COLD SPRING, MINN. – The traditional name for the splendid, ivy-fenced ballpark in this Stearns County town was Springer Field. This was in honor of the legendary Cold Spring amateur team that has been in existence since 1924.
There was a grandstand built and lights were installed in 1950. The remarkable baseball man, Bill Huls, came along later and not only coached but took care of the field as if it was a precious relative.
Eric Decker became a notable receiver in football, first with the Gophers, then for eight NFL seasons from 2010 to 2017. He was also an excellent ballplayer in Cold Spring.
Ask him now about growing up there and he says: "Springer Field was my second home. My grandma's house was next to left field. I was there all the time."
And when there, the odds were strong that Decker would encounter Billy Steil, a legend of the town who died on Sept. 22 at age 61.
That was remarkable in itself, for Steil was born with Down syndrome on Jan. 5, 1962, and his parents, Delores and Ralph, were told he would have a very short life.
"I think for all of us, part of the experience of growing up in Cold Spring was getting to know Billy," Decker said by phone Friday. "I'd be at the ballpark in the afternoon, and we would sit in the bleachers and talk.
"The two biggest topics with Billy were baseball and wrestling, but that wasn't all. He knew a lot. He rode that bike of his around town, and stopped to talk to everybody."
The baseball conversations were twofold — the Twins and what was happening with Cold Spring's variety of teams, as well as the nearby Richmond Royals. That was also the case with wrestling.
He was a huge fan of the pro variety of wrestling, and he was also a constant presence in the high school's wrestling room when coach John DeLozier was building the Rocori Spartans into state-wide wrestling contenders.
There was an hour-long visitation in the large gathering place attached to St. Boniface Catholic Church on Thursday. DeLozier was there and said of Steil:
"He was officially our manager, but more of an assistant coach. He did so much for our wrestlers, cared so much for our team."
Pat Dolan, entering his 17th season as St. Cloud State baseball coach, was a multisport athlete and outstanding Springer in his hometown.
Any thoughts of a future in wrestling came to an end in an intramural matchup in seventh grade.
"They put me in against Billy," Dolan said. "He was a little older, but I expected to handle him. No chance. He put me in a figure-4 cradle and I couldn't move.
"All the wrestlers, every kid there … they were going nuts, cheering on Billy."
Steil became emotional at the end of a Spartans wrestling season — even more so than when Jerry "Fatwell" won a pro match on television.
"He would be so upset at the seniors' last match," Dolan said. "He had scrubbed the practice mats, taken care of the gear, gotten that wrestling room immaculate for those guys for several years, and he would say, 'Now, I won't see them again.'
"I'd say, 'You'll have new seniors next year. Plus, these guys appreciate you so much. They'll come back to see you.' "
There were any number of former Spartans, Springers, etc. paying tribute to Steil this week.
Decker was in the Nashville area with his wife, Jessie James, soon to have their fourth child, but he was in contact with friends and family when hearing the news.
"My dad said they got there early for Billy's wake on Wednesday and there was already a crowd," Decker said.
Decades after doctors originally assumed, Billy's health started to decline a couple of years ago. He was in a nursing home, but taking visitors and holding court.
Ben Griffin — a Spartan, a Minnesota Gopher, a Springer star — visited when back home. He was known to stop at Marnanteli's, a local place, and bring Steil a pizza.
"Canadian bacon … nothing else," Griffin said. "If there was any sign of pepperoni, he'd throw you out of his room."
Griffin was standing inside the church as the crowd entered and had this thought to share:
"I appreciate the great tributes I've seen written about Billy the past few days, but I think there's an impression left that he was our No. 1 cheerleader.
"He wasn't that. He was one of us. He was part of us. He didn't see Down syndrome as a handicap to live life, and we didn't see him that way.
"He knew the game. He'd be in the dugout, I'd strike out a couple of times trying to hit a ball 400 feet and he'd say, 'Griff. Forget a home run. Go oppo … hit a double.' "