Wally Hilgenberg came out of Iowa and played the 1964 through 1966 NFL seasons for the Detroit Lions. He suffered a torn knee ligament in training camp in 1967. He underwent surgery and that created a clot that turned into a pulmonary embolism.

"I was in the hospital for 17 days and almost died," Hilgenberg said. "The Lions figured that finished me as a football player. They traded me to Pittsburgh in 1968."

Hilgenberg and Mary Fox of Milwaukee were married in 1967. "I was making $19,000," he said. "My wife was pregnant with the first of our four kids. I asked the Steelers for $2,000, for moving expenses, if nothing else. They refused. Then, they let me go.

"I called Mary and said, 'I was cut. I'm probably done as a football player.'"

Hilgenberg rented a car and drove to Detroit. When he arrived home, there was a message from Jim Finks, the Vikings' general manager.

"I didn't know who he was," Hilgenberg said. "I called, he introduced himself and said the Vikings had claimed me on waivers for $100. They wanted me in uniform for the season opener that Sunday."

"I mentioned the financial thing. Finks said, 'You won't have a problem with me.' When I got to Minnesota, I went to his office and within 15 minutes I had a new contract with a 25 percent raise. I liked the Vikings right away."

Hilgenberg's fondness for Minnesota's NFL team -- he played 12 seasons for the Vikings -- soon turned into a devotion for the state. Wally and Mary never left, raising four kids and now watching 14 grandchildren grow up in Minnesota.

He's now getting a great deal of that devotion in return, as word spreads that Hilgenberg, 65, is in his second year since doctors diagnosed the fatal disease of ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Vikings initiation

Forty years ago, on his first day with the Vikings, coach Bud Grant told Hilgenberg to get familiar with right linebacker, because that's where he was looking for help.

Lonnie Warwick was the middle linebacker and Roy (Moonie) Winston was the left linebacker. Hilgenberg was big into hunting and fishing and had heard the same about Warwick and Winston.

"I thought it wouldn't hurt to buddy up right away to two starting linebackers," Hilgenberg said.

The newcomer was told that Warwick and Winston were going duck hunting early the next morning. "If you want to hunt with us, you're going to need waders,'" Wally was told.

He bought waders after practice. He was ready when Winston picked him up before dawn in his old truck.

"Even that morning, Warwick sat in the middle, because that's where he played," Hilgenberg said.

The Vikings arrived at the Minnesota River backwaters.

"I said, 'Where are your waders?'" Hilgenberg said. "They said, 'We don't need waders, as long as you got them.' I waded out to set up the decoys. I waded out to retrieve the ducks. I waded out to pick up the decoys."

Hilgenberg laughed in memory of his first quality time with Warwick and Winston, then said to his wife: "Mary, could you get that photo Lonnie gave us on my birthday?"

Mary retreated to the back of the Hilgenberg house in Credit River Township and returned with a large photo of three young men in Vikings uniforms:

No. 58 Hilgenberg on the right, No. 59 Warwick in the middle and No. 60 Winston on the left.

"They always lined up that way," Mary said. "If they were sitting on a couch together, you would look over and there they were: Wally on the right, Lonnie in the middle, Roy on the left."

Outpouring 'has been amazing'

Hilgenberg was diagnosed with ALS in 2006. He's in a wheelchair now. His arms are nearly non-functional.

There was a satisfied smile Wednesday when he was able to hold a biscuit at his left side for his 2-year-old Lab, Ruby, to take.

Hilgenberg was sitting in his chair with a cell phone on his lap. He was talking with Ed White, the great Vikings guard who was checking in from California.

A few minutes later, Mary came back with the cell phone and said, "Jim Marshall is on the phone."

Marshall sounded like death warmed over. "I have the worst cold of my life," the ironman defensive end said. "I can't be there with you tomorrow."

They talked about getting together in the near future, and Wally signed off with, "I love you, captain."

"I love you, too," said Marshall, and through the speaker you could hear an emotional catch in Marshall's voice.

Soon, Mary came back with the cell phone and said: "You'll want to hear this message."

The caller was Red McCombs, the former Vikings owner, leaving best wishes and his phone number.

"It's not just former teammates," Hilgenberg said. "Franco Harris called. Lem Barney called. Mike Ditka. Jim Otto. It's been amazing."

Strength from his faith

Early this morning, Hilgenberg will be the featured guest at a Search Ministries event at the Sheraton Hotel on Normandale Road in Bloomington. This is the ministry of Jeff Siemon, the successor to Warwick as the Vikings' middle linebacker.

"When Jeff came to the Vikings [in 1972], I didn't like him," Hilgenberg said. "He was from Stanford, a goody-goody two shoes. But the real reason I didn't like him was that he took my best friend's job.

"Eventually, I was able to see what kind of a guy Jeff Siemon was ... great guy and a great friend of the Lord. He probably had more influence on me turning my life over to the Lord than anyone."

Hilgenberg paused. There was a peaceful look to him.

"I don't know how people could deal with something like this without faith," he said.

Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. • preusse@startribune.com