One of Minnesota’s greatest small college football players died on St. Patrick’s Day. And if you’re now waiting for the ethnic connection, it will not be forthcoming.
Ole Gunderson was 100 percent Norwegian. And he admitted one reason he chose to attend St. Olaf was that he had the same first name as the school, named in the honor of Olaf II, the king and patron saint of Norway early in the 11th century.
Gunderson came from Clover Valley, an unincorporated township north of Duluth, and played eight-man football in high school. He enrolled at St. Olaf in the fall of 1968. Freshmen were not eligible for varsity competition.
Mike Schmiesing was the lead back that season in coach Tom Porter’s wing-T and was drafted in the seventh round by Philadelphia. The Eagles had 19 choices (in 17 rounds) and Schmiesing was among 12 draftees who didn’t make the team.
Gunderson ran 49 yards for a touchdown on his first carry in 1969 and Porter had his replacement for Schmiesing.
St. Olaf was near the end of a quarter-century spent in the Midwest Conference. The Oles had left the MIAC in 1950 and returned in 1975. Thus, the MIAC powers — St. John’s and Concordia, at that time — were not on the schedule. The top of the Midwest was comparable to the rest of the MIAC back then.
Gunderson wasn’t the biggest or the fastest of running backs, blessed instead with great balance and durability. Defenses came after Ole fiercely, and he would continue to go at opponents 30 times a game in Porter’s run, then-run-again offense.
The stats on St. Olaf’s website have credited Gunderson with 608 carries for 3,899 yards. That makes him the Oles’ all-time leading rusher, but his teammates from 1969 to ’71 say he’s being shortchanged — that it actually was 639 carries for 4,060 yards, good for 70 touchdowns.
St. Olaf was 25-2 in Gunderson’s three seasons. He spent training camp with the Saskatchewan Roughriders, was cut, came back to Minnesota and raised a family — including Shane, an All-America baseball player for the Gophers.
Gunderson had been dealing with cancer and died at 68 at his home in Morristown, Minn.
Read Reusse’s blog at startribune.com/patrick.
Bad news/good news:
• St. Cloud State losing 4-1 to Air Force as the top seed in the 2018 NCAA men’s hockey tournament was horrible. This stronger Huskies team losing 2-1 to American International in 2019 is a choke for the ages.
• Checked schedule for Memorial Day-through-Labor Day road trip to view the Twins. Two August midweek games in Milwaukee is about it. Bad schedule.
• Torii Hunter, 43, was outside the Twins clubhouse after opener. How can you co-own a world-class BBQ joint and still be a rock? Torii could be the fourth outfielder right now.