College Football: Warriors celebrate 50th anniversary
In April, Randy Haats sat at his computer with his phone by his side and went to Google and White Pages to track down long lost friends.
He was looking for people he spent nearly every day with during his college days but, as most people do after graduation, had lost touch. Those friends—teammates, really—were approaching a major milestone and Haats was calling to remind them.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the inaugural football season at Ridgewater College, then known as Willmar State Junior College, and Haats and company will be back in Willmar this weekend to celebrate during and after Ridgewater's home game at Hodapp Field against Itasca Community College.
Following halftime of Saturday's game, the former players will head to the American Legion for a celebration with a buffet and time to catch up.
It's the first major reunion for the squad since their playing days when they won three straight state titles from 1967-1969. Though various members of the team have met together in the past, this will be the first time involved with the school and featuring more than fifty former players.
"It all started a couple of years ago, there were a few guys that got together, we had maybe 10 or 12 people and we did get Coach (Mel Lewis) to come out," said Haats, who was a quarterback on the roster from 1967-1969. "He said, 'Man, it would be nice if we could get a 50 year reunion.' And it just coincided with the 50 year anniversary of the college. I'm retired now from the postal service so I just kind of took it upon myself to start calling, Googling, whatever."
Haats missed the 1967 season after breaking an ankle just days before the opening game and that proved to be a common theme in that inaugural season. Come opening day, Willmar only had 17 players available to play. Some of those players were Vietnam veterans, returning from the war looking to play football.
"They were cool guys to deal with," Haats said. "They were an integral part of the team. The adversity they faced over there, football was nothing for them."
The lack of players on the field wasn't mimicked in the stands. Haats said those early games quickly became community events with large crowds and fast-growing rivalries.
"We had tremendous crowds, students and people from the community were there, it was really the thing to go to," Haats said.
Haats hopes that will be the case once again this weekend. More than fifty former players say they're planning on attending the festivities to reminisce.
"It's just to share memories, stories," Haats said. "There's many of them out there. At the previous get togethers we talk for two, three hours just laughing....It was probably the best time of my life experience-wise. That's the way a lot of people felt. It's just getting together and seeing each other again."