Conversation: WHS Hall-of-Famer Greg O'Brien remembers the '70s
The Globe sports reporter Scott Mansch converses with former Worthington Trojans star Greg O'Brien
EDITOR’S NOTE: Greg O’Brien graduated from Worthington High in 1974 and in 1998 was inducted into the Trojan Athletic Hall of Fame. He was an excellent golfer, basketball player and baseball pitcher during his WHS career and later played both basketball and baseball at Worthington Community College (now Minnesota West) and Augustana (S.D.) University. Retired after a long career with Cargill, mostly in the Twin Cities, he is an accomplished racquetball player and lives with his wife, Kristi, in Eagan. That’s where we caught up with him for our latest Conversation with Scott.)
Q: How long have you lived in Eagan, Greg?
A: I’ve been in this house for 27 years.
Q: Congrats on your long career with Cargill. Have you always worked up in the Cities?
A: No, but at one time our sales office was located in Bloomington near where Met Stadium and the Met Center used to be. Kind of nice. We could walk to baseball games and then the Minnesota Kicks (soccer team) also played there. I was there for not quite two years but in ‘83 they relocated the office to Michigan. (He also lived and worked in Indianapolis and Toledo before being transferred back to Minnesota.)
Q: Must have been nice to get back home.
A: Yes, luckily I got back up here in ‘93 … I made it with Cargill from ‘81 until retiring in 2018. So that was a nice run.
Q: What did you study at Augustana?
A: I graduated with a double-major in business administration and accounting.
Q: You’re a Worthington boy, born and bred, correct?
A: Oh yes. I was born there. I think my sister and brother were both born in Austin. They’re a few years older. My sister Kathy lives in San Antonio. My brother Tim is a successful author. I think he’s written nine books (note: Tim O’Brien is an award-winning writer who graduated from Macalester College and pursued graduate studies at Harvard. He was drafted to serve in the Vietnam War and was awarded a Purple Heart. Later he worked at the Washington Post and has earned many awards for his books and short stories.)
Q: Was Tim as fine an athlete as you, Greg?
A: (laughs) Tim played baseball and golf. Not on the high school teams, I don’t think. But Tim had the brains in the family.
Q: What did your father (William) do in Worthington?
A: He sold insurance and worked for Demuth Agency. Dad died in 2004 at 90. My mom (Ava) made it to age 94. Mom taught at Central Elementary. We lived out by the golf course for a bit when I was a baby, but most of our years were in a house on 11th Avenue. Right near the old West Elementary.
Q: Worthington still have a soft spot in your heart?
A: Oh god, yes.
Q: What are some of your top memories of growing up in Worthington?
A: Oh … There are so many.
Q: I know you were a great golfer. Won the Region 2 championship, right?
A: I was better then than I am now. (Laughs). It’s funny. I think the less you know the more you play by feel. I was better when I was younger. I liked all the sports.
Q: You were a quarterback?
A: Yes. I liked football for the games, but not the summer preseason practices. That’s back in the day when you didn’t know you needed water to survive (laughs). I sure didn’t care for the summer practices. I loved the games, though.
A: I loved that a lot. I liked the practices and the games.
Q: Such a great gymnasium at Worthington High, too.
A: It really is. A few years ago when my buddy Mike Traphagen was the athletic director I went to the old high school and was just shocked at how good the gym is. It looks even better now than when we played there. The court was really in tip-top shape.
A: I liked that, too. But the problem back in my day was you couldn’t play both golf and baseball. My closest friends (Mike Remme and Mike Traphagen) were playing baseball. We were pretty tight. So I elected to play baseball my freshman year, then golf my sophomore year (when he was Region 2 champion) and back to baseball my junior year and golf my senior year.
Q: Of those two Mikes and you, who was the best athlete, Greg?
A: (laughs) We had a really solid group. A lot of good guys. In baseball, as you may remember, we had good teams.
Q: I know, I know. You had Arnie Wheeler on the team, right?
A: Oh yes. Arnie was a big solid hitter. I think he had a tryout (with the Kansas City Royals). I remember it because I was working with the youth programs that summer. This scout came down and had me throw and Arnie hit. But neither one of us ever heard from the guy again (laughs).
Q: Did the Trojans have a good football team your senior year?
A: I think we were like 5-4. I started at quarterback my senior year, but got hurt the first game against Owatonna. I missed a couple of games and they put in a junior, Don Schlichte, who was more of a running quarterback when I was a thrower. That was kind of a bummer. Roger Lipelt was our coach and he liked to run the ball. I thought Roger was a heckuva fine man. But he liked to run the ball more than throw it (laughs). Don and I split time most of the time. (Note: Don Schlichte had a fine WHS sports career. His younger brother, Dave, was a tremendous athlete for the Trojans and is in the school’s Hall of Fame.)
Q: The Trojans had some fine players in those days. I remember Andre Kirkwood. He could really run.
A: Yes. Andre ran track. We also had Arnie Wheeler, who was like Cannonball Butler. He had no legs, but he was fairly fast and hard to tackle. And Andre could run, for sure. I loved playing the football games. They were special.
Q: In basketball you played for coach Don Basche and I’m sure you had good teams.
A: Yes. My senior year we had a really good regular season. I remember we got Slayton by 20 or 30 points.
Q: Hey, don’t rub it in.
A: (laughs) We beat Pipestone by about the same. But all those little towns had great athletes. I remember Perry Mettling and Mark Grieme from Slayton. They were my age.
Q: Good athletes and good guys.
A: Yes. Anyway, in the district tournament we beat Luverne to get to the regional and then we had to play Jackson. It went into overtime, although I think we’d beaten them both times in the regular season. But it was a dogfight. Scott Bargfrede was a great basketball player for them. So we beat Jackson and then had to beat St. James to get in the state tournament, where we would have played Chisholm. (Note: St. James had won the state championship in 1972. That’s still when Minnesota had only one class.) We were ahead at halftime against St. James, but coughed it up. We had a very balanced team. I think everyone averaged more than 10 points per game.
Q: Who were the starters?
A: Mike Traphagen, Larry Grandstra, Steve Wiertzema, Don Schlichte and myself. Steve coached a long time at Hills-Beaver Creek. He was very successful.
Q: Was Bruce Wilson on the team? I know he was a great baseball player, too.
A: Yes, Bruce played. He might have been a starter, too. In baseball Bruce caught for me forever, through high school and later when we played for the Cubs (amateur team). Ty Wacker coached us. A lot of those same guys played for the Cubs, plus some older guys. Good players like Tom Suby.
Q: You bet.
A: There were a lot of good town teams back then. You know that whole area, from Slayton and Pipestone and Marshall and Luverne and Jackson, there were a lot of great athletes.
Q: Well, when you think about basketball you remember guys like Arvid Kramer, Tom Schreiber, Gary Hogan and Brad Holinka of Fulda, and Steve Prunty, Jerry Kuhlman and Jim Hoyme of Jasper.
A: Oh gosh, yes. Do you remember Joe Bostic from Pipestone?
Q: How could I forget that character? He was a memorable guy. Both in basketball and baseball.
A: (laughs) Kind of a head case, that dude. But you know what, he wasn’t a bad guy — outside of playing against him.
Q: I know he wasn’t. Not so much fun to play against.
A: (laughs) It was very hard to advance through that district basketball tournament. A lot of very fine teams. Some good times.
Q: Tell me about your golf career? I know you were the regional champion as a sophomore. Did you place at the state meet?
A: No. That was a whole different world. I never played that University of Minnesota course very well.
Q: Region 2 champion, though. That’s quite an accomplishment.
A: I shot 1-under and got into a playoff. That year we won as a team as well (Ken Thompson was the coach). We had Tom Wallace, Marty Rickers, Rick Motl and Doug Moll.
Q: What about your college career?
A: I went to Augustana my freshman year and kind of regretted it. I played baseball in the spring and golf in the fall. I just played intramural football and basketball. But I came back to Worthington and played basketball for Arlo (Mogck), but I sat on the bench a lot. That junior college competition was plenty tough. A lot of real good players on those teams. Then I went back to Augustana and played baseball and golf, but didn’t really do much. That Division II was a bigger jump. I kind of ruined my chances in baseball my freshman year. The first game I got into was in Orange City against Northwestern. I finally got in as a reliever and got an out to end the inning. The next inning I got the first two guys out and I’m thinking to myself, ‘This isn’t that bad.’ And then next guy up, bang, a home run. Next guy up, bang, a home run. The coach comes out, kind of grinning at me, takes the ball from my hand and says ‘Welcome to college baseball.’ (Laughs).
Q: What was it like growing up in the ‘60s and early ‘70s in Worthington? A lot of neighborhood ball games?
A: Yes. Back in the day everybody played pickup baseball. From the time of kindergarten on, you could play in some kind of baseball league. We were playing pickup games always. Same with football and basketball. We’d go to a house across the street with a basket and we were there constantly. All the neighborhood guys were there. It didn’t matter what age. You never hardly see kids playing pickup ball anymore, unless it’s something organized.
Q: What about your own boys?
A: My kids (Colin and Chris) were completely different from me. They played hockey and lacrosse. My youngest (Chris) is playing golf at Luther College.
Q: Is your wife (Kristi) a Worthington girl?
A: No, I met her at Cargill. She’s from Iowa. And unfortunately she’s a Hawkeye fan (laughs). She works at Eagan High School in the counseling office.
Q: Well, your old pal Kevin Flynn tells me you’re a fantastic racquetball player these days. Is that true?
A: I wish.
Q: I understand you just won a national tournament in the Cities.
A: When I retired from my job, I’m doing all the wash and shopping (laughs). But I’m also playing a lot of golf and racquetball.
Q: What’s your handicap these days?
A: I think it’s 5.6.
Q: When’s the last time you played at our great course in Worthington?
A: Not last year, but the Labor Day before I played in the tournament. And I was absolutely horrid. The worst I’ve played in my life. Kept taking penalty strokes right and left and couldn’t putt.
Q: It’s a great place, though, isn’t it Greg?
A: It’s a tough course. You know, all those trees that used to be small have now grown up. If you’re not hitting your ball straight, you’re not going to score.
Q: What about that racquetball championship you recently won?
A: Well, I won my age group (65 and over A). It was a national tournament in Minneapolis, held every October. But it’s not like I beat 20-somethings (laughs). But now I’ve got to move up a division to 65 Open, which is a completely different threshold.
Q: Have you played racquetball a long time?
A: Yes. I remember playing in high school. There used to be a racquetball place out on Oxford, and I remember playing at the (YMCA).
Q: What makes a good racquetball player? What’s the secret?
A: Quickness. You don’t have to be fast as far as running, but you’ve got to be quick. I’d say quickness and reaction skills are important. And it doesn’t hurt to be able to hit the ball hard.
Q: It’s sure nice to visit with you, Greg. I hope you’ve enjoyed talking a little about the old days.
A: It’s been fun. Thank you, Scott.
Scott Mansch can be reached at email@example.com