Burnsville team bonds with stricken former coach

Tyler Krebs knows what it feels like to coach in the shadow of a legend.

BURNSVILLE, Minn. - Tyler Krebs knows what it feels like to coach in the shadow of a legend.

The head football coach at Burnsville High School need only look to a sign the size of semi trailer across the playing field. "Home of the BLAZE," it reads. "STATE FOOTBALL CHAMPIONS 1972, 1980, 1985, 1989, 1991."

All five championships belong to the coach for whom Krebs' home field is named.

A guy could get resentful of a legacy like that. Instead, Krebs gets burgers, fries and a shake.

The ritual has been repeated since the start of practice back in July. Krebs and a handful of players pick up food at McDonalds, which they deliver to the retirement home of Dick Hanson - Burnsville's legendary coach.

Hanson's hands quiver as he anticipates the visit. He's 80 now. "It's keeping me alive," he says.

The Parkinson's disease he battles was bad enough. But then Lewy body dementia took from Hanson, Phyllis, his wife of 60 years.

"She was beautiful," he says, a tear welling up in his eye. Near the end, the caregivers at Phyllis' memory care facility asked Hanson to stay away. Her dementia had progressed to the point his visits upset her.

"I wouldn't even get out of bed some days," he confides.

That was about the time Krebs and his players showed up.

"This will be in Italian guys," Hanson tells the players filling his living room chairs. They are part of a stream that has flowed through his small apartment this season.

Hanson presses the remote and Pavarotti fills the room with sound.

Like everything else the boys encounter here, the music comes with a message.

"Whenever you see somebody that's at their best," Hanson tells them, "after you see it, you're better."

Parkinson's is no longer on his mind. Dick Hanson is coaching again. He faces the players and continues. "Before I open my eyes in the morning, I think of you."

Krebs didn't dare to imagine how far this relationship would go. He had heard through the grapevine that Hanson had been going through some difficult times and decided to call.

Krebs was aware of Coach Hanson early in his football career. In 1991, Krebs was a senior at Lakeville, when his football team was beaten by Burnsville in the state championship game. Hanson was the coach on the other side of the field.

Years later Krebs encountered Hanson again, when Krebs took a class taught by Hanson at St. Thomas University.

But this is different. "If you listen to him, he'll say it's changed his life," says Krebs. "I think it's changed all our lives."

Hanson has become a regular at the team's weekly dinners. The octogenarian sits at a table with players who weren't yet born when he retired from coaching.

Near the end of the gatherings, Krebs calls Hanson to the front of the room to say a few words.

The team sits in rapt attention. Hanson's skills as storyteller are as sharp as ever. "I mean look at that nose," he says, pointing to his face.

The team laughs as he mocks his sizable shnaz.

"It drips," he continues as he launches into a discussion of phlegm.

Finally, the conclusion he's been building to: "Minnetonka's not going to have any trouble with Phlegm on Monday morning because you're going to knock the snot of them." Sustained applause follows as Hanson returns to his seat.

"It's given me a purpose I didn't think I could have anymore," he says. "It's given me a life."

The boys sense the importance of this too. "He told us he used to just wake up in the morning and watch Frazier reruns and how he just gets up right now and watches film," says Andy Grahn, a Burnsville football co-captain.

Grahn continues, "It doesn't look like it should work, but it works in a way nobody can really explain," he continues. "Coach Hanson will have a huge impact on my life."

Early in the season the team took Hanson to see "When the Game Stands Tall," a high school football movie. Hanson swears it was his first trip to a theater since, "On Golden Pond."

Daily he reviews the practice and game film Krebs sends him. He then consults with Krebs either by phone or in person. They talk almost every day.

"It's just been a blessing," says Krebs. "It's been an unbelievable experience."

Hanson wishes he were still physically strong enough to attend practices and stand on the sidelines on game nights, but he must leave that to Krebs and his assistants.

Still, all season the team has been with him, and he with them.

"You have no idea of the potential you can do together, Hanson tells the players at yet another team dinner.

Krebs watches from a chair nearby, not only comfortable in the shadow of a legend, but happily holding the spotlight.


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