The information that Wally Hilgenberg had been diagnosed with ALS started to circulate among his former Vikings teammates and buddies in December 2006.

Roy Winston and Lonnie Warwick, the linebackers who were Hilgenberg's running mates on and off the field, were quick to arrange a duck-hunting excursion with former running back Jim Lindsey in Arkansas.

"Jim has quite a hunting place down there, so we convinced Wally to fly in from Minnesota," Winston said. "He was doing fine, although I remember giving him a boat paddle to give him a little support when he was walking.

"We got in the blind. Wally took the first shot and he brought down two wood ducks. One shot, two woodies. He still had the eye."

Winston and Warwick got together with Hilgenberg a couple more times in Minnesota in the months that followed. They made a last journey in mid-September and spent a week.

They stayed with Chuck and Loral I. Delaney, old hunting pals, in Anoka and made daily visits to the Hilgenberg home in Credit River Township.

"Lonnie and I told stories and Wally still had his sense of humor," Winston said. "You could see him laughing with his eyes."

Hilgenberg, 66, died Tuesday at his home. He was surrounded by his wife, Mary, four children and many of his 14 grandchildren.

"It was beautiful," youngest daughter Kristi said. "We held Dad's hands, we prayed together and he went peacefully to see his Maker."

Hilgenberg played at Iowa, spent three years with Detroit, went to training camp with Pittsburgh in 1968 and was claimed off waivers by the Vikings in the week before the '68 season opener.

He started at right linebacker for the second half of that season, and then stayed there for the next eight years. He was a starter in all four Super Bowls for the Vikings.

Warwick was the middle linebacker for his first three seasons. Winston was the left linebacker through the 1975 season before being displaced by Matt Blair. And in all of Wally's 131 starts (including playoffs), the man lined up in front of him at end was Jim Marshall.

Last weekend, Marshall was married and many teammates as well as coaches (including Bud Grant) were in attendance. Three days after that festive event, Marshall received the call that his partner from the right side of one of the NFL's greatest defenses had died.

Marshall answered the phone at midafternoon. He was inconsolable and asked a reporter to call back.

Later, the NFL's all-time ironman said: "We lined up together for every game, and for every practice, for all those years. We relied on each other on the field, but it was in our personal lives where we were close.

"I'm always linked with Alan [Page] and Carl [Eller], as it should be, but Wally was as close a friend as I had with the Vikings. Our lives were intertwined. Those Vikings teams ... our families grew up together."

There weren't many players as unpopular with opponents as Hilgenberg. He was always looking to take the extra shot.

Marshall laughed when this was mentioned and said: "He would always come out fired up, ready to lead us into a fight. Or start one."

Winston said, "The tight ends would shift over to my side of the field and would say, 'Why don't you tell your buddy to play fair?'

"The one hit I've never forgotten involved Charlie Sanders, the great tight end in Detroit. He was going across the middle and I saw Wally running from the other side. My reaction was, 'This isn't going to be pretty.'

"Wally clotheslined him. Poor Charlie was knocked out and Wally was standing there, yelling, 'Lights out, you son of a gun,' although what he really said wasn't that nice."

Stu Voigt came to the Vikings as a rookie tight end in 1970. "We scrimmaged a lot more during the week then," he said. "Wally didn't just take extra shots in games. He did it in practice, too.

"Eventually, that stopped. One of us would call 'brother-in-law.' That meant we would bump into each other and grunt but not really hit."

Voigt and Hilgenberg were business partners long after their careers were over -- in the banking business for the past decade and in real estate over 20 years.

"This is a horrible disease," Voigt said. "Wally's mind stayed sharp, but his body turned into a shell so damn fast."

Voigt, Winston, Marshall ... all were asked if they were in on dumping water on Howard Cosell's toupee-covered head.

"I wasn't around," Winston said. "That was Wally's deal all the way."

The scene was the Vikings' hotel near the New Orleans airport before the Super Bowl with Pittsburgh in January 1975.

"Cosell was there to do an interview with Fran Tarkenton," Voigt said. "He made the mistake of doing it an open area under a balcony. Wally dumped a wastebasket full of water over the railing. Fran saw it coming and jumped out of the way, but Cosell was drenched.

"Supposedly, that's why Howard always disliked the Vikings."

If so, it was one of several enemies made for the Vikings during Hilgenberg's feisty, fun-loving, 12-season run in Purple.

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