Rock Gullickson Fulfills Dream With Packers

Rock Gullickson knew he needed to look for a new job.

He didn’t know he’d be fulfilling a boyhood dream when he found it.

The Green Bay Packers have named the Moorhead native and life-long Packers fan to be the team’s new strength and conditioning coach.

Gullickson, who graduated from Moorhead High School and Moorhead State University, spent the past six years in the same position with the New Orleans Saints.

But, a call from Green Bay’s new head coach, Mike McCarthy, and a visit to the team’s facilities was all Gullickson needed to make his decision.

“As I was walking through the hall of their facility, I saw all my boyhood heroes on the walls,” said the 50-year-old Gullickson. “I broke down. I was so emotional.”

Gullickson said McCarthy was instrumental in tapping him to replace Barry Rubin as the team’s strength coach.

McCarthy was the Saints’ offensive coordinator from 2000-2004 and coached with Gullickson for five years before taking the offensive coordinator position with the San Francisco 49ers prior to this season.

Gullickson said he and McCarthy developed a strong work relationship in their time with the Saints.

“He’s the best person for this job, and I consider this position as important as any on my staff,” McCarthy said in a Packers press release.

“I’ve seen first hand what he can do with professional athletes. Our players will be impressed.”

Gullickson said he plans to implement a new conditioning program in an attempt to avoid another season filled with injuries.

The Packers placed several starters – Javon Walker, Ahman Green, Bubba Franks and Robert Ferguson – on the injuredreserved list this season.

“They had a number of injuries very early in the season that got them down,” Gullickson said. “One of the things we’re trying to improve upon is the offseason program. A lot of those injuries are fatigue related.”

Although Gullickson was an undersized offensive guard (6-foot, 240 pounds his senior season) when he played for Moorhead State, he made up for his size with strength and work ethic.

“He was one of our integral parts of our team,” said former Moorhead State offensive line coach Ron Masanz. “He was a pretty gung-ho kid.”

As a senior in 1977, Gullickson earned Associated Press Little All-America first-team honors. The Little All-America team is comprised of the best players from NCAA Division II, Division III and NAIA.

Gullickson went to New Orleans after stops at the University of Texas and the University of Louisville.

Things were going well for Gullickson in New Orleans until this season.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in late August, it forced the Saints to relocate to San Antonio.

“We had to put up a temporary weight room in a tent,” Gullickson said.

The tent, in a parking lot adjacent to the high school baseball field where the Saints practiced, was far from ideal for a professional football team.

The team’s workout troubles were complicated by an often changing schedule.

“These guys would thrive off knowing the schedule, knowing what to expect,” Gullickson said. “That threw a wrench into everything.”

Despite the Saints’ hopes that they’ll be able to play their home games in the Superdome next season, Gullickson was guarded as to whether he wanted to return, even though they offered him a two-year contract extension.

“There’s a lot of sadness in the city,” said Gullickson, as he and his wife, Terry, packed up their home in Destrahan, La., a suburb southwest of the New Orleans metro area. “There’s a lot of work being done. You can’t comprehend what work is being done.”

The house escaped extensive harm from Hurricane Katrina, suffering only easily repairable wind damage and no water damage. On Friday, the Gullickson’s received an offer on the house.

“There’s a lot of people who are looking for homes,” Gullickson said. “A lot of people are just coming back to the city.”

Gullickson believes he’s found his new home in Green Bay.

“It’s taken a while to sink in,” Gullickson said. “It still doesn’t seem real. They (the Packers) assured me it is.”

Soaring to New Heights: F-M Acro Team Providing Halftime Fun Since ’70s

As the background music paces their steps, Maggie Orseth and Amanda Kankelfritz shake off nerves and one after the other, run full speed down the basketball court toward a nine-foot-high human pyramid.

The packed Shanley High School gymnasium braces for a big finale.

“Is she going to make it? She has to make it,” Orseth said, imagining what the crowd must be thinking.

The two girls bounce off a mini-trampoline and soar gracefully over the pyramid, sending the capacity crowd into a frenzy.

“In a way, it (the crowd) makes us go higher,” said Kankelfritz, a senior at Fargo South. “It gives us more energy.”

As the crowd offers a standing ovation, Kankelfritz, Orseth and the rest of the Fargo-Moorhead Acro Team smile and wave back enthusiastically.

Since the 1970s, the Acro Team has become one of the top halftime entertainment groups in the country, performing in small high school gyms and large professional sports arenas.

What separates the Acro Team from other acts?

While others merely fill a gap between two halves, the Acro Team prides itself in keeping fans in their seats throughout the performance with one objective.

“Our goal is to bring people to their feet,” assistant coach Mike Ceyner said. “Always leave them wanting more.”

For more than 36 years, that’s what Jim Simle’s innovation has done.

The former high school basketball coach started the Acro Team as an opportunity for girls, including his daughter Stacey, to have another extra curricular activity.

“At the time, there wasn’t a lot of opportunities for girls,” said Stacey Simle-Askew, now the team’s head coach.

At first, both the performances and the teams were small. But as the team’s reputation grew, so did invitations to perform.

The team regularly performs at the North Dakota boys basketball state tournament and has been to the Minnesota Gophers basketball games at Williams Arena since 1975.

This year, the Acro Team will perform in eight major sports arenas and showcase its talent for local fans at high school and college basketball games.

Although it receives money to perform at professional and collegiate games, and has several area corporate sponsors, the Acro Team won’t accept any money or donations from the fans at any small town it visits.

Simle sees the event as more of a way to bring the team’s talents somewhere it would rarely ever go.

“If they have more people in the stands, we’ve helped them,” said the 66-year-old Acro Team director.

After all, the team didn’t get its start performing for the Milwaukee Bucks or Wisconsin Badgers – whose arena’s the team will visit in January.

“We had some humble beginnings,” Simle said. “If you forget where you come from, you’ve lost it.”

It would be hard for Simle and the team to forget their roots. They’re surrounded by the team’s history on a daily basis.

Tucked away in the American Gold Gymnastics building in south Fargo is a spiral staircase leading to an office with more than 30 years of Acro Team history on its walls.

Nearly every girl – and one boy – lucky enough to be selected to the Acro Team’s top squad is immortalized by photographs on the walls.

The photos show how the Acro Team became the nationally known entertainment group it is today.

Of the hundreds of photos, there are four with Michael Jordan, another with Julius Erving after his final regularseason game, and several others with music and movie stars and politicians.

“You get to see things kids my age never see and go places you wouldn’t get to go,” said West Fargo senior Jenessa Olson.

That outlook has kept the Acro Team fresh over the years.

Even though many Acro Team members remain through their senior year of high school, for every one who leaves there are several junior members vying for the spot.

Assembling the team and choosing new members requires countless hours of scouting and decision making by the coaches. Much of it begins the day a child joins the Fargo-Moorhead gymnastics program. From there, a few are asked if they’d like to be a part of the team. Today, there are five Acro Teams for different age groups.

“Right now it’s so full, with each team it’s difficult to add people,” Simle said.

The meticulous process has paid off. Each squad has the opportunity to bring its own flavor and skill. The 2005-06 Acro Team is no different.

Orseth and her twin sister, Mary, have been involved in gymnastics since they were in the sixth grade, the gymnastics equivalent of jumping into high school football as a senior.

“I’ve done track,” said Maggie Orseth, a Fargo South senior. “You can’t compare it. It’s so much more time consuming. We do so much more.”

Kankelfritz started the gymnastics process when she was 3. By the time she was 6, she was on an Acro Team.

Mallory Griggs, a freshman at Minnesota State Moorhead, has been with the team for seven years. Simle-Askew was the only other member to stay with the team into college.

Griggs said although she loves the team, her commitment to classes and the team had to be weighed.

“You just get swamped,” she said. “This kind of gets you away from it all.”

Griggs is leaning toward this being her last year with the Acro Team, even though she knows she might regret stepping away.

“It’s just a big part of my life,” she said.

Every metro high school is represented on the Acro Team, but there is one who makes devotes the majority of her after-school time to the team.

Katie Jensen drives an hour from her home in Chaffee, N.D., to practice.

“In the winter it’s longer,” said the Central Cass High School freshman.

Jensen said the opportunity to be a part of the Acro Team is second-to-none, even if it interferes with friendships, school and social lives.

“It’s hard sometimes,” she said. “I want to go do something with my friends, but I have to go here instead.”

Despite logging more miles than any other team or activity group in North Dakota will this year, the team manages to keep up with school work.

“We’ve never had to hold a kid (out of a performance) for grades,” Simle-Askew said.

As a reward for the hard work, the team gets to perform on some of the biggest stages in professional sport.

Madison Square Garden, home of the New York Knicks – and some of the National Basketball Association’s rowdies, most vocal fans – is an every-other-year stop for the Acro Team.

When the team finished its last performance there – they’ve entertained at the Garden five times – the reputedly harsh New York fans showed a side no one on the Acro Team expected.

“We had people telling us we were better than the game,” Maggie Orseth said. “They were so warm and receptive.”

It’s not a bad place to spot and meet celebrities, either.

Team members said catching a glimpse of movie star Brad Pitt in the audience at the Garden and meeting country music star Toby Keith at a University of Oklahoma men’s basketball game are among the high points of traveling with the team.

Keeping some of the most famous entertainers in the world in their seats at halftime takes time, hard work and a great routine.

Although it often leaves fans breathless, the choreography has its limits.

The Acro Team performs with two 72-foot springfloor runways, five crash pads and five mini-trampolines. The runways and trampolines were specifically designed by Ceyner, who also works as an electrical engineer.

“There’s only so many ways you can put the equipment,” Ceyner said.

Each year, new handstands, backflips and jumps are worked into the routine.

“I still get the chills up my spine when I see them perform,” said Sharon Jackson, mother of 14-yearold Acro Team member Lexi Jackson, a West Fargo freshman.

The team also has taken advantage of technological advances to improve its choreography and coaching.

If a team member feels one of her moves isn’t up to par, she can check out the replay on a digital video recorder that runs during practice.

When Ceyner joined the team as a coach in 1979, music for performances was played on records. Now, Ceyner uses an MP3 disc jockey system on a laptop computer.

“In the last two years, the technology existed where we can plug a computer into an arena,” Ceyner said.

As the team matures technologically, coaches have taken steps to ensure they mature socially. An etiquette exercise takes place at nearly every practice.

It’s all in an effort to live up to the team’s title as official goodwill ambassadors for North Dakota, a title given to the team by Gov. Allen Olson in 1981.

“You’re trying to build a good athlete,” Simle said. “But moreso, you’re trying to build a good person.”

As the team gathered for a post-performance meeting in Shanley’s practice gym, three young members of the Acro Lites team – none taller than the waist of anyone in the room – practiced summersaults off to the side, laughing and critiquing each other.

It brought a smile to Simle.

“The thing that has never changed are the kids,” Simle said. “They lead you.”

 

Signs of the times: Advertising just one way American Legion programs making ends meet

Eighty-year-old Joe Parmer remembers when watching an American Legion baseball game at Fargo’s Jack Williams Stadium wasn’t similar to scrolling through the Yellow Pages.

However, an outfield fence full of advertisements pays the bills. And Fargo Post 2 Legion members know that’s the first priority to ensure a stable summer baseball program.

“We don’t want to be in the position where we have to cut our program,” said Parmer, a longtime Post 2 board member.

Several Legion clubs in North Dakota and Minnesota are searching for ways to generate income or cut costs.

With state tournaments starting today and Thursday in North Dakota and Minnesota, many clubs have noticed the following trend:

National American Legion baseball coordinator Jim Quinlan said, despite steady player interest in Legion baseball, funding for the sport has decreased nationwide, forcing thousands of clubs to look for outside income.

“There’s a lot of demand on those Legion posts,” Quinlan said. “If they (teams) don’t get some sponsors, it really makes it difficult.” Post 2 isn’t the only Legion club that relies on advertising. The Moorhead Blues and West Fargo Patriots have sold advertising on their outfield walls at Matson Field and Veteran’s Memorial Field the past few years. “The signs are the big moneymaker for us right now,” Patriots coach Brett Peterson said.

Despite some baseball purists thinking the appearance of ads covering nearly half of the outfield fence at Jack Williams is gaudy, it generates about $16,000 a year.

It’s Post 2’s most lucrative source of income in its nearly $80,000 yearly baseball budget, surpassing traditional sources such as charitable gaming, Legion member donations and season ticket sales.

Post 2 finance director Hank Deyle said the team began this summer season $9,000 short and wonders if next season will be the same.

“We’re scratching all the time to get enough money,” Deyle said. “When the gaming was lucrative, we had no problem.”

Post 2 currently has 30 advertising signs lining the left and right field walls and with a hope of better funding, they’re expecting to add more in center and right field before next season.

“Hopefully, we’ll get the other half done next spring,” Parmer said. “We hope to do the entire outfield. We haven’t completed it yet.”

Post 2 coach Bill Ibach said he’s witnessed a change since his playing days in the early 1980s. “Our program never had to (use advertising) because the Legion had so much money,” Ibach said. “That was a source of pride.”

But the rising cost of field care, travel and equipment has left teams searching for ways to cope.

Smaller Legion clubs believe advertising is necessary in order to survive.

“Some people don’t like it,” Hope-Finley baseball coach Mark Frost said. “But that’s been the life-blood for Legion baseball.”

The Hope, N.D., and Finley, N.D., Legion and Sons of the American Legion clubs sold signs on the outfield fences to help support a team budget of around $8,200. Nearly half that budget goes toward umpire and coaches salaries.

Like many small-town teams, Frost said his team made cost-cutting moves to help maintain the quality of the program. The biggest was sharing equipment, including parts of uniforms, with Hope-Page High School. “We are kind of unique,” Frost said. “We split the cost on things that are used in both.” Legion clubs used to rarely rely on outside funding to run baseball teams. Charitable gaming, ticket sales and fundraisers seemed to take care of any money issues. However, club officials said they have taken hits to their gaming funds for various reasons. “We used to live entirely off gambling. It’s getting less and less,” said Fargo Post 2 board member Jim McLaughlin.

Some Legion officials believe local casinos have taken away business. Others blame dwindling interest in pull tabs and bingo.

Moorhead Blues business manager Joe Baker said the club still receives gaming money, but it’s a touch-and-go situation.

“As long as our bingo and our pull tabs sales stay up, then we’re OK,” Baker said. “If they fall off, naturally, the program’s going to fall off a little bit, too.”

Some teams implemented player fees to take care of travel, equipment and insurance expenses.

According to Minot (N.D.) Vistas coach Todd Larson, each of his players must pay $450 a season in order to participate.

However, they’re offered several chances to work off the fee by volunteering at Legion fundraisers and team events throughout the year.

“We’re self-supportive,” Larson said. “We haven’t had any money from our Legion for a number of years.”

New York Mills, Minn., has nearly new facilities at Russ Jacobson Field and strong community support. Yet, Legion coach Mike Weller said the team’s numbers are still declining.

“We had three starters that didn’t come out this summer. They just wanted to work,” Weller said. “When I played ball, I couldn’t wait to get to the field. I knew I could work when I was done playing ball.”

North Dakota East Region chairman Ron Frydenlund believes adults in small communities need to improve the way they contribute to their programs.

“Younger adults don’t join the veteran’s organizations,” Frydenlund said. “They don’t do anything until they got a kid up there playing.”

Post 2 parents and alumni created a booster club this year as a way to raise money for the 2009 Legion World Series, which is sponsored by Post 2 and will be held at Newman Outdoor Field.

“We are kind of wearing out,” McLaughlin said of Legion members. “We’ve got a lot of parents to get really active.”

Even though Post 2’s hopes are high for the next few years, it, and many clubs like it, will keep raising money any way they can.

McLaughlin, 80, sets up a small stand at every Post 2 home game, selling team apparel and Roger Maris collectables. It’s just another small way to keep the team in business.

“We are proud we’ve kept it strictly Legion sponsored,” McLaughlin said. “We’d like to keep it that way, but it’s getting tougher all the time.”

Hunting Dogs Put to the Test

GLYNDON, Minn. – Quiver, a 2-year-old yellow labrador retriever, seemed to know what would impress the judges at the North Dakota Retriever Club hunt test Saturday.

The dog emerged from thick grass at the test grounds north of Glyndon, proudly displaying a recovered duck in his mouth and shrewdly slowing down to show judge Fran Smith.

Was it an attempt to impress the woman scoring him? Only Quiver knows. But it worked.

“I am impressed,” Smith enthusiastically said to the dog and his handler Lyle Steinman.

Just for bonus points, Quiver delicately dropped the duck and correctly heeled at Steinman’s side.

Steinman handled 19 of nearly 100 master-level dogs at the American Kennel Club certified tests. He said it’s difficult for even the best hunting dogs to make it to the master level.

“You have to have a good dog,” Steinman said. “But you have to have an animal who has a natural ability. The IQ, the brains, it all goes back to genetics.”

Dogs in the AKC tests begin as juniors, and then move on to the senior level.

After passing several tests, they can advance to the masters.

Once there, the dogs are put through far more challenging tests, including blind retrieval.

It means the dogs can’t see the birds go down and must rely on their senses to retrieve them.

Because of the level of difficulty, only 20 percent pass.

“The master dogs competing are better than 99 percent of the hunting dogs out there,” NDRC president Henry Van Offelen said. “It gives you a measure on which to gauge and see what dogs can do.”

The final tests continue today at the NDRC main grounds, two miles west of Glyndon.

Steinman, the owner of Castile Creek Kennels in Stewartsville, Mo., handles and trains master and senior hunting dogs.

“(Castile Creek trainer) Greg (Nelson) and I only train dogs we love,” Steinman said. “We don’t train ones we don’t like. It’s got to be a mutual respect.”

Trainers and handlers must teach a dog how, when and where to heel, react and retrieve.

“A big thing with all these dogs (is) the obedience,” Steinman said. “You need a lot of obedience.”

Every dog must heel at the handler’s side before beginning the test and after retrieving each bird.

“We’re not looking for the best athletes, we’re looking for the type of dog who wants to work with us,” Steinman said.

Max, a six-year-old labrador retriever Steinman handles, is believed to be the most accomplished master dog in the nation with 68 master test passes.

He’ll be going for No. 69 this weekend.

“The level of expectations of what we’re wanting is so tough, a very small percentage make it anymore,” Steinman said.

Tim Slattery, a former professional football player from Celina, Texas, has handled dogs professionally for 16 years. He has eight master dogs and two seniors competing at the tests.

“I’ve got a competitive edge in me,” Slattery said. “I like to get out there with the dogs and tear it up.”

Slattery and Steinman said they often trade tips and tricks about courses when testing.

“We’re constantly tuning each other in,” Slattery said.

Like Slattery and Steinman, several professional trainers from across the country used the tests to qualify dogs for nationals.

For Bob and Lynn Louiseau of Perham, Minn., the tests were the first step in training Delta, their 1-year-old yellow labrador retriever.

It was the first hunt test for Bob Louiseau, 53, who joined the NDRC in order to learn how to properly train Delta, who competes at the junior level.

“It’s kind of fun to be taught,” said the former peewee hockey coach. “I’m learning things from 20-year-olds who’ve been doing this longer than I have.”

Female Driver Looks up to Stars

Natalie Sather knows she’s not Danica Patrick.

Yet, the spunky, first-year World of Outlaws driver doesn’t mind looking up to the Indy Racing League’s female star.

“What girls are doing today is awesome,” said Sather, a Dilwor th-Glyndon-Felton High School graduate. “It might prove some people wrong.”

Sather, 20, is the only female running with the Outlaws this weekend during the Duel in the Dakotas at Red Valley Speedway.

Erin Crocker ran in last year’s Duel, but is currently attempting to work her way into NASCAR’s Busch Series.

“What she did in sprint cars is phenomenal,” Sather said. “I hope I can do what she did.”

Sather has struggled adjusting to the faster motors of the 410 sprints, which she began running this year while still competing in the 360 sprints.

Sather spun out during the warmup laps of her Outlaws heat and tipped on her left side during the second lap of the 360 feature. She was uninjured.

Sather ranks 33rd in the World of Outlaws point standings with a season-best finish of 21st at the Batesville (Ark.) Speedway.

“I’m learning,” Sather said.

Despite toiling in the back of the pack most nights, Sather still holds her head high. She expects returning to her home area this weekend might help.

“I’m so glad to come home,” Sather said.

Sather said she’ll be racing with a purpose this weekend. Ashley Leabo, Sather’s cousin and one of her biggest supporters, died in a car accident early Thursday morning in Grand Forks, N.D.

“It’s been a tough week for my family,” Sather said. “She was telling everyone I was going to win.”