By Jeff Bro Olsen
Robert “Thors” Thorson has to be one the most unlikely wrestling coaches in the entire state.
He never wrestled in either high school or college.
Eventually, he became a renowned practice room wrestler after he arrived in Fertile in 1965 to teach elementary school.
Now retired, Thors, as he is called, turned 80 on August 16.
“I graduated from Halstad High School, which is about 70 miles north of Moorhead.
Play basketball in high school?
“Yeah, I did. I wasn’t worth a damn. I sat on the bench the whole damn time except my senior year. I think I scored a total of one point, but I could guard really well.”
He’s a man who always cheers for the underdog and noted that Halstad High School didn’t have wrestling.
“I’m an average athlete. I can do everything half-ass. In a little school like that, you can do everything, even be the water boy.”
He played football, basketball, baseball, and ran track.
“I was no star athlete and was probably the best in baseball and track. We graduated a class of 34, and there were only ten boys.”
After graduating from college with a major in elementary ed and a minor in phy ed, he was hired by Fertile-Beltrami in 1965.
His first question in the interview process was if he could coach because they needed an assistant wrestling coach.
He knew nothing about wrestling but talked to the head coach, Marv Nelson, who asked what he knew how to do.
“Nothing, except weightlifting.”
He was just what Marv was looking for.
“We started a weightlifting program and did the same thing until I retired.”
For 41 years, very few Fertile-Beltrami wrestlers were getting sand kicked in their faces at the beach.
They were solid from 98 pounds to heavyweight.
He had a terrific run in the two-class system – four state tournament teams from 1982 to 1985.
“The key was, I taught fifth grade and coached little kid wrestling.
And he recruited very well!
Thors took over the head coaching position in the 1981-82 season, and the Falcons went on a tremendous tear. The small school was the New York Yankees of Region 8.
The name Kory Mosher was brought up.
“He was one of the nicest kids, but he was one of the meanest sonsofbitches that I ever saw.”
He paused just briefly.
“He was one of the hardest workers and told his teammates that we’re going to work so hard in practice that we won’t get tired in matches. Kory had an unbelievable work ethic.”
Now an octogenarian, Robert “Thors” Thorson, made a lasting impression on a group of young and now not-so-young men who shared recent stories about their old coach in early August.
Darren Skanson is a 1985 Fertile-Beltrami graduate.
You wrestled at about 165?
“Holy crow, you think I was a fatty. I was a 38 pounder.”
He lives out in Denver and does musical events all over Colorado.
It didn’t require any prompting for Darren “Skans” Skanson, 55, to recall his old coach.
“For someone to be your grade school teacher, your wrestling coach and your boss because I painted for him for five years in the summers, and to become a life-long friend, that says something about a guy.”
He then added, “How many guys ever touched your life in so many different ways like that?”
He recalled one particular time when, as a varsity starter, he had dislocated his elbow in a season-ending match in late January 1982.
“It was the first year Fertile went to state in quite a while, and I was a ninth grader. That took me off that state team.”
For the little town of Fertile, it was time to celebrate a great team going to state.
“That was Thorson’s first year as the varsity coach and when they won the region championship, I was at the top of the bleachers in the Bagley gym bawling my eyes out because I wasn’t going to be a part of that state team.”
Down on the gym floor, Fertile fans were taking photos and celebrating.
“Thorson saw me up there, he broke off from the celebration, and he came up there and sat down and talked to me for I don’t know how long. But I’ll never forget that.”
Skans, as his friends know him, remains impressed to this day.
“That was a true measure of a man who had just reached the pinnacle of his coaching career and, at that moment, it was more important to him to come up there and talk to me than it was to be down there with everybody else celebrating.”
For the next three years, Darren wrestled on those state tournament teams. He also wrestled individually his junior and senior years.
“I didn’t place,” he said, mentioning stage fright.
And then he recalled when he worked on Thorson’s summer painting crew.
“There were times at lunch there’d be takedowns for dollars, and he took the dollar from the other guy. He was just the instigator,” he laughed.
What stands out about the wrestling room?
“The main thing is he’s a terrible wrestler, but he was mean. He got by on his meanness. So, if he got a hold of you, it was all over.”
He reflected on the man who is a member of the Minnesota Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and how he was so important in individual matches.
“This is where he really was like a father figure to me. He had the most calming influence,” he said, recalling his first freestyle tournament title as an elementary wrestler.
“I was out there against this kid, who was a headlocker. Thors was on the side of the mat yelling, ‘Look out, he’s a headlocker!’ I was six or seven years old, and I ended up beating the kid. I remember running over to the corner of the mat and jumping into his arms. You know how much joy you have as a kid, and I’d just won a blue ribbon! He would never remember that because he coached so many kids. But I’ll never, ever, forget it.”
Kory Mosher, a 1985 Fertile-Beltrami graduate, had a lot of nationally recognized coaches in his collegiate career, particularly in freestyle.
One of the guys at the top of the list is Bob Thorson, according to the two-time NCAA Division II national champion.
“One little side note with Thorson. I’ve had phenomenal coaches from the East Coast to the West Coast,” he said, mentioning Dan Chandler, an Olympian, and his Greco-Roman coach.
“The thing that stands out the most was the fact that Bob Thorson never wrestled. He was a basketball player. I always tell my buddies that I’ve wrestled with the Morgan family and the Short family, and there’s a pedigree in wrestling.”
Kory remains impressed with his local coach.
“One of the best coaches I’ve ever had was Bob Thorson. He was very passionate and he cared.”
Kory remarked that some athletes think they need an Olympic champ as their coach. Instead, it’s coaches who can relate and care more about your success than their own.
“And that’s where Thorson really stood out. He bused us all over the place as young kids and we had a great time. It was a heckuva run with that guy!”
He credited coach Jeff Schumacher as the reason he went to the University of North Dakota to wrestle.
“The guy was just phenomenal. I got to practice with him.”
He recalled his high school wrestling practices.
“Thors was in damn good shape. In eighth and ninth grade, you’re getting a little bigger, and you could finally wrestle with him.
He recalled the day when he overpowered Thorson.
“I got on top and threw the legs in and crossfaced him and his face was red. It was probably my tenth grade year. I was happy as hell and Thors was even happier. It was a rite of passage or something. He liked that physical wrestling.”
The tough farm kid was already on the road to wrestling success.
“The best I ever did was silver medalist in the U.S. Olympic Festival in ’87 in Houston, Texas.”
And it started with Thorson.
“I would leave the farm in Beltrami and drive down to the Morgan family gym – Marty, Gordie and John Morgan – and I’d sleep in their basement for a week and a half and would go to the U and train.”
He had excellent coaches and even wrestled the late Dave Schultz in practice.
“Sometimes people say, ‘I’m not good enough. I don’t have a résumé good enough,’ and I reflect back and say that one of the best coaches I’ve ever had in wrestling, never wrestled competitively. You can’t sell yourself short in anything.”
Thorson, he said, really connected with the kids he coached over the years.
Always, Kory comes back to the one guy who changed his life.
“The day you can beat up your brother, you grow up. The same when you can take your coach. We all wanted to beat him because it was a proud moment, and Thors was even prouder for you.”
Even after a wicked crossface!
A LIFE CHANGER
Steve Ricard, a 1986 Fertile-Beltrami graduate, didn’t need any prompting to single out the person who has made a lasting impact on his life.
“Thors was an outstanding coach and a fantastic elementary teacher, particularly in math and science.”
When Steve was a fifth grader, there had been a certain protocol.
“It was Mr. Thorson in the classroom, and Thors in the practice room.”
In Steve’s scouting report, Mr. Thorson was an exemplary teacher.
“He would even dissect the eye. He would go to the butcher shop and get cows’ eyes. Who the hell does that anymore?”
“Before Christmas in fifth grade, he’d trace our silhouettes on paper and then carve them out of wood. There were 56 kids in the two classes of fifth graders. He’d cut them out of oak plywood and let the kids varnish them for an art project, and we gave them to our parents at Christmas.”
Steve was an 8th grader in 1981-82 and on the JV during Thorson’s first year as head coach.
It was the start of another fantastic run for Fertile-Beltrami.
They had great state tournament teams, starting in 1975 (DNP), 1976 (6th), and 1977 (2nd).
Then came the early 1980s: 1982 (5th), 1983 (4th), 1984 (6th), and 1985 (DNP).
“We came in undefeated on the season in 1985 and lost to Adrian (29-23) and to Foley (28-25),” he said.
It was 40 years ago last March in the first round of the 1982 team competition, that Fertile lost to Staples, 29-26, in the quarterfinals of the state wrestling tournament.
“They must have been a tough team because our team was a helluva team,” Steve said, mentioning a bunch of studs like Barry Ellegaard, Del Ballenger, David Vaseden, Tommy Lee, and the Mosher brothers, Kent and Kory.
“Staples was phenomenal. Their first five weights were state entrants, and the first three were two returning state champions and a state runner-up.”
Thors never yelled at his wrestlers and, win or lose, just said, “Good job.”
“I made the varsity full-time as a junior and was the starter at 185. I wrestled at Moorhead State for four years,” he said from Benson, Minn.
The thing is, he’d already mapped out his career.
“I knew I wanted to be a teaching coach when I was a senior in high school,” he said, crediting Thors for being a great role model.
“He could handle the rough and tough ones, and he could relate to kids. And that was his gift. There’s been better technicians, he was nothing fancy, but the kids wrestled for him. There weren’t too many kids who quit. And it was really something to get on that varsity. We had three full squads.”
Then, Ricard put the final stamp of approval on Robert “Thors” Thorson.
“Without a doubt, he changed my life, and not just mine. There are so many others he had a huge impact on, gave them confidence, and taught them good sportsmanship.”
Jen Thorson, a 1989 Fertile-Beltrami graduate, was a stats girl and cheerleader for the Falcon wrestling team.
She’s the chief operating officer of a company out East and lives in Maplewood, NJ.
She grew up with sport.
“Dad was a wrestling coach much of our lives, and one of his favorite things was the Northwest Tournament and making pies for all the coaches at the seeding meetings.”
There was always action at the Thorson residence.
“The wrestlers came to our living room and wrestled on the blue carpet. They viewed my dad like he’s a 40-something and all bets were off,” she laughed, never mentioning if anything got busted up.
“So, it’s endearing. He was a father figure to a lot of people, especially Darren (Skanson) and Steve (Ricard).”
Maybe he even gave them paintbrushes for Christmas.
“They wrestled for him, painted for him, and they’ve been a part of our family, and we theirs. He just loves the sport and loves his wrestlers as much as he does his own family,”
Wrestling is always on her dad’s mind.
“Which is great!” she said, laughing about when the guys on her dad’s summer painting crew would have impromptu wrestling matches and scaffold building contests.
“It comes with the rabble-rousers in the wrestling room!”
And the guy enjoying it the most was Thors, a Bartelma Wrestling Hall of Fame coach and an honored member of the Minnesota Chapter of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame.
Brian “Buck” Lindberg, a 1979 Fertile-Beltrami graduate, lights up talking about Thors, who first coached and taught him in elementary school.
“Thors was great to wrestle for. He was just the assistant coach when I wrestled for him in high school. He was the guy who always soothed everything out and everyone respected him.”
By the time Buck got out of college in 1981, Thors was the head coach and asked him to be one of his assistants.
“Four years in a row we went to state, and we had some awesome teams. He allowed me to do a lot of technique, and we had a great relationship.”
The two go back a lifetime.
“When I was a senior and got beat in the section, I was really down.”
About a week after the state tournament, Buck was still in the dumps.
“The guy that won the state tournament I had beaten that year. That should have been me up there, and I felt sorry for myself.”
He and Thors crossed paths in the locker room that March. He asked Buck how he was doing, and Buck had said, “Not very good.”
Thors looked at him and said, “There’s bigger things for you in wrestling.”
That’s not what Buck was thinking.
“Yeah, right, There’s nothing bigger than a state championship.”
When they started coaching together with those great Fertile-Beltrami state teams and he later began reffing all the way to the state championship matches, he had an awakening.
Many years later, the two revisited that time when Thors had remarked that there were bigger things ahead for Buck.
“Did you ever figure out what I meant by it?” asked Thors.
“Yeah, the bigger thing was just giving back to the sport,” Buck said appreciatively.
“Exactly, you figure it out.”
Buck marvels at that advice.
“Who knew back then that I would keep involved in wrestling, and that was great advice from him that there are bigger things than just winning state championships,” said the Bartelma Wrestling Hall of Famer.
Chris Thorson, a 1993 Fertile-Beltrami graduate, never called his coach, Thors, in the wrestling room.
Call him dad or coach?
“I think I tried to avoid either because it felt uncomfortable. It was more like ‘Hey, I have a question,” he recalled, adding that he would instead ask the assistant coaches, Tim Olson, and Russ Gunufson.
He then summed up his dad’s 41-year teaching and coaching career from 1965 to 2006.
“I think the biggest thing is the connections he made with people. My dad focused on helping them grow into better persons. He wanted them to have balance in their lives and be good young men,” he said, adding that Steve Ricard noted those same qualities during his dad’s hall of fame induction and the impact he’d had on his athletes.
That’s an outstanding legacy.