Edgar Lechner played on two Minnesota Gopher football teams that won national championships in the 1940s, and even played a year of pro football.
But he was just as passionate about dentistry.
Lechner, a St. Paul resident who’d long had a dental practice in Highland Park, died Nov. 5. He was 95.
He grew up on a farm in Fessenden, N.D., and showed a talent early on for football. During his senior year at Fessenden High, Lechner’s team was undefeated, and the strapping tackle was named to North Dakota’s all-state high school football team.
Lechner went to the University of Minnesota, studying in a pre-med track. But football beckoned, too. At the time, the Gophers were coached by the legendary Bernie Bierman, who had led the team to national titles in 1934, 1935 and 1936. In 1939, Lechner signed on to play tackle, both on offense and defense as was common then.
“Lechner was one of the handiest-Andy tackles Minnesota ever had,” Minneapolis Tribune sports columnist Charles Johnson wrote during Lechner’s tenure at the U.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Golden Gophers football was the biggest sporting ticket in town. And in 1940 and 1941, with Lechner playing tackle, the Gophers went 8-0 and were crowned national champions in consecutive years.
The 1941 season included a particularly tough game at Memorial Stadium against Northwestern University in which Lechner played a crucial role. He blocked a punt, setting up a trick play that Bierman had been waiting to spring. The “talking play” — as it was dubbed — involved a quick lineup by the Gophers offense and an argument with a referee. It worked, and the Gophers won 8-7.
In 1942, Lechner got an offer to play with the New York Giants of the National Football League. After a year of playing for the pros, he returned to the U, intent on pursuing a dentistry degree. A Big Ten rule change allowed him to play college football again in 1943.
He broke his leg during a game that season, “and that was the end of his football career,” said Matt Lechner, Edgar’s grandson.
He probably wouldn’t have opted for a pro career anyway. Back then, pro football paid so poorly that most players took second jobs. The No. 1 pick in the NFL’s first college draft — back in 1936 — turned down the Chicago Bears to become a foam rubber salesman.
Lechner “didn’t look at football as something he could earn a living at throughout the year,” Matt Lechner said. “His goal was to be a dentist. Once he met my grandmother, he knew that stability and starting a family was number one.”
Lechner married his college sweetheart, Evelyn Kroemer, in 1943, then did a stint in the U.S. Navy from 1944 through 1946. Soon after, he went to work as a dentist, setting up his own practice in 1949. He would spend the next 49 years in the tooth-care trade, as ardent about dentistry as he was about football, his grandson said.
Along the way, he became a “de facto dentist” for the Minnesota Vikings, Matt Lechner said, working on the teeth of some of the Vikings greats of the 1970s.
Lechner was preceded in death by his wife and his daughter, Barbara. He is survived by a son, Edward, of Bloomington; Matt Lechner and one other grandson, and three great-grandchildren. Services have been held.