Celebration Saturday: It's a Fladebo family takedown
Willmar’s first state title by Kevin Fladebo in 1973 came after lots of tough matches at home
Sports editor’s note: This is the 14th installment of the ‘Celebration Saturday’ series highlighting top individual and team achievements in the West Central Tribune area. Today’s story looks at Willmar wrestler Kevin Fladebo, who won the Cardinals’ first state individual title in any sport in 1973.
WILLMAR— In the old days, a neighborhood might raise a champion and surely a band of brothers can help.
This piece is about a wrestler, but let’s recall the times, namely, the 1950s and the ‘60s — a great time to be a kid with a baseball glove.
Climb out of bed, mom fixes breakfast, hop on your Schwinn, or the more affordable JC Higgins from Sears Roebuck, and pedaled down the street netting friends like a school of minnows.
“If you didn’t show up for lunch, mom knew someone was feeding you,” said Stacy Fladeboe, who was 7 in 1960.
Ball all day, sometimes at Garfield using the southside of the school for a backstop.
Kevin, the third of the four Fladeboe boys, would become Willmar High School’s first state champion. As a freshman, he had already gone through a meat grinder. The Fladeboe home had a couple of mats, one inside and another in the yard, or they tussled on the floor. Twin brothers Stacy and Steve — older by three years — “kicked the bleep” out of young Kevin.
The kids grew up on the Mason-Dixon line of city neighborhoods. The two-story, four-bedroom frame home near the corner of Ninth Street Southwest and Litchfield Avenue was adjacent to a then much-smaller Holiday station. Technically, they were Westsiders but they were just as much a part of the Northside, the “tough guy” side of town, where they mixed it up on the Lafayette playgrounds and where they played rec sports.
“Together it was us against the Eastsiders where the best athletes were,” Steve said.
With five children, the Fladeboe name carried weight, especially west of downtown. There was an older sister Jann, then the four brothers — the youngest, Craig, was an infant in 1960. Famously there was the family’s “Little Store’’ on Litchfield Avenue, later in the shadow of Piggly Wiggly (now a church).
No bigger than a two-stall garage, the Little Store had a single aisle. These family-run groceries were embedded in neighborhoods all about town, The Fladeboes ran the store from 1961-73 when it was sold and converted to a real estate office. The “C-store” of its time sold cigarettes (60 brands, claims Stacy), soda, Old Dutch chips, penny candy, bread and other essentials.
“Mom would make us breakfast, get us off to school then go open the store,” remembers Stacy. “We all worked there, and so did our friends. It was open seven days a week. We’d break even during the week then make the profit on Sunday when all the big stores were closed because of the Blue Laws.”
State high school tournaments go back to 1913. The Willmar hoops team made that first one, too, an invitational. But it would be 60 years until Willmar High School would secure its first state championship, and it would be an individual not a team despite many contenders in boys basketball.
It was Willmar's secondary winter sport that produced the champion. (Girls didn’t get their chance to compete for championships until the mid-1970s but would supply the school’s first team championship — AA girls golf in 1985.)
Steve and Stacy graduated in 1972, followed by Kevin in 1974 and lastly Craig, a four-time letterwinner, in1977. Jann attended every match she could.
The 1971-72 wrestling season proved to be the high school’s best to date: 7-0 in West Central Conference, 13-3 overall and winning the school's first Region 5 team title. Eight Cardinals were all-conference; Steve, Stacy and Kevin were a combined 21-0 in league duals.
Kevin reached the state quarterfinals at Williams Arena losing to Olivia’s Dan Doering, who went on to win the 138-pound weight class. Steve went to the 155-pound championship match bested by Caledonia’s Mark Langhe, a two-time champion and three-time finalist.
Steve: “Coach Eddie Nystrom told me as I was going out on the mat, ‘You’re the first in the school to ever reach the championship match.’ That caught me off guard and I kind of lost focus. I finished my senior season 32-2.”
I asked Stacy about his brothers’ styles. “Steve was so smooth while Kevin was a bull. A block wall, tough as hell.”
Steve told me he and Kevin really had similar styles relying on “motion and direction,’’ the mantra of Roy Minter, later Steve’s legendary coach at Willmar Community College.
The boys were toughened by their summer jobs. Steve and Kevin worked summers on silo crews for Hanson Silo, where their father, Chuck, was a salesman. Stacy worked for a nurseryman, leading to a career.
Stacy played basketball until Christmas of his junior year when coach Russ Adamson made clear that he would sit on a senior-dominated team that would finish the 1970-71 season 18-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state. Stacy and Steve were good football players, too. Kevin, a true prairie outdoorsman to this day, hunted in the fall and fished in spring.
While other sports had gone multi-divisions by school size, wrestling remained open through 1975 — one team champion, one individual champ per weight class.
The Fladeboes described Coach Nystrom as a “wonderful educator'' and “family friend.” Following the 1973-74 season Eddie moved to Montevideo and became a full-time administrator.
Kevin lettered four times on Cardinal teams with a combined 45-17-1 dual-meet record. Classmates Tim Helgeson and Greg Johnson, like Kevin a three time all-WCC pick, were among the standouts. Johnson went undefeated until the ‘73 state QF, while Helgeson was the only Cardinal to reach state in ‘74 with Kevin hampered by a shoulder injury.
“He would have been a two-time state champion otherwise,” Steve insists.
In Kevin’s own words regarding the 1972-73 postseason:
"About a week and a half before districts, I threw my knee cap over to the side of my leg,
nearly taking me out of the tournaments. With a large encumbering knee brace, I was still
able to wrestle in districts though I lost to Steve Seck [of Watertown] in the finals. By regions my knee no longer bothered me and I went on to beat Seck. I was quick and Seck had balance and throws from his background in judo.
“In an interview before the state finals, Seck said he thought I was on to his methods and
he was going to have to change his techniques. What he did was grab hold of one or both
of my legs and wouldn't let go. That is why he was charged with stalling twice, costing a penalty point, but he was able to accumulate riding time to tie the match 9-9 at the end of three periods.
“In overtime I had superior conditioning and went on to win 7 to 2. I think Seck was a three-time second-place finisher in state. [Seck made the U.S. National Judo team in 1975 and the U.S. Olympic team in 1980.]
“Greg Johnson and myself were surprised by a large crowd that gathered to welcome us home at the City Auditorium Saturday evening.”
Here’s the West Central Daily Tribune account in Monday’s paper of the thrilling title match at 138 pounds, most likely written by Sports Editor Lefty Ranweiler:
"Fladeboe trailed 8-6 going into the final 25 seconds of his third match of the [post-season] with Seck, each had won once previously. Then Fladeboe got a reversal and was given an additional point when Seck was called for stalling to make it 9-8 but Seck forced it into overtime with riding time. It was all Fladeboe in the overtime getting an early two points which he built into a final 7-2 overtime victory and a first for the Cardinals."
The article noted it was the school's first individual weight title in a state meet. The ‘73 Wilhisean alertly acknowledged the historic moment: “Kevin’s state championship was the first of any Willmar [High School] athlete or athletic team had attained.”
Writer’s note: Post WWII there are several classes that could reasonably claim to be “The Best” athletically of the modern era. While there is no room here to handicap that horse race, Kevin’s graduating class in 1974 has left a lasting mark: state runner-up in both football (to Eveleth) and baseball (Owatonna), plus state-tournament-qualifying teams in basketball and boys golf and that first state champion.
Here’s a list of stories that have run in the series and their publication dates:
May 16 — Alex Carlson and Chris Patten (2000 Litchfield boys tennis)
May 23, 26 — 2009 New London-Spicer football
May 30 — 1985 Willmar girls golf
June 6 — 2005 Paynesville baseball
June 13 — Nikki Swenson (LQPV/D-B cross-country/track, 2007)
June 20 — The 1980-1981 Bird Island-Lake Lillian football and boys basketball teams
July 3 — 2010 Minnewaska girls golf team
July 11 — 1986 Midwest Minnesota girls basketball
July 18 — Link Steffen (Granite Falls-Clarkfield wrestling, 1993)
July 24 — 1998-2000 Central Minnesota Christian volleyball
Aug. 1 — 2001 Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City football
Aug. 8 — 1987 Willmar baseball
Aug. 15 — 2002 New London-Spicer girls basketball
Aug. 22 — Kevin Fladebo (Willmar wrestling, 1973)