Iron Range icon Kerzie still going strong at 90

When Deanna Kerzie was asked her father's whereabouts on a recent weeknight, she didn't have the slightest idea. "He's worse than a teenager," she said. "He sleeps late in the morning and is out till late at night." It turns out that Steve Kerzie...

When Deanna Kerzie was asked her father's whereabouts on a recent weeknight, she didn't have the slightest idea.

"He's worse than a teenager," she said. "He sleeps late in the morning and is out till late at night."

It turns out that Steve Kerzie, an Iron Range icon for decades as coach, athletic director and official, was playing cards with friends that evening.

Whether it's attending weddings, funerals or high school athletic events, Kerzie is still on the go. On Saturday, the longtime Gilbert resident celebrated his 90th birthday with a trip to Minneapolis for a Minnesota Gophers football game, followed by a get-together with immediate family members in Brooklyn Park, Minn.

"I wake up every morning and look at the obituaries, and if my name is not in there I go like hell," said Kerzie, who does not smoke or drink and attributes his long life to being around young people.


Reflecting upon a life that's included crossing paths with the likes of Bear Bryant, Lawrence Welk and J. Edgar Hoover, Kerzie recently recalled tales with his characteristic hearty laugh, off-color language and self-deprecating humor.

A 1938 Chisholm High School graduate, Kerzie participated in football, basketball and track and field. He, like his younger neighbor Bob McDonald, played for legendary basketball coach and noted disciplinarian Harvey Roels.

"When Bob McDonald and I started coaching, we thought part of coaching was to carry a paddle and whack players' little butts," Kerzie said. "And we got away with it. Now, I'd be in jail."

Kerzie went to Vanderbilt University in Nashville and, for two weeks, was a member of the freshman football team coached by Bear Bryant. That was until someone in the registrar's office found Kerzie was ineligible.

"(Bryant) grabbed that gol darn registrar and I thought he'd kill him," Kerzie said. "He said, 'Christ, you've got a guy from Minnesota and now he can't enter the school because he doesn't have enough math credits?' "

Once back home, Kerzie hitchhiked to Sioux City, Iowa, where he attended and played three sports at Morningside College. He often went to the local dance hall and danced in front of Lawrence Welk's orchestra.

He was stationed at an FBI office in Connecticut after college, but told FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover he was quitting to join the Air Force. A pilot, Kerzie eventually was grounded after blowing out the Eustachian tube in his left ear when he flew his plane at too high of an altitude. Still, the first lieutenant was stationed in the Philippines during World War II.

Deafness, Kerzie likes to joke, helped him when he officiated games because he couldn't hear coaches scream at him.


"I was deaf in one ear and couldn't hear out of the other," he says.

Rudy Semeja was a senior at Gilbert High School when Kerzie was hired as athletic director and football and track coach in 1949. Kerzie, who was in his late-20s, recalls a time when he challenged Semeja, the school-record holder in the hurdles, and others to a hurdles race.

"I took my shoes off and ran on the cinder track barefoot and beat them all," he said.

Semeja, a former longtime football coach at Vermilion Community College in Ely and an inaugural member of the Junior College Hall of Fame, recalls that was the start of a long friendship.

"He was a mentor throughout my entire career," said Semeja, who lives in Virginia. "I'm very appreciative of all he did for me. He's been instrumental in all the success I've had."

Kerzie was athletic director at Gilbert for 42 years and helped coach five sports, including being an assistant on the 1951 boys basketball state champions.

Deanna, his youngest of four children, works as a physical education-health teacher out of the same office in what is now Eveleth-Gilbert Middle School. She kept her maiden name after marriage, and people notice.

"Anywhere I go I'm asked, 'Are you Steve Kerzie's daughter?' " she said. "But, to me, he's just my dad. He's been a good father, grandfather and great-grandfather."


Kerzie was married for 46 years to Lois, his high school sweetheart, who died 21 years ago from breast cancer. He has eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Many remember Kerzie -- for good or bad -- from his officiating days. He estimates he refereed 3,500 basketball games and 1,000 football games, drawing the wrath of plenty of coaches.

"I was told 'I've seen better eyes on a potato and better legs on a piano,' and 'Baldy, get the hair out of your eyes,' " Kerzie said. "I've heard it all."

Still, he never called a technical foul.

"I called my share of them, that's for sure," said Semeja, who officiated dozens of basketball games alongside Kerzie in a 35-year career. "He was able to handle situations and not lose control."

McDonald said his contemporary used humor to diffuse any contentious situation.

"He'd give them his whistle and say, 'Maybe you want to try it?' " joked McDonald, Chisholm's boys basketball coach for 50 seasons and the state's all-time leader in victories with 942. "I would have over 1,000 wins if it wasn't for Kerzie."

Many acknowledge, including Kerzie himself, that he didn't always get the calls right 100 percent of the time.


"I always razzed him that he owed me two touchdowns and a field goal," Semeja said.

Kerzie says track and field is his favorite sport, which is perhaps why he continues to work the state meet as an official. In June, he officiated at the state meet for the 64th consecutive year.

He's also been the starter at the Eveleth-Gilbert Invitational cross country meet, which coincided with his 89th birthday a year ago. As a prank before the girls race, Eveleth-Gilbert coach Jon Wagner instructed all 160 runners to sit down when Kerzie fired his starter's gun.

"I thought, 'What the hell did I do wrong?' " Kerzie said. "Then they started singing 'Happy Birthday.' "

A birthday cake was brought out from behind a tree, leaving the normally loquacious Kerzie at a loss for words.

"His mouth was open," Wagner said. "That's the first time I saw him speechless."

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