Archived Story

Progress 2011: The Giving Grizzlies

Published 4:30pm Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Members of the Albert Lea Grizzlies know they may not be around the community forever, but they’re taking steps to assure that if they decide to leave, the football team doesn’t go with them.

Members of the Albert Lea Grizzlies, above, work just as hard off the field as they do on it. From left, front row, are George Gerdes and Jason Kuipers. In the center row are Dustin Peterson, Craig Schmidt and Ross Anderson. And in the back row are Chris Hable, Tony Tolbers and Paul Matheron. The team plays football in Albert Lea in the spring at Brookside Park. -- Photo by Andrew Dyrdal/Artwork by Stacey Bahr

“We want to make the community a better place,” Grizzlies president Craig Schmidt said. “At the same time, we want to make the Grizzlies something that’s going to last so that when we become too old to play it doesn’t fall apart.”

The Grizzlies name was founded in October 2009 after the team relocated to Albert Lea from Emmons, where they were known as the Southern Minnesota Indians. They play in the six-team Southern Plains Football League on Saturday nights at Brookside Park in the spring.

The team’s fan attendance grew to 150 toward the end of last season and head coach Steve Piper said that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“We could double that attendance this season realistically,” he said.

To stay legitimate, as of Jan. 6 the Grizzlies acquired nonprofit status and are working toward becoming a 501(c)(3) organization to be tax-exempt and absolved of liabilities of injuries.

“If you’re going to have an organization that lasts beyond you, it’s one of the bricks of the foundation that needs to be in place,” Schmidt said.

While the Grizzlies spent less than two months playing football last spring in their inaugural season in Albert Lea, they spent over eight months giving back to the community.

In the early spring, the Grizzlies helped pick trash and glass off the streets during Albert Lea’s spring cleanup. This fall, they volunteered time coaching to the Albert Lea Family Y’s youth football program.

Volunteering isn’t hard, they said, because the community has already given so much to them.

Last season, the Grizzlies played at Brookside shortly after the June 17 tornado outbreak in three inches of standing water. Local fans came to help the players remove sticks and branches off the field for 2 1/2 hours so that it was playable. That was the same game the Grizzlies had the largest and loudest crowd.

“That’s the community giving back to us,” quarterback and Albert Lea native Tony Tolbers said. “It was a great feeling to have people watching despite the weather.”

Most of the Grizzlies players are from Albert Lea and take pride in their hometown. One of their goals is to help rebuild the football program in Albert Lea.

“I think Albert Lea loves football,” Piper said. “And is addicted to it as anybody.”

Over the next year, the Grizzlies hope to develop a youth football program of their own starting with a three-day weekend skills camp in the summer.

“We have a lot of talented guys that want to contribute to the community,” Piper said. “With the right partnerships, I think there is enough money and equipment for youth football to take the next step.”

Piper hopes that in 20 years he could drive through Albert Lea and still catch a Grizzlies game on Saturday night.

“We’re just trying to bring excitement and spirit to the community,” he said. “It’s something for youth to attend on Saturday nights, and it’s free.”

Hero: The Albert Lea Grizzlies
Secret identity: South Plains Football League team
Base of operations: Brookside Park
Superpowers: Enthusiastic about everything they do on and off the field
Kryptonite: Can have too much fun together
Affiliations: Stephen Piper, head coach; Craig Schmidt, team president
Origin: Began as the Owatonna Indians in 2007 before becoming the Southern Minnesota Indians in 2008 and Albert Lea Grizzlies in 2009. The majority of players are from Albert Lea.