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Upside Down Under

By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News


North Dakota's pro athletes...

Posted 8/22/17 (Tue)

Ever since Carson Wentz was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, it appears to have changed the entire dynamic of North Dakota athletes seeking positions in the professional ranks.

Wentz, a Bismarck Century product, is getting a lot of media coverage these days and rightfully so. He’s a good football player and is very popular back here in North Dakota, especially Bismarck.

In 1995, that same dynamic changed in baseball when Darin Erstad, a three-sport standout at Jamestown High School, signed a contract with the California Angels.

Prior to that, the biggest household name of any professional athlete from North Dakota was Roger Maris, a Fargo Shanley graduate who went on to hit 61 home runs for the New York Yankees in 1961.

When Erstad broke into the Major Leagues, a number of people commented that they now knew how it felt when Roger Maris became a Major League baseball player.

There are certainly a lot more people from the state who have excelled in sports and the first name outside football or baseball that comes to mind is Virgil Hill.

Hill, who attended Grand Forks Red River High School, became a silver medalist in boxing in the 1984 Olympics before turning pro and winning his first 30 professional fights before losing to Thomas Hearns on June 3, 1991. He finished his career in 2015 with a 51-7 record.

One professional football player who hasn’t received a lot of media coverage is Weston Dressler, who plays wide receiver for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers in the Canadian Football League.

He played football at Bismarck High School before going on to be a standout player at UND where he received the nickname, “Mr. Electricity.”

He broke into the professional ranks with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in 2008 and has been in the CFL ever since, except for a short stint with the Kansas City Chiefs.

He was also part of the CFL championship team in 2013 after the Roughriders defeated the Hamilton Tiger Cats.

When we talk about or write about professional athletes from North Dakota, we should never forget Phil Jackson who grew up in Williston and played professionally from 1967 to 1980 for the New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets.

Jackson is probably better known as a coach. After a short time with the Chicago Bulls, he was head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers from 1999-2011.

We don’t often think about it but North Dakota has a lot of professional athletes, many like Weston Dressler, who don’t get all the glamour like Erstad or Wentz.

Following are a few who have made their marks in professional sports, some of them coming from small towns in North Dakota:

• Dave Osborn, a running back with the Minnesota Vikings who grew up in Cando.

• Jim Kleinsasser, a punishing running back with the Minnesota Vikings who grew up in Carrington.

• Phil Hansen, an Oakes native who played defensive end for the Buffalo Bills.

• Travis Hafner, the valedictorian of Sykeston High School who spent 11 years with the Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees.

• Brad Gjermundson of Marshall, a small community in Dunn County, was a four-time saddle bronc rider in the 1980s and is perhaps the only professional athlete from a town of less than 100 people.

• Randy Hedberg, Parshall, became the quarterback at Minot State and went on to start in that position with the expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1976.

• Les Jepson, Bowbells, played college basketball in Iowa and later played two years in the NBA.

Sports Illustrated recently named the top 50 professional athletes in North Dakota and to nobody’s surprise, Roger Maris was at the top of the list followed by Phil Jackson and Darin Erstad. Virgil Hill was ranked No. 10.

Rick Helling, baseball and Fido Purpur and Mike Peluso in hockey have all made names for themselves. Peluso played for the Chicago Blackhawks but later moved back to his hometown of Bismarck and still coaches the Bismarck High Demons, a team he single handedly developed and groomed.

Every kid dreams of being a “big leaguer” but as they grow up they begin to change their minds.

The above list of people is proof that athletes from North Dakota have just as great a chance as anyone else to become a professional athlete in their desired sport.