HLHS wins two conference crowns with # 32 evading opposing tacklers
By Les Knutson
Tri County News Reporter
After dealing with a couple of ailing illnesses over the past several years, Dundee area farmer and all-around nice guy Tom Wolff died last Thursday at his farm place on the east shore of East Graham Lake at the age of 66.
Tom’s obituary mentioned that he participated in football and baseball. That’s an understatement.
A small guy, Tom was fast, strong and shifty. He was a good first baseman in baseball, playing through Heron Lake’s Summer Recreation programs, the Mites and Midgets, before excelling as a first baseman for both the Heron Lake High School Falcons and the town’s amateur team, the Heron Lake Lakers.
“When I think of Tom, I remember that first baseman’s mitt he had,” recalled my younger brother, Kyle Knutson, who played baseball with Wolff back in the 1960s before moving to a farm in the Windom school district. “He was a good fielder and a good hitter with a lot of speed, just a fine all-around baseball player.”
Playing with the 1975 Lakers, the left-handed Wolff manned first base and sported a .319 batting average, while stealing 26 bases and scoring a team-high 32 runs on a squad which advanced all the way to the quarterfinals of the state tournament and finished with an 18-8 overall record that summer.
But it was in high school football that Wolff really sparkled.
Running as a 5-7, 140-pound junior tailback in Coach Arnie Luhning’s I-formation and wearing jersey # 32, Wolff rushed for 857 yards, caught passes for 157 more and scored 17 touchdowns, along with six two-point conversions, as he led the Southern Star Conference in scoring with 114 points.
“All Tommy needed was a ‘crease’ and he was on his way,” said Luhning in a 2009 Tri-County News story about that 1969 Falcon team, which outscored its opponents 408-94 while winning all eight of its Eight-Man games.
“I remember Luhning once saying that he never saw anyone who was able to ‘move his hips and change direction’ like Wolff could,” said Craig Carlson, who was a sophomore reserve on that dominating HLHS ’69 squad. “He was about the only junior who played a lot on offense that year as the senior class was just loaded.”
Despite graduating 11 quality seniors, most of whom played both ways, the Falcons — coached by Luhning and Wayne Heisinger — had another stellar season in the fall of 1970.
For the record, Doug Iverson started on offense as a junior end in ’69 and both Kevin Leopold (linebacker) and Gordy Liepold (defensive back) saw lots of action on defense. But those three, along with Wolff, were the only guys who had played a lot when the games were still close — which they usually weren’t for very long — in that memorable season.
Small Falcons repeat as conference champions in 1970, playing Nine-Man
In the fall of 1970, Minnesota’s small schools added an extra player and Nine-Man football replaced the Eight-Man variety which had been played by HLHS since 1957. Earlier, the Falcons played Six-Man football through 1956.
Starting with a 28-14 victory over East Chain, followed by one-sided victories over nearby rivals Brewster (64-0) and Okabena (36-14), Heron Lake extended its winning streak to 11 games and was looking like a strong contender for a repeat conference championship.
A bye in Week 4 was followed by a trip to Round Lake (October 2) and the Falcons were unable to get control and were tied 12-12 by the Thunderbirds.
“That was a quiet bus ride home,” remembers Carlson. “We were not used to not winning.”
An early season snowstorm the following week (October 9) forced postponement of Heron Lake’s Homecoming Game against the Sioux Valley Warriors. The game was played on Monday (Columbus Day) and the Falcons, sparked by four touchdowns from Wolff, won the contest 39-14 and improved to 4-0-1.
Wins over Granada-Huntley (38-12), Welcome (34-8) and Ceylon (42-0) clinched the Southern Star title for HLHS, which finished 7-0-1 and outscored its opponents by a margin of 295-74.
The state football playoffs were still two years away, but the Falcons of ’69 and ’70 had racked up 703 points and only allowed 169, while going 15-0-1 over 16 games.
Wolff, who was joined by Iverson, Leopold and Liepold on the 1970 All-Conference squad, was named the team’s MVP and was the Southern Star’s nominee for All-State.
His senior year statistics were amazing as he rushed for 1,458 yards, including four games over 200. Wolff scored five touchdowns and rushed for 290 yards in the September 11 victory (64-0) over Brewster. He gained 230 yards against Okabena, 211 versus Welcome and finished his high school career with a 218-yard game against Ceylon.
Wolff scored in double figures every game as a senior finishing the season with 24 touchdowns (at least two in every game and four or more three times). Along with five two-point conversions, he tallied 154 points for the season, completing his varsity career with 333 points (51 touchdowns, 11 two-point conversions and five one-point conversions), along with a total of 3,089 rushing yards.
He also had numerous long kick-off returns, punt returns and pass interception returns, as well as being a threat to catch passes and turn those into big gains.
As a senior, Wolff played a lot of defense and notched 45 tackles (tied with Iverson for third) behind Kevin’s team-leading 69 and Gordy’s total of 55.
“Tom Wolff was a slippery runner, hard to bring down,” summed up Carlson. “He, like most of those guys on that 1970 team, wasn’t big, but they sure could hit. Wolff was amazing to watch.”
Tom’s younger brothers, Dave, Jim, Chuck, Bob, Don (All State, HLO, 1983), Rod and Tim all played football, too, and sister Jane excelled in volleyball and played on HL-O’s 1981 state championship basketball team. She, like her brothers, had a knack for football as she scored numerous touchdowns while playing in the annual “powder puff” game during Homecoming Week.
The Wolff’s grew up on their parents, Milton and Veronica (McNab) Wolff, farm in LaCrosse Township approximately four miles northwest of Heron Lake.