Norman Kragseth, one of Duluth's most successful high school athletes, dies at 91
The Duluth Central graduate earned 23 varsity letters playing seven sports in the 1940s for the Trojans and was a member of the Super Bowl XIV officiating crew.
DULUTH — Whether it’s skiing, golf, football or one of several other sports, the name Norman Kragseth evokes memories of one of the most successful high school athletes in Minnesota.
Kragseth won 21 team or individual state championships in golf and skiing, according to his son David Kragseth, and earned an astounding 23 varsity letters in seven different sports from 1945-49 while attending Duluth Central High School.
He was also selected as an all-state offensive end for the Trojans’ football team in 1949 and earned a scholarship to play football at Northwestern. After his playing days were done, Kragseth was part of the original chain crew when the Minnesota Vikings were founded in 1961. He eventually went on to become an NFL referee and officiated in Super Bowl XIV.
In 1985, Kragseth was inducted into the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center Hall of Fame.
Kragseth, 91, died suddenly on Jan. 22 at a Twin Cities hospital.
Kragseth, born in November 1930, grew up in Duluth’s Central Hillside neighborhood with his parents and siblings. His father, Hans, emigrated to the U.S. in 1910 from Norway and initially made his home in Two Harbors. Hans worked as an engineer on the Edna G. tugboat in Two Harbors while his brother Johann worked as the captain.
While Johann eventually returned to Norway, Hans moved to Duluth with his wife Nora and started a family at a home at the corner of Ninth Avenue East and 11th Street.
The couple had six children, but the oldest, Robert, died in childbirth, David said, and three other brothers — Ronald, Paul and Roger — all suffered from serious health problems throughout their lives. Kragseth and his sisters Janice (Kragseth) Viren and Eleanor Kragseth were much healthier.
“It was kind of a dichotomy because here’s this family with so much illness and then here’s this boy who was just an astounding athlete,” David said.
Growing up within walking distance of Chester Park, and after his father provided him with a pair of skis, a passion was born for Kragseth.
“He was off to the ski hill a lot,” Viren said.
Indeed he was. Kragseth eventually won individual and team state titles in Nordic and Alpine skiing. He also was a member of the Trojans’ state championship golf teams from 1946-48 and was the individual runner-up in 1949.
At Northwestern, Kragseth was known for incredible displays of toughness. David said he once asked a former teammate what his dad was like on the field.
“He said, ‘I saw a guy give him a forearm across the nose — and this was before they had facemasks,’” David said. “He said, ‘We were back in the huddle and I asked him how (Kragseth) was doing. He said fine, but I looked at him and I saw him set his jaw.’ He said in the next two plays (Kragseth) just destroyed this guy, just blocked him into the ground — pancaked him — two successive plays in a row.”
After graduating from Northwestern with a degree in education, Kragseth served two years in the Navy during the Korean War. When he returned home, he was hired as the football coach at Marshall-University High School in Minneapolis before moving to Hopkins-Lindbergh High School and working as a physical education teacher and football coach.
Two of Kragseth’s children, Steve and Sue Kragseth, recalled going back to the school to use the gym after their dad got home from work.
“My father was so busy, but at the end of the night, my dad would turn right around and take us up to Lindbergh and open it up,” Sue said. “He would probably go up and do paperwork or take a nap and we just played and played and played until we were exhausted.”
He also founded the Hopkins ski teams and coached the team to four Nordic championships from 1967-70.
An advocate for women’s sports
Athletic excellence is something that was a part of the Kragseth family. While Steve ended up playing football at Minnesota Duluth under legendary coach James Malosky, Sue was an All-American softball player at the University of New Mexico and was selected to the U.S. Women's National Team in 1982.
Sue recalled how her father worked to make sure she was able to play youth baseball when no softball leagues were available.
“I remember how kind and wonderful my father was — and supportive, because I was one of the first girls to play Little League here,” Sue said. “They didn’t let me into Little League, but my father supported me and I got to go to all the practices, throw the ball in and hit when the boys hit.”
Eventually, Sue was allowed to play Babe Ruth League baseball.
Similarly, Bonnie Fuller-Kask, now the Duluth East Nordic ski coach, remembered how Kragseth worked with her at the Minneapolis Ski Club and even encouraged other coaches to let her take unofficial runs on high school Nordic courses.
“Back in those days, there was the boys' high school skiing and none of that for the girls,” Fuller-Kask said. “I was loosely associated with my high school team — I couldn’t compete on it or be on it — but if I could get to where the were having a race…and the other coaches agreed, they would sometimes let me forerun. Then I could get a time and I could compare it. It was totally unofficial and meant nothing, but (Kragseth) was in my mind at the time one of the good guys because he was very supportive.”
From chain gang to Super Bowl
While still teaching and coaching at Hopkins, Kragseth became part of the chain crew when the Minnesota Vikings began play in 1961.
Throughout the 1960s, Kragseth refereed NCAA Division III college games on Saturdays and then worked the sidelines for Vikings home games Sundays. In 1969, he became a Big Ten referee.
In 1974, he was invited to join the ranks of NFL officials, becoming the first person from Minnesota to do so before getting the assignment for Super Bowl XIV between the Steelers and the Rams at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California in January 1980.
He served as an on-field official until 1986 and then became an instant replay official and even an NFL scout charged with recruiting new officials.
Bernie Kukar, a Gilbert native and fellow NFL official who worked two Super Bowls, lived near Kragseth and the pair became good friends. Kukar was also a decorated athlete but not like his friend.
“I picked up 14 letters,” Kukar said. “I thought that was a lot until I heard Kragseth had 23.”
Kukar said he and Kragseth would meet up with another Minnesota legend, Willard Ikola, weekly for breakfast at a Perkins in Edina. Ikola grew up in Eveleth and was a goalie on the 1956 U.S. Olympic team that won the silver medal before becoming Minnesota's most legendary high school hockey coach.
“As far as Norm is concerned, not only was he a darn good official and a good athlete, he was also a terrific person,” Kukar said. “I have never met anybody that had a bad thing to say about Norm Kragseth. He was just the nicest guy and everybody wanted to be around him.”
While the Kragseth children are supremely proud of their father’s accomplishments, they also acknowledged their mother’s role.
“This woman raised exceptional children with integrity — our whole family just believes in the right thing to do,” Sue said. “My mom is just a wonderful person. Dad was gone on weekends for the military, he was gone on weekends for the NFL, he was gone during the middle of the week for teaching, so I’m just really proud of my mom.”