By Jeff Bro Olsen
It was a given that Spencer Yohe and Tommy Grafstrom would team-up. They’re both characters with unique personalities and a knack for turning up far off the beaten path.
Spencer Yohe, Minnesota’s godfather of wrestling, is built like the late Bear Bryant, can spin tales like the late WCCO broadcaster Halsey Hall, and has a distinctive gravely voice like the late Redd Foxx.
He was reached in May shortly before flying to Alaska and was asked if he would be in Anchorage looking up Tommy Grafstrom, one of his former Dragon wrestlers from the days when Spence was an assistant coach at Moorhead State University.
Make that an affirmative.
When old Spence gets animated, there is no simple yes or no answer. He provides background information like an old beat cop remembering when he first booked some hooligan.
Only Mr. Grafstrom is a legitimate wrestling character.
Tommy G, as he is called, is a 1996 Roseau High School graduate who took runner-up honors his senior year at 103 pounds, losing to Blue Earth’s Luke Eustice.
The most amazing thing is that Tommy even wrestled. On a hockey rink, he would make the late Gordie Howe smile with his tenacity and hustle.
And if you knock him down or slam him into the boards, he’s right back up, and then look out.
Tommy learned from one of the best hockey players in the backwoods of Salol, Minnesota, which is located halfway between Roseau and Warroad – two hockey rivals that are like Sparta and Athens on ice.
Tommy’s dad, Dayton, played on the 1961 U.S. National Hockey Team, and Tommy’s uncles – Sam Grafstrom played on the 1961 and 1965 U.S. National Hockey Teams while his other uncle, Myron Grafstrom, played on the 1965 U.S. National Hockey Team.
There’s no way Tommy G was destined to shine on the mat with that hockey lineage.
But he showed up in the wrestling room as a seventh-grader tipping the scales at maybe 80 pounds, worked his butt off, pushed his workout partners, and bided his time.
He had teammates who were multiple Section 8 champs and state medalists, and he never slacked off once.
Tanner Hovda, twice a state medalist (3rd and 6th), admires Tommy’s character and kick-butt attitude.
“I love Tommy G. The best thing about him is it doesn’t matter who’s within earshot, he will say what he means and there’s no mincing words,” he said.
“If you can’t laugh with Tommy and the things he comes up with, you might have a problem having a good time. He’s fun, always has been, and I’m sure he always will be.”
At his 20th high school reunion at the local golf course clubhouse in Roseau, Tommy G wrestled right out on the dance floor – and that’s Tommy.
“At the drop of a hat, if it’s time for a takedown, he’s ready to go. It could be the mighty Foo (Josh Jaenicke 189-pound state runner-up in 1999) and it wouldn’t matter. Tommy would be ready to shoot double legs in the gravel. He is a one of a kind, and I’m glad he’s on my side,” said Mr. Hovda.
Those same antics were just what Spencer Yohe spotted in 1996 when Tommy wrestled in Pittsburgh in the National High School Championships.
It was in late May after he returned from Alaska that Spencer, who was born in Lancing, Iowa, and moved to the Caledonia area when he was six, got around to recalling his trek to Alaska and just about everything else.
“I went up to Alaska to see the Moorhead State alumns. I stayed at Tommy’s. He’s one of the special ones and they’re all great guys. Seven of our alums from Moorhead State are up there now and are great coaches. Tommy is still helping out in East Anchorage.”
Spence needed no notes. He is the Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota wrestling coaches.
Suddenly, he was laughing about meeting Tommy’s three sons, all characters in their own right.
“His kids are the same way. The old apple didn’t fall too far from the tree with his three kids because they’re wild. They get after it,” he said appreciatively.
Spencer graduated from Caledonia High School and wrestled at 138 and 145. He will be 72 in August.
He described Tommy G as “120 miles an hour and give her hell.”
In Anchorage, Tommy G works for the federal government and is a long way from little Salol with a population of 738.
Anchorage is considerably more populated with 293,531 – and that’s not counting the moose and occasional grizzly.
“My boys are 12, 10, and 6. They downhill ski and they wrestle.”
It had to be asked why Tommy hadn’t been a hockey player.
“I like hockey but it was real political at that time,” he said, recalling that his classmate and cousin, Luke Grafstrom, told him about wrestling.
“And my dad said I should try wrestling because he knew I was going to be small. So, I went in there and tried it and liked it. It’s still my favorite sport. My favorite game is still baseball and my favorite game to play in the winter is hockey because I like sports. I’d play sports all the time. I still play hockey up here when I get a chance. Anchorage has amazing outdoor rinks,” he said, adding that he and the boys had just returned from downhill skiing that day.
“There’s snow in the mountains. We got a lot of snow this year,” he said on May 23.
Reached the next day, old Spence recalled the spring of 1996.
“As a senior, Tommy went out to Pittsburgh with us, and I got to know him fairly well. I saw him in the finals at state.”
At that time, Spencer was also the head recruiting coordinator, and what he had spotted was a determined competitor.
“He was a four-time conference champion in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference,” he said, adding that the Dragons usually got the best kids out of Section 8 – Menagha’s Nate Hendrickson in 1994, and Blackduck’s Scottie Larson and Roseau’s Tommy Grafstrom in 1996.
Spencer noted that Tommy wrestled at 118 his first year and then wrestled the next three years at 125.
“He was the real deal. He beat Mark Dodgen of Central Oklahoma, the number one seed and national champ that year, 9 to 2, in the finals of our regionals,” he said, explaining that in the Nationals a couple of weeks later, Tommy bowed out early against the number one seed.
“He was probably the most physical wrestler I ever coached. Every time before a match, I’d ask him what’s the forecast for the day, and he would say, ‘The forecast is pain for my opponent.’ Tommy wasn’t afraid of anybody or anything,” he said, adding that Tommy was one of the most popular wrestlers that he coached over the years.
“There’s only one Tommy G. They threw the mold away after they made him. He was as tough as they come and as wild as they come, and he could back it up,” he said, noting that Tommy won with class and lost with dignity.
“When Tommy was at his best, you weren’t going to beat him. He was wicked with those bar arms.”
It is always been possible to catch up with Tommy. When there was the popular Ice Bucket Challenge on Facebook, he was a showman who had the pizazz.
But there is a serious side to him, too. After college, he joined the Army in 2002 for a four-year stint.
“I was regular Army from ‘02 to ‘06 and was a combat engineer,” he said, recalling that he did his basic training at Fort Jackson, SC.
“Next, I went to Fort Leonard Wood and then to Gulfport, Mississippi, to train with the Seabees.”
He spent a year in Afghanistan in 2005. First, he served in the Kandahar area and then saw duty on the Pakistani border.
“They tried to blow us up and shot at us all the time,” he said. “I was a tank commander.”
His highest rank was E-4 and he was the same old Tommy. He never hesitated to speak his mind if he disagreed with something or somebody.
He moved to Alaska in 2003 and it’s home now.
Recently, Dean Housker, who had been an assistant coach when Tommy was on the Roseau wrestling team, remains impressed with both Spencer and Tommy.
“I don’t think Spencer has ever met a kid he didn’t like.”
He recalled In 1999 when he went to the NHSCA with Josh “Foo” Jaenicke and Justin Olson (state runners-up that winter).
“Spencer handled the press for Team Minnesota. He was actually our chauffeur. You know Spencer. He’s got that monotone voice,” said Housker, who mimicked the great man and had him down pat.
“There is only one Spencer,” he said, adding that it’s always fun to run into him because he has some great stories and is always friendly.
A quarter-century after Tommy Grafstrom graduated from Roseau High School, his accomplishments and good deeds haven’t been forgotten.
“Tommy didn’t have any quit in him. He was tougher than nails and a fierce competitor and had the most heart. He was always ready to go,” said Dean Housker.
“He was an ideal teammate, and I can’t think of anyone who was better to the younger kids in the practice room than Tommy,” he said.
Now 43, Tommy’s most memorable quote is “Let’s go another takedown or two!”
And he won’t quit no matter how good the other guy is.
“They eventually get tired,” he’s fond of saying.
And that’s Tommy G!