(Brad Brolsma, Class of 1969 at Sherburn High School, wrote this piece on community resident George Packard’s remarkable presence with the 1970 Sherburn Raiders state basketball champions. The article appeared in the March 11 edition of the Martin County Star.)
March 21 marks the 50th anniversary of Minnesota’s very last single-class state basketball championship game. In a genuinely “David vs. Goliath” championship game, the team from the small southwestern town of Sherburn stunned a South St. Paul team that was a favorite to hoist the championship trophy that night. There was also a very compassionate story within this basketball tale. This is that story.
It goes without saying that for most residents of Minnesota, hope springs eternal during the early days of March. For many without ample time or money for travel to tropical wonderlands, these hopes are pretty much fixated on a premature end to winter and the early arrival of much warmer weather.
But it wasn’t always like that — especially for the farmers and town folk residing in the counties of southwestern Minnesota. For much of the last century, the calendar turn to March not only brought lofty hopes of an early spring and a swift snow melt, but also frequent coffee shop debates on how the local high school team would fare in the upcoming district, regional and state basketball tournaments. Coaches and fans crafted possible scenarios that would have their favorite team joining just seven other high schools in playing for the state championship at Williams Arena, or “The Barn” as it’s affectionately known.
With the southern Minnesota emergence of hockey and school district consolidations still many years away, high school basketball reigned supreme, if only because fielding twelve athletes who were sufficiently adept at dribbling, shooting and rebounding was plausible for even the smallest of these rural communities. During the last eleven years prior to the creation of multiple-class tournaments in 1971, southwestern Minnesota high schools secured four championships, bookended by Edgerton’s 1960 championship win over Austin and unbeaten Sherburn’s capture of the very last single-class tournament in 1970 — two communities with barely 1,000 inhabitants each.
(There were also back-to-back titles for Marshall in 1963 and Luverne in 1964.)
Much has been written about the Sherburn Raiders’ undefeated season and its 78-62 defeat of metro powerhouse and tournament favorite, South St. Paul, in the final game of the state tournament. Whule they are great reads, none has really focused on that year’s emergence of the community’s most-reclusive resident, George Packard, as the team’s most-improbable fan.
This 67-year-old loner was feared by most every kid who walked the streets of Sherburn. As team co-captain Jeff McCarron pointed out, “He scared us as kids … he was kind of this mysterious person about town.”
Never with a clean-shaven face and always publicly mumbling to himself, it was little wonder kids nervously avoided George’s house when trick-or-treating each Halloween. Even apprehensive adults crossed to the other side of the street when he regularly walked the three blocks from his home to the Post Office to check for mail.
George was not known to imbibe in alcoholic beverages, but in many ways he closely resembled the town drunk, Wilbur “Shooter” Flatch, the Dennis Hopper character introduced in the 1991 film “Hoosiers” — a movie whose narrative is uncannily similar to Sherburn’s storied road to the state championship.
Like Shooter, George spent most days with no close buddies. He and Shooter did share a keen love of basketball, [although} It was George’s devotion to the local football team that that first gave rise to his eventual recognition — first by coaches and players, then fans …
It was October 17, 1969, and the Raiders were set to play the Blue Jays from Truman, a 30-minute drive from Sherburn … In the early afternoon hours of game day, George met up with Sherburn’s football coach, Bill Etter, and mumbled warnings about the strength of the Truman team and to not take a win for granted.
Dressed in an old, tattered winter coat stained with blood from recent animal trappings, mismatched mittens and lace-up boots that exceeded mileage expiration dates, George explained to Coach Etter that he was headed to Truman to see the game.
With kickoff nearly five hours away, a curious coach was asking himself if George planned on walking to Truman. George volunteered that his car’s headlights didn’t work, so he had to make sure he got to Truman before dark.
With George pacing the field outside the fan ropes, Sherburn beat Truman 32-0, a victory that ensured at least a tie for the conference championship. As the winning team and coaches boarded the bus for the triumphant return to Sherburn, Coach Etter recalled his afternoon conversation with George and wondered aloud what George’s plan might be for the night — a night where temperatures were expected to dip close to and maybe below freezing.
George’s sleepover in his car and return to Sherburn in the early morning hours of the next day was not the leading conversational topic amongst fans that morning. George’s travails were not lost on Coach Etter — and he set about to help Sherburn’s most reviled, yet dedicated fan gain some public acceptance, and acknowledgement.
With a final season victory over Mapleton and the conference championship trophy in hand, the attention of athletes and coaches turned to basketball. Tryouts and practices began in early November with the first game slated for the first week of December. With the return of Sherburn’s two outstanding big men, McCarron and Tom Mulso, second-year head coach Dennis Christofferson was excited about the team’s prospects.
Etter was also the assistant basketball coach. When George began showing up at every practice in the same clothes he had worn that night in Truman, he alerted Christofferson to George’s plight in traveling to away games.
Always alone and leaning against the performance stage bordering the west end of the basketball court, George passionately watched practice, constantly mumbling to himself as the Raiders practiced its soon-to-be vaunted fast-break offense and swarming zone defense.
One day, coaches decided to approach George with an offer that in the eyes of many bordered on madness. As the coaches walked toward George, he started moving toward the exit, expecting he was about to be told to leave practice.
Instead, the coaches asked if he would be interested in traveling to away games on the team bus. A seldomly observed ear-to-ear smile on George’s face provided the answer, but it was quickly erased upon learning the offer’s conditions. Quite simply, George had to clean up his act, and his wardrobe.
George had no better clothes and a small bank balance. He must have recognized he would have to resign himself to walking the five blocks to the high school to only watch the local team play home games.
Christofferson and Etter hatched other plans to help the town’s most reclusive resident. Coaches and players pooled spare cash and purchased new lace-up boots. Parents of the players located a used suit and outer coat for George. Other fans contributed a couple of dress shirts and ties. The addition of soap, water and more frequent use of his razor put George on the bus.
The Raiders opened their season on December 2 with an impressive 74-38 homecourt victory over Jackson. Just three days later, George’s first bus trip was to Butterfield — an easy 35 — minute drive from Sherburn. Riding on the bus, George appeared bewildered by what his role might be with this team.
“You certainly could imagine how someone, subjected to so much past cruelty, would be confused when he was now having an entire team treat him with appreciation,” McCarron said. Sherburn handily defeated Butterfield 76-54. The buzz amongst Raider fans regarding the winning performance that night couldn’t hold a candle to the crowd’s search for a reason why George was carrying the ball bag and sitting on the team’s bench.
With each ensuing bus trip, George seemed to gain a better grasp of his role. Players took it upon themselves to engage George in conversations about the game ahead and about his childhood. They reveled in stories of George’s youth — stories so outrageously amusing that coaches and players alike found themselves collapsing to the floor in laughter.
As the bus would approach each opponent’s town, Coach Christofferson would move George to the front seat. There George would remind the team of those opposing players he expected would be the toughest to defend.
As McCarron tells it, “I’m not sure where he gained his understanding of opposing players, but it was a rare night that we didn’t believe him. He pushed us to remain focused on the job at hand. I don’t think there was ever a game where George didn’t tell us we could get beat.”
Despite his emergence as the team’s mascot, there were certainly going to be some things about George that would defy change. Senior point guard, John Tirevold, said, “He would pack a bag lunch for each trip and he always included a peeled, over-ripe banana that kind of molded itself to the bottom of the bag. With grubby unwashed hands, he would pull a chunk of the brown banana from the bag, stuff it in his mouth and lick his fingers.”
With the victories mounting, the team was also capturing more attention from sports writers and broadcasters. Mulso and McCarron were quickly the high scoring “M and M boys.” Tirevold was gaining kudos as the outstanding floor general responsible for pushing Sherburn’s fast break. Reporters were intrigued by the outstanding ball skills and court sense exhibited of two sophomore starters, Pete Eiden and Paul Krohn.
Curiosity about a 67-year old outcast being thrust into a role with an undefeated team also was flourishing. So familiar with avoiding public attention in the past, George found himself being asked questions. He initially retreated, but soon the attention extended to him by reporters brought pure delight to George.
His close relationship with this outstanding basketball team appeared to have won acceptance from the community as well. Residents crossed the street to greet George and wish him well. Kids rushed up to him to say hello. It was a very distinctive transformation, but ironically, George really didn’t change. The real transformation was rooted in changes to the community’s perception of a gentle man who listened to a much different drummer.
George was notorious for being quoted in newspaper articles much later in the season saying, “We’re just the hicks from the sticks.”
He was speaking for himself, not the players. For that one magnificent basketball season, those hicks demonstrated that not only could David conquer Goliath, but that good guys could finish first. They strapped the village outcast to their backs and carried him into a realm of popularity and admiration. And let’s not forget, those hicks also showed the state’s sporting public how to play basketball in that very last single-class tournament.
Those players all went on to play college basketball and/or football. They became educators, authors, playwrights, college athletic directors, and banking, radio and insurance industry executives. Throughout their careers, they continued to extend helping hands to individuals down on their luck or simply in need of just some kind of appreciation and acknowledgement — just as Coach Christofferson and Coach Etter had coached them to do years earlier.
George passed away in July of 1983. He was 81 years old. Except for three sisters living some distance away, the obituary could have simply stated he left no one. The passage of thirteen years since the championship season had erased much of George’s notoriety within this small community. Those few residents who attended the funeral were mostly long-time neighbors who had helped George through his final days.
Yet, his contributions were not lost on the players and coaches from that championship season. Those that could make the funeral were his proud casket bearers that day.
The team’s final victory over the favored South St. Paul Packers brought residents and alumni of the small village of Sherburn immeasurable pride and euphoria. In the grand scheme of things, it was only a single basketball season — just four cold, wintry nights.
But for Mr. Packard, it must have seemed a lifetime.