Patrick Reusse
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DANUBE, MINN. – The Danube Hawks will be forever remembered in the area surrounding this small town in west central Minnesota, as long as twin sisters Pam Freiborg and Deb Holwerda, and like-minded friends, are here to maintain the legacy.

The high school went away in 1988 in a merger with Renville and Sacred Heart, longtime rivals in the defunct 212 Conference. The merged school is Renville County West.

Danube had a centennial celebration in 2001 and a great amount of village memorabilia was assembled. It was agreed this cache should be preserved.

What was required for this was a historic home. The original town depot had been moved to Olivia as a companion to a restaurant, but it was now available.

"They didn't want it anymore, and sold the depot to us for a dollar," Holwerda said. "Then, we had to raise $5,000 to move it the five miles west on [Hwy.] 212."

The depot was placed on a small plot of land and became home to the Danube Historical Society. The twins are unofficial curators of the two stuffed floors of memorabilia, which include endless newspaper clippings from the West Central Tribune (Willmar), the area weeklies including the defunct Danube Enterprise, and the Twin Cities dailies.

"We don't have much from the Renville County Register," Holwerda said. "In our dad's era as a student here, from '48 to '53, the Hawks went 35 games without a loss in football. Five miles away and a bigger town, Renville didn't like getting beat by us every year and stopped carrying stories about Danube."

Pam and Deb were born in 1960, the daughters of Rod and Mary Lee Black. Rod returned to his hometown after college and became the long-serving coach of the Hawks. He was voted into the Minnesota Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame in 1988.

The momentum for that honor was created early in Black's coaching career, when tiny Danube made it through Region 3 to consecutive state basketball tournaments in 1961 and 1962.

The superstar of those teams was Bob Bruggers, 6-2½, muscular, excellent as a jump shooter and powerful inside.

These were the one-class days and not even the arrival of the Twins and the Vikings in 1961 could detract from this state's passion for watching those eight teams go at it in Williams Arena.

The miracle Dutchmen from Edgerton, a dot on the map in the southwest corner, had won the tournament in 1960, beating Lake Conference superpower Richfield in the semifinals and perennial power Austin in the finals. The next year, Edgerton was back and Danube was a newcomer, and both lost in the quarterfinals.

Bruggers and Mike Gort were classmates, starters and both came from Roseland, 11 miles north of Danube. They shot hoops anywhere they could find, including in the hayloft of a barn owned by the Williams family.

"They called it 'Williams Arena,' not knowing they ever would play there," Freiborg said.

Twin sisters Deb Holwerda, left, and Pam Freiborg hold a photo of their father, coach Rod Black, with his former star player, Bob Bruggers.
Twin sisters Deb Holwerda, left, and Pam Freiborg hold a photo of their father, coach Rod Black, with his former star player, Bob Bruggers.

Gort now lives in Marshall. He was asked by phone to recall the first state tourney visit in '61 and said: "We ran into Duluth Central in the first round. Terry Kunze and that bunch; that was a great team, and they won state."

Another loss followed to Mike Patterson and Mahtomedi in the consolation round, yet Bruggers made a considerable impression on the tournament crowds.

Danube came back in 1962 by beating the Bobcats from Lake Benton, a hamlet closer to the South Dakota border, in the region final. Bruggers scored 19 of 38 points in the fourth quarter to put away the Bobcats, 69-55.

And when Danube came back to the real Williams Arena, he would score a total of 93 points in three games — an opening victory over Ada, with the duo of Herb Hasz and Dean Bowyer; a 66-62 semifinal loss to champion-to-be St. Louis Park; and a 68-62 loss to Wells for third place.

And here's what is incredible all these years later: the crowds at Williams for the two quarterfinal sessions on Thursday were 18,699 (Bruggers included) and 18,602; 19,213 for the Friday night semifinals; and 19,208 for the thee-game championship session on Saturday night.

That crowd for the semifinals (Bruggers vs. Park) stands as the largest in the history of Williams Arena. And let a clipping from Lefty Ranweiler of the West Central Tribune tell you what happened late that Saturday, when the All-Tournament team was being introduced and Bruggers (now in civilian clothes) was one of the 10:

"The question is asked many times of athletes whether the practice, the sweat, the going without, the pain, the disappointment suffered … is worth it?

"I'm sure that Bob Bruggers of Danube found out Saturday night that every bit of energy he has put into athletics was well worth it.

"That standing ovation he got when he walked up to get his award for being named to the All-Tournament Team had to be his greatest thrill."

Gort almost choked up remembering that in our phone conversation. "There were still 18,000 people in there, and they all stood and cheered for quite a while for Bob," said Gort, a teammate in every sport, a barn-loft buddy in the other "Williams Arena."

Bruggers was recruited for both basketball and football by the Gophers, he played both as a freshman, and during a conversation during a Danube celebration in 2007, gestured with his hands and said:

"I was getting bigger this way [middle of frame], not this way [top of head]," Bruggers said. "I saw the handwriting on the wall. I concentrated on football."

He had an NFL career. He turned to pro wrestling, with encouragement from Wahoo McDaniels, a roommate when both were with the Miami Dolphins.

A plane crash ended that for him in 1975, and almost did the same for Ric Flair. The pilot died and the wrestlers suffered broken backs.

Bruggers lived mostly in Florida. He was in deteriorating condition when his younger sister, Carol, brought him to the Twin Cities recently. He died May 10, age 80.

"What my dad's generation said is that, 'If there had been athletics for girls in the 1960s, Carol might have been best athlete in the Bruggers family,' " Freiborg said.

Rod Black died in 2022. He campaigned vigorously to include Bruggers in the earliest classes of the Minnesota High School Basketball Hall of Fame. That happened in 2019 in a ceremony at Target Center.

"Bob's son Brian was there, and before that, he had no idea his father was a good basketball player," Freiborg said. "That's how humble a person Bob remained through life."

Bob Bruggers holds twins Deborah, left, and Pamela Black in 1961 as their father, Danube coach Rodney Black, looks on.
Bob Bruggers holds twins Deborah, left, and Pamela Black in 1961 as their father, Danube coach Rodney Black, looks on.

John Croft