Former football team holds reunion 58 years after meeting

Published 5:10 pm Friday, June 14, 2024

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By Ayanna Eckblad

Many people have fond memories from college, but not everyone keeps in touch with their college friends after the years of study are over. However, for a group of former football players, this is far from the truth.

This week, the Lea College Lancers football team reunion was held with 12 men, their spouses and one coach getting to see each other in the town where their friendship began.

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“We organized this reunion because all of us are getting older, and we thought it would be a good time to get together and have a little fellowship and have a little team togetherness,” former team member John Sauer said. Sauer currently lives in Marion, Iowa. He worked as a superintendent and principal for over 30 years.

Lea College was open from 1965 to 1973 and according to Sauer, the school had a football team for about five of those years. Many of the players on the team competed almost the entire time the team existed.

“Through that experience we became friends for life, and we thought we’d all get together where it all started in Albert Lea, Minnesota,” Tom DeWan of Arkansas said.

There were a few activities planned for the reunion. The group played some golf at Green Lea and had a catered dinner at Best Western, but the rest of the time was saved for sharing stories and reminiscing.

“The coaches and players [were] a bunch of misfits,” another team member, Mike Rowe, said. “We came in here getting a second chance in life and found people who were willing to help us and guide us. It was beautiful. And the community, you know, everybody supported us.”

Rowe describes his time at Lea College as an opportunity to turn his life around. After getting an education, he paid it forward by teaching and helping at-risk students in Iowa for many years until his retirement two years ago.

Coming from different states, life experiences and backgrounds, the team all had different reasons for going to Lea College.

“It was a smaller school, and I prefer being a name rather than a number … I love playing sports and that’s why I was up there,” Randy Hilgert said. Hilgert lives in Illinois where he works as a contractor.

“What was interesting for me was that I had an impression of Minnesota growing up in New York state,” Gary Murphy said. “I always thought Minnesota was Paul Bunyan and pine trees, and so it was sort of a culture shock when I got out of the bus in Albert Lea in a cornfield.” Murphy eventually made Minnesota his home and settled in Minneapolis. He described the team as “a real brotherhood of men from a bunch of different backgrounds.”

Another team member, Bill Sosnowski, also grew attached to Albert Lea. He said he and his wife try to visit the town whenever they have the opportunity to do so.

One of the most fond memories members of the team had were of the coaches, specifically coaches Bob McNew, Jerry Staton, Forrest “Frosty” Westering and Bill Caris. Staton was able to join the group briefly during the reunion on Wednesday.

“Our coaches were all Christians and they helped us find the Lord and the spiritual realm in that regard too. So not only did we get an education, we also got the keys to the kingdom,” team member Rick Boyle said. “The coaches, with their leadership, gave us the structure that we needed. They might call it something else but it was all good.”

According to Tim Labatt, the coaches shaped the team into the people they became and set them up for success. “The camaraderie was one of the things that our coach, Westering, taught and we were in, almost like a boot camp. And you learn things to become closer together as a team and play as a team so that was one of the things that brought us through such a successful career in football against competition. And truly it can be attributed to the coaches, and the coaching and their methodology of bringing us together.”

“[The coaches] helped me to grow into a man who was more mature, by the time I graduated I had no doubt that I could do anything I put my mind to,” Rowe added.

Another highlight of the reunion was getting to see the town and how it had changed or stayed the same over the 58 years. According to Paul Scheafbuer of New Jersey, all of the football team members had a sponsor assigned by the area’s athletic club. Scheafbuer’s sponsor was Niles Shoff, a chiropractor in Albert Lea. While in town, Scheafbuer said he was able to meet Shoff’s son and see that the family business continued.

Greg Francis of California said, “Since we’ve come back to Albert Lea, everyone’s familiar with the town and their own memories we had here 50 some odd years ago.”

In addition to occasional reunions, the team also has an active email list with all of the team members, about 40 in all.

“The best part about this group is it’s 50-plus years since we left here,” Francis said. “How many places do you have people who still come back after 50 years and have a great time?”

“I don’t want to make it sound too good, but it was,” Rowe said.