By Jeff Bro Olsen
In the early 1960s, the kid was a rink rat in Moorhead. Oh, he could make things happen out on the ice.
Tom Gravalin is 71, long retired from coaching, but he remembers how his young hockey career got zapped.
“I grew up in Moorhead. I’m a city kid and lived across the street from a hockey rink, and I played hockey up until the seventh grade.”
He was having a blast, a skinny kid with thick eyeglasses. Kids back then didn’t wear face masks.
If they had, his high school career would have been different.
“I kept breaking my glasses, and my dad said, ‘Find another sport. It’s too damn expensive!’ So, I went out for basketball for three weeks.”
Of course, dribbling a basketball isn’t like skating and shooting a puck. He had to dribble and move in sync.
“One day, I ended up sneaking through the wrestling room to get to my locker, and I said, ‘This is my sport!’ and the next day I went out for wrestling.”
Moorhead was a wrestling power. He has two brothers who also wrestled.
“My younger brother Bruce made it to the state wrestling tournament and won a couple of matches down there.”
For every wrestler who dreams of going to state, Gravalin has his memories.
“My senior year at 127, I was ahead 15-3, and I had the guillotine on the kid, and I was leaning back to pin him, and I pinned myself.”
“And it was all over in the first round of the districts. My younger brother Jim wrestled, but he got hurt in football and didn’t go out for wrestling after that.”
His high school coach was Ron Gadberry, definitely no slouch. “He later went to Hillsboro and is a Hall of Fame coach in North Dakota and Minnesota,” he said.
Tom wrestled for two years at Moorhead State. On the first day of practice his junior year, he broke two ribs the first hour into practice. “My buddy and I were screwing around. That was the end of that.”
An assistant wrestling coach from Moorhead High School heard about the injury and called him asking if he’d like to coach that year. “So, I coached the junior high team for a couple of years at Moorhead while I was going to college.”
There is joy in his voice. What an opportunity! He was 20 and coaching junior high kids.
“It was much better than trying to wrestle the big kids in college. I’m undefeated in college. Yeah, I was 1 & 0,” he said, noting that the starter was hurt, the next in line didn’t make weight, and so he was given the starting nod.
“I wrestled some kid from Itasca State Junior College.”
Get a pin?
“Oh, no! I was lucky to be alive. I did win the match. I’m undefeated. I got something over Dan Gable.”
Before he landed at Fosston, he coached for two years in Erskine. He had high hopes for his state entrant his last year there.
“His dad took him for a ride to get some food and got hung up in traffic and couldn’t make it to the match. I didn’t get blamed at all. It was his dad’s fault. I didn’t get fired over that one,” he laughed.
Next, he went to Fosston and was the junior high coach for two years.
“I took over the varsity in ’77.”
Gravalin had an unusual coaching staff.
Take the Swede, whose birth name is Alan Olson, who’s also known as Popeye. He’s built like an upright freezer, a Dave Bartelema Hall of Famer, and was Gravalin’s long-time assistant.
“We tried to fire the Swede five or six times, but he kept coming back. He said, ‘Don’t pay me. I don’t care!'”
There was merriment in his voice. He and the Swede were a pair to draw to. They are forever linked – the teacher and the electrician.
“Swede always volunteered his salary and gave it to somebody else so we could have three coaches in the room. He’s done that for years,” he said.
There are few coaches who have enjoyed the characters as he has. He even hired a coach named Jim Jones out of Iowa in the early 1980s just a few years after the Jonestown massacre.
“Oh yeah, Mr. Kool-Aid,” he said, adding that it was tough at times hiring local coaches.
Gravalin retired as the Fosston Greyhounds head coach following the 1995 season. It was a long run, starting in 1970 at Moorhead High School.
“I was just as involved in wrestling after I quit coaching when I was the athletic director,” he said.
Annually, Fosston has two wrestling tournaments, sometimes three, and he ran all the seeding meetings. But it was the Section 8AA seeding meetings that brought him into the limelight.
All the coaches already knew him. He was much like Johnny Carson working his gig.
Generally, coaches want favorable seeds, and nothing beats the top seed or the second seed.
His nickname is Gravs, and he remembers coaching against some real characters.
“It was fun,” he said.
Back in the mid-1980s, Gravs made things exciting in the Warren Tournament, where teams could enter both a starter and a junior varsity entrant.
In the finals in one of the lighter weights, the Fosston starter had a quality Fosston B-squader as his opponent.
It was a very close tournament, maybe a point or two separating Fosston from Roseau for the top spot.
There was no subterfuge.
Gravalin cheerfully explained prior to the finals that his B-squader had been properly coached.
“Watch my thumb, son. When it goes straight down, whip over onto your back like you’re doing the backstroke.”
Thirty years later, he still laughs at the memory.
“I told my B-squader to take a dive so we could win the tournament.”
Win the tournament?
“Oh yeah! Of course,” he said, recalling that Roseau had been up to similar shenanigans in a prior title match.
“Those were the good old days,” he said. “You could do that then.”
He has great memories of wrestling in the old Fosston gym, which didn’t get torn down when they built the new gym in the 1990s.
“They still wrestle in the old gym because it’s so intimate,” he said, recalling that four of his wrestlers from the 1990 state tournament team have sons who wrestle on this year’s team.
“Guess what? They’re now sitting in the same seats that their parents sat in back then.”
He had a number of colorful wrestlers over the years, particularly Joel Goldsmith, who’s been an assistant coach at Fosston for years.
“He was in a pretty good cradle and noticed that one of his shoelaces was untied. So, he tied it.”
Did he get pinned?
“No, he won!”
The 1990 team was his best team.
“We had 13 guys who had 20 wins or more. We lost in the first round at the state tournament by 4 points to Foley and in the consolation round by a point to Stewartville.”
Fosston had some studs in Jeremy Minert (2nd at State), Jim Lomen (4th), and Craig Burrack (4th).
“The great part of wrestling is we didn’t leave it on the mat. In the springtime, we went on those coaches’ fishing trips,” he said.
“The coaches became lifelong friends. I don’t know if that is the case nowadays. Especially when I was the A.D., I could be part of the tournament. That was the best thing. I think if I could do it all over again, I’d stick with wrestling.”
What’s great about wrestling?
“It teaches them how to work hard. There are very few of my former wrestlers who aren’t hard workers and doing quite well.”
When he was coaching, he paid attention in the seeding meetings, especially to coaches like Blackduck’s Steve Bechtold, who has the mind of a diamond thief casing a jewelry store – only Bechtold knew wrestling talent like P.T. Barnum knew good circus acts.
“When Steve was after something, I figured he’s smarter than I am, and I’m going in the opposite bracket,” he said, acknowledging that Bechtold was a whiz in the seeding game.
After coaching with a guy for almost 20 years, Alan “Swede” Olson has the scoop on Coach Gravalin.
“He knew what he was doing, and he knew what we needed to do, and he was good with the wrestlers.”
Many coaches ponder every possible scenario like a bookie. That just wasn’t Gravalin’s modus operandi.
“There wasn’t that much strategy back then. You’d put your chin strap on and hope that the best guy won,” said Swede. “You got a tough guy, we got a tough guy, let’s see who wins it.”
You never forget the close losses, the ones you’d like to do over.
“When we were down there as a team in 1990, we were kind of naïve and stupid. We threw Lomen out against a three-time state champ, and lucky he came back in one piece. We should have thrown out a B-squader. That was against Stewartville. Our thought was, ‘Okay, Lomen is tough enough, he’s not going to get pinned, and we’re going to win the dual.’ Well, he got tech falled, and we ended up losing the dual by a point.”
Funny thing is, Gravalin took it in stride. You go out there and wrestle and see what happens.
“He had a good disposition. What I noticed the most is that the kids would perform for him. He didn’t have to yell and scream or get mad. They would practice hard and go out and wrestle hard. Kids respected him. He was just a good solid coach.”
Where are you going to find the scrappers – the kids who are more likely to carry toolboxes than French horns?
Gravalin had them in class every day. He was their shop teacher, a perfect place to recruit rough and tumble kids.
SECTION 8 DIGITS
There was a time in the old Section 8/8AA when a number of head coaches were missing digits, compliments of radial arm saws or circular saws.
Crookston’s Rodd Olson was missing a digit on his trigger finger while Roseau’s Jeff Olsen once cut off three fingers at Marvin Windows, and only two of them were sewed back on.
And just a couple of summers ago, Greenbush’s Doug Dahl, a National Hall of Fame coach, cut off the top digit on one of his fingers. He had lifted up a running lawnmower.
Recently, the retired Fosston High School shop teacher was asked if he still has all of his fingers.
“Hell, yes!” he said and laughed.
He’s one of the lucky Section 8 coaches.
Jeff Bro Olsen – firstname.lastname@example.org