should have it.
As Olsen noted, "Discernment is a valuable tool when you're talking to Jono," and the MVP yarn didn't go far.
The trophy itself is on the move, though. It has since gone through the Twin Cities and is currently in Red Wing, Minnesota, where two of the team's former players live. The plan is to continue passing it along from teammate to teammate, similar to the Stanley Cup.
"We want to get it into the hands of as many guys on that team as we can," Bot said. "They can set it down on a table and show it to their kids and their grandkids and make up their own stories about that season."
The fishermen left Olsen's cabin understanding that the trophy had become a focus of their time together. The games had stories. All those faces on the team picture had stories. Bot, a hall-of-fame storyteller, led the way in telling them.
"The beauty of this is that we thought we were going up there to gather around Jono," Olsen said. "But it wasn't us rallying around Jono, in reality it was Jono drawing us together. Jono and that trophy were pulling us all in."
So how did the trophy get to Tea? It is true that there had been a break-in at Luverne High School years ago. An early working theory had it that those burglars had stolen it. Eventually, the narrative continued, it fell into the hands of someone who didn't appreciate it and it went up for sale.
"Even I had trouble believing that," Bot said. "I mean, you break into a school and you're going to skip over all the computers and all that equipment and grab an old trophy?"
Calls made this week quickly gravitated toward an alternative scenario, where the school cleared room for trophies commemorating more recent accomplishments and passed it and other trophies off to the local historical society, which then drew the interest of a Luverne antiques dealer.
This dealer then may have passed it along to an antique enthusiast from Sioux Falls, who in turn put a 28-dollar price tag on in a section of the spacious antique mall and hoped for the best.
But what's the hurry in really nailing this down?
"I've thought about it and I've decided that I'm sticking with the theory that somebody stole it," Bot said. "I like the idea that it seemed valuable enough to steal."
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