Former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg died at his Lakeville home Tuesday after a battle with Lou Gehrig's disease.
He was 66. Friend and former Vikings tight end Stu Voigt said Hilgenberg died peacefully, surrounded by his family.
"He'd say, 'It's not when you go, it's where you go,"' Voigt told The Associated Press. "He handled these last six months with a lot of dignity."
Hilgenberg was in the NFL for 16 seasons, including 12 with the Vikings from 1968 to 1979. Playing on the outside, Hilgenberg was a solid member of a feared defense that led the Vikings to four Super Bowl appearances.
Overshadowed by the Purple People Eaters playing in front of him, Hilgenberg started 116 games of the 157 he played for Minnesota, tied for 21st on the franchise's career games played list.
Hilgenberg led the team in total tackles with 110 in 1971 and his 13 combined tackles at Chicago on Oct. 23, 1972 remains tied with Scott Studwell for the most by a Vikings player in a single game.
Voigt and Hilgenberg met when Voigt joined the Vikings in 1970. Hilgenberg was already with the team, and because of their positions on opposite sides of the ball, the two "literally ran into each other every day for years" during practice, Voigt said.
"We were teammates and friends from the very start," Voigt said.
Voigt said Hilgenberg made him and other members of the team better football players, but that Hilgenberg's strong faith and community involvement also made them better people.
"We were back in the era when athletes were role models," Voigt said. "He was a role model for myself and a lot of other guys."
Hilgenberg was active through his religious affiliations, in charity events, and in his community. He was also an avid outdoorsman, Voigt said.
After the Vikings, Voigt and Hilgenberg remained friends and ran banking and real estate businesses together.
Voigt said the last few months were rough. Hilgenberg was in a wheelchair, crippled from the effects of Lou Gehrig's disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS damages the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, eventually leading to death.
"It takes away your body," Voigt said of the disease. "But I could tell the mind was there, and the twinkle in his eye. ... He was really quite a guy."
He is survived by his wife, four grown children, and several grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were pending.
Hilgenberg Family Statement:
Wally Hilgenberg, former player for the Minnesota Vikings, died today. He was 66.
The family has issued the following statement:
"Today our husband, father, and grandpa went home to be with his Maker. Surrounded by family members at his home, Wally Hilgenberg ended his two year battle with ALS. Though we are saddened by this earthly loss, we rejoice knowing he is with his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We want to thank all of the friends and fans for their support in these past two years. The prayers and acts of kindness of so many, sustained and encouraged Wally. We give God all of the praise and glory."
Here is the obituary:
WALTER W. HILGENBERG
"Soon you will read in the newspaper that I am dead. Don't believe it for a moment. I will be more alive than ever before" …DL Moody
On September 23, 2008, at the age of 66, God's earthly plan for Wally Hilgenberg was perfectly completed. Surrounded by family members in his home, Wally ended his two year battle with ALS. The prayers and acts of kindness shared by so many, sustained and encouraged Wally.
Wally was a devoted and loving husband, supportive and encouraging father and grandfather, a Christian indebted to Jesus, an inspirational speaker, a faithful and giving friend, a respected businessman, and an avid outdoorsman.
Hilgenberg was born on September 19, 1942 and grew up in Iowa, an experience that shaped rich family values. He graduated from Wilton, Jct. High School, and then graduated from the University of Iowa where he played football for the Iowa Hawkeyes and received All American honors in 1963. During 16 seasons in the National Football League, four with the Detroit Lions and twelve with the Minnesota Vikings, he was one of the few players to play in all four of the Vikings Super Bowl appearances (Super Bowl IV, VIII, IX and XI.) Yet, Wally often stated that he won the "Big Game" the day he accepted the Lord as his Savior in 1977. Sharing His faith gave Wally purpose beyond everyday living.
Wally provided his family with a multitude of memories. Yet, some of the greatest will be found in the simplicity of his cabin in Orr, MN, or the stocked pond in his backyard. With a love for life, he always made those around him smile through routine pranks and story telling.
Wally is preceded in death by his father, W. E. Hilgenberg; His mother, Lavonne; and his sister Donna Schnelle. Hilgenberg is survived by his wife, Mary, four children, Angie Hilgenberg, Amy Lindahl (Mike), Eric Hilgenberg (Jennifer) and Kristi Hage (Jordan). He is also survived by 14 grandchildren, his brother Jerry Hilgenberg and numerous extended family and friends.
We give God all the praise, honor & glory.
Services will be held at Cedar Valley Church, 8600 Bloomington Avenue South, Bloomington, MN.
Saturday, September 27th, 2008, 2:00 pm.
In Lieu of Flowers, please send donations in honor of Wally to:
The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, www.fcamn.org, Search Ministries (www.SearchMN.org), or ALS Foundation (www.ALSmn.org)
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)