WORTHINGTON — (Note: Lee Nystrom grew up in southwest Minnesota and graduated in 1969 from Worthington High, where he starred in basketball, football and track. He went on to a sparkling football career at Macalester College, earning all-conference and team MVP honors, and was inducted into the school’s athletic Hall of Fame in 1986. Lee, who was also named to the WHS Athletic HOF in 1990, played three years in the National Football League. A longtime businessman in the Twin Cities, he still serves as an assistant football coach at Macalester, which is where we caught up with him last week for our latest Conversation With Scott).
Question: It’s very nice to talk to you, Mr. Nystrom.
Answer: Thank you, Scott.
Q: Do you still have any relatives back in Worthington?
A: Yes I do. My brother, Chuck, owns the apple orchard just south of town on the Round Lake road. Ocheda Orchard. My brother lives on the old farm place that I grew up on.
Q: Any other Nystroms back here?
A: My brother’s youngest daughter (Val) is in Worthington also. Her husband (John Hubbard) is a school teacher and they live at my grandparents’ original place, which is just a half-mile from where my brother lives. Just south of town. And I’ve got a lot of first and second cousins there. Some Langseths and Nystroms who are still in the area. We have a family reunion every summer. We meet there on the east end of Lake Ocheda.
Q: It sounds like you have a lot of relatives back home, but I’m thinking none of them were quite the athlete you were.
A: (laughs) I don’t know about that. But I appreciate it. I don’t know if I would be considered a great athlete but I sure worked hard.
Q: Tell me about your young days in Worthington.
A: I grew up on a farm south of town and I had kind of an interesting career. I started playing football in the ninth grade, and I did OK. I would say I was an average player. But my senior year I was doing pretty well and the second game of the year I broke a bone in the palm of my hand. Back then they wouldn’t let you play with a cast, even though it really wasn’t a bad break. I missed a number of games. But I came back at the end of the year and made the WCCO Prep Parade Team of The Week. I guess that was the highlight of my high school football career (laughs).
Q: What about basketball?
A: Yes. I was probably known more as a basketball player in high school.
Q: Did the Trojans have good teams in both sports back then?
A: Oh yes. We did really, really well. My junior year I think we were conference champs in football and my senior year we were like second. In basketball, my senior year we won the conference and District 8 championship and then got beat in the regions by Mankato.
Q: Who was the basketball coach for the Trojans?
A: That was coach Don Basche.
Q: I knew him well back in the day. A fine coach.
A: Yes. You know, the interesting thing about my basketball career was even though I loved the game I wasn’t that good at it when I was young. When I went out for the team as a sophomore, I got cut from the team.
A: But funny things happen. I grew six inches between my sophomore and junior year, but since I couldn’t make the B squad team I didn’t go out for basketball as a junior. So I was playing in an open gym, just out there playing pickup ball one night, and I was sort of eating everybody up, including some of the seniors on the varsity. And who should be watching these pickup games but coach Basche. So he comes up to me afterward — and the season had already started — and he goes ‘Lee, I think we made a mistake last year and we need you on the varsity.’ So he says, ‘Bring your stuff’ the next day. (Laughs) I didn’t play a lot my junior year but I think I was the second-leading scorer as a senior.
A: (laughs) I wasn’t recruited by any Division I schools. Although I’d always loved the Gophers they didn’t recruit me. North Dakota and North Dakota State did. A number of other schools, like Gustavus and South Dakota State. But my goal was always to get to the Twin Cities. Of course I had no dreams of playing in the NFL. At that time in my life I wanted to be in the Twin Cities.
Q: How did you end up at Macalester?
A: The recruiter from North Dakota State came to see me one day, and says, ‘Lee, I’m here officially for North Dakota State, but I’ve just taken the head football coaching job at Macalester College.’ (Laughs) So I ended up going there to maybe play two sports, have some fun and get a good education. In football I ended up starting all four years. I didn’t miss a game.
Q: What position were you playing?
A: Mainly defensive line. But my senior year we were real low on numbers and going through tough times with just 30 or 35 kids on the team. So as a senior I played both ways. After my sophomore year I had gotten letters from NFL teams who said ‘We hear from your coaches you might have NFL ability.’ Really what I had was size (6-5 and about 220) and speed. That was about it. (Laughs) I guess I was developing into a pretty good athlete, but at that time I had never lifted weights. So I hit the weights and was able to put on about 30 pounds of muscle.
Q: Tell me about the NFL, Lee. You started your pro career with the Steelers, right?
A: Yes. I wasn’t drafted, but I signed as a free agent with the Steelers (in 1973) and midway through that year I was dealt to the Packers. I spent the next couple of years with them.
Q: Just playing the offensive line then?
A: Yes. Although I played a little bit of defense when I was on the scout squad for the Steelers. I was really lucky, because back then we had longer training camps and more preseason games. It gave me what I needed. I was able to develop and get better. So I ended up making the team. (Laughs) Who’d a thunk it? (Laughs) Some kid from a small town and a small college ... I ended up with the Packers and played a number of games with them (in 1974), but I hurt my back my third year. I tried to come back with the Patriots my fourth year, but my back wasn’t very good. I’d lost a lot of strength.
Q: Sorry to hear that.
A: Well, it was kind of a good news, bad news situation. The bad news was I only played three years and that was also the good news (laughs).
Q: Were Terry Bradshaw and all the other famous Steelers there when you were a rookie in 1973?
A: Oh yes. Terry was there. Rocky Bleier, who is a good friend of mine to this day, was also on the team. I was on their Taxi Squad, which is sort of like the practice squad now. We had 40 guys on the roster and seven more on the Taxi Squad.
Q: But you were practicing with the team all the time?
A: Yes, and that’s what I needed. In practice I went against guys like (superstar defensive linemen) Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood and I got better.
Q: Jack Lambert, too?
A: Jack Lambert (the Hall of Fame middle linebacker) came a year after I was there, so I was gone to Green Bay by the time he arrived.
Q: Well, that’s probably a good thing Lee. You didn’t really need to mess around with Jack Lambert in practice, right?
A: (laughs) That’s probably right. Joe Greene was enough of a handful. (Laughs).
Q: I was lucky once to interview Rocky Bleier. It was one of the thrills of my sports writing career. He’s a real hero.
A: Oh yes. Rocky was here a few years ago when the Super Bowl was here. I spent some time with him. At the Concordia University dome in St. Paul they did a ‘wounded warriors’ pickup football game. And of course Rocky Bleier was a wounded warrior (he was awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart after serving in the Vietnam War). We ran into Mike Max of WCCO TV and he says, ‘Lee, I want you and Rocky to be at the studio at 6:30 and we’re going on the air live.’ So we spent about a half-hour talking about the Steelers (laughs).
Q: He was very nice to me when I met him, Lee. He’s a true hero, isn’t he?
A: He absolutely is. No question about it. Rocky Bleier is about as good a person and a man as you’ll ever find.
Q: When you were with the Packers, was Bart Starr the coach?
A: My first two years Dan Devine was the coach, and my third year was Bart’s first year.
Q: So you were on the team with fine Green Bay running backs, John Brockington and MacArthur Lane?
A: Yep. In fact I just saw John back at a game in Green Bay this year.
Q: You weren’t the only Minnesota boy playing for the Packers in those days, right?
A: That’s right. I played right next to Gale Gillingham, who was from Little Falls. He passed away a few years ago. He was a terrific player — I think one of the best in the league. We had a few others, too. Noel Jenke (of Owatonna), who was one of the last three-sport letter winners at Minnesota. He’s a few years older than I am and had signed a big contract with the Boston Red Sox. He also played hockey and baseball at the U. He was a linebacker and was in Green Bay for a year when I was there. Aaron Brown was another Gopher who played for us, and Jim Carter, too. Jim is doing real well and I’ve talked to him a few times here lately. Jim’s dad and brother both went to Macalester. Jim’s dad (Bob Carter, Sr.) was in the inaugural Hall of Fame when they started it at Macalester in 1980.
Q: One of my sports writing heroes from way back is Howard Sinker, who I believe also went to Macalester. Do you know Howard?
A: I saw Howard just last Saturday. (Laughs) He’s a professor over there. It was a Macalester ‘Sports Day’ and they played Carleton in men’s basketball. Howard was there for the game. He’s a fun guy with a real dry sense of humor (laughs).
Q: If you know Howard you probably also know the most famous sportswriter from Murray County, Fulda’s Mr. Reusse?
A: Oh yes, oh yes. Patrick has not been kind to Macalester athletics over the years (laughs).
Q: Well, Pat pays a lot of attention to the Johnnies and the Tommies, you know.
A: Right (laughs).
Q: You graduated from Worthington in 1969, correct?
A: Yes. We just had our 50th class reunion, which was a lot of fun. There were a lot of our former athletes back, and it was great.
Q: Who was your football coach?
A: Milt Osterberg.
Q: That’s right. And who were some of your best friends back then?
A: Probably my best buddy from high school is Gary Schimbeno, whose dad was also a math teacher and coach. Also John Ireland and Mark Reker, too. And Bill Horak. Good guys.
Q: Did you play against Denny Hale of Jackson, who of course went on to coach the Trojan football team?
A: Denny is a little bit older. One of our teachers brought a bunch of us up to a Gopher game our senior year and Denny was a senior at the U. Great player.
Q: When you were with the Packers, Lee, did Bart Starr have an impact on you?
A: He did. He had an interesting way about him. The Packers had won championships in the 60s doing things a certain way, but the game was evolving very fast. He thought we as a team were too heavy, so he had everybody report at a lighter weight. But do you remember the Washington ‘Hogs,’ where all the offensive linemen were 300 pounds plus? The game was changing and the guys were getting bigger. So instead of having your back parallel to the ground as you drove-block guys, you’d be perpendicular to the ground and just kind of get in people’s ways. We used to run the ball on first and second down then in Green Bay and then throw it on third down. It was so predictable ... The game was changing, and I think Bart Starr got caught in a time warp. He was trying to win with smaller guys and we were getting overpowered. That’s kind of what I saw. But on the other hand, I never met a finer individual in my entire life. I was very sad when he passed away this past year.
Q: Let’s talk a little more about your high school days. Who were the Trojans’ big rival when you were playing?
A: In football it was Jackson, which had been a powerhouse for a lot of years. And in basketball it was always Luverne.
Q: I’ll bet you have fond memories of growing up in Worthington.
A: I sure do. If my wife would have allowed it, I probably would have retired in Worthington. I just like it there. But my wife is a city girl (laughs).
Q: Tell me about your coaching career at Macalester.
A: When I got done playing in the NFL, Macalester was in the midst of its losing streak (between 1973-79, Macalester lost 50 straight games). I had learned so much playing in the NFL and I thought I needed to do whatever I could to help the team get better. So I was a part time coach and worked in business. I coached for nine years, and we got respectable. My last year was 1984; I was traveling too much for my business and just didn’t have the time. Well, fast forward to 2012 and coach Tony Jennison asked me to come over and show the boys a few things. They didn’t have a defensive line coach, and I had the time to help out, so I did that and then, of course, Macalester made the national playoffs in 2014 and set a school record for number of wins. That was pretty fun. I thought I’d never see that (laughs). So it’s eight years now again I’ve been coaching.
Q: Are you on board for another year, Lee?
A: (pauses) Well, maybe. I don’t know for certain. But we’ll see.
Q: You still love the game, don’t you?
A: You bet. Working with young men and having an effect on their lives and making them better football players — there’s a lot of joy and satisfaction that comes out of that.
Q: Tell me about your family, sir.
A: My wife is Gail and I have one daughter, Alisha. She played fast pitch softball at Macalester. She had a really nice career.
Q: What do you think would be your top thrill in football?
A: Probably my start against the Minnesota Vikings, when I played against Carl Eller. (Laughs) That was 1974. And then I think every athlete had someone who had a dramatic effect on their lives. I would have to say that without a question for me it was Don Basche.
A: (pauses) Yes. He saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. I have to leave you with that.
Q: I thought Don was a great guy, too. But he never cut me from a team, Lee (laughs).
A: Well, he cut me and then he brought me back (laughs). I thought so much of him.
Q: It’s great to talk to you, Mr. Nystrom.
A: Thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure.
Conversations With Scott, produced by Scott Mansch of the Globe, appears about twice a month online at dglobe.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org