Craig Ritacco has been working in the restaurant business in the Twin Cities for three decades. He’s currently the regional manager for Hemisphere Restaurant Partners, with restaurants such as Mission American, Tavern on France and the Atlas Grill.
Enjoy it though he does in our bustling metropolitan mecca, Ritacco maintains a tremendous passion for his hometown of Eveleth, where he’s known as “Figgy,” as is his father, John, and as was his grandfather.
Why Figgy? “We don’t know, because my dad never asked my grandfather, and now it’s too late,” Ritacco said.
Ritacco is a graduate of Eveleth’s Class of 1985, where he played football, hockey and competed in track and field. His love for Eveleth athletics went back much farther, including listening as WEVE’s Frankie Sherman described the Golden Bears playing Willmar for the Class A football title in 1973.
This was the second-ever Minnesota state football tournament, with Class A the second largest of five classes. Four teams were chosen per class by computer to participate, and classification was determined by average enrollment of a conference — not the size of an individual school.
That’s how much-smaller Eveleth wound up playing Burnsville in the semifinals, then Willmar in the title game at Parade Stadium.
“I was 6 and my dad had to work his railroad job, so we couldn’t go to the game,” Ritacco said. “I listened to every play in the kitchen on an old transistor radio.”
Dick Lawrence was in the 18th of 28 seasons as football coach and through it all ran a double-wing offense, most often with direct snaps through a quarterback’s legs to a fullback, with wingbacks dashing hither and yon.
I wrote a column on Eveleth’s 28-18 victory over Willmar (after trailing 18-0) in November 2014, and Bob Lawrence, Dick’s son and a junior end on that team, said then:
“We would start running that offense in the seventh grade and have it down pretty good as juniors and seniors. Even the teams we played every year could be confused by it.”
Burnsville’s defenders ran around like decapitated chickens and lost 26-13. In the title game, Willmar had an 18-0 lead but fumbled twice late in the first half. Eveleth scored quickly (on passes, which were unusual) and then dominated the second half.
When grass reappeared in Eveleth, Figgy Ritacco (the third) and his young buddies would grab a football and try to imitate the movements of Duffy Novak, Bob Pazzelli, Roger Parlanti and Jeff Perushek in Eveleth’s championship backfield.
“Dick had retired as coach and was the AD when I played, and we were still running that offense,” Ritacco said.
Fifteen years ago, Ritacco ran across some old photos of Eveleth — candid scenes, athletics — and showed them to his father on a visit home. There was so much joy in the stories attached to those photos that Craig became a collector of Eveleth memorabilia, mostly photos but also artifacts.
Valerie Ritacco is from Neenah, Wis. The whole Eveleth/Iron Range nostalgia thing was a bit mysterious for her.
“My wife thought I was goofy when this all started,” Craig said. “Now she’s certain of it.”
On visits home, Ritacco would bring old photos to show to acquaintances and “everyone loved them,” he said. Recently, he ran across a treasure trove of photos — including some involving the 1973 football team.
Ritacco was talking to John Rauzi, a member of the ’73 team, about the photos and Rauzi said: “I think I have a VHS tape of that game. I’ll take a look in some boxes.”
Rauzi found the tape. It had been made off a game film — presumably taken off the roof the Parade Stadium press box by a crew from Eveleth High School.
“The film it comes off would show the play, stop, show the next play, stop … it’s 13 minutes long,” Ritacco said. “I got it on Christmas Eve and took it to a restorative company in the Twin Cities.
“I brought it home on January 11th, the night before my birthday. Going downstairs, cracking a Hamm’s in Iron Range fashion, and watching the tape over and over … that was my birthday present.
“Valerie came downstairs and said, ‘Are you crying?’ I was.”
Ritacco called numerous other members of the 1973 team. None of them knew of the existence of a game film or a VHS tape.
“We have to do something with this,” Ritacco said, exclaiming. The men of Eveleth, fall of 1973, gave him a “harrumph” and now it is happening:
The World Premiere of the Golden Bears’ 1973 Championship Game will be held Friday at Margie’s Roosevelt Bar in Eveleth.
“I have two red carpets in my vehicle right now,” Ritacco said Thursday. “One for the Roosevelt’s front door and one for the back door.”
When are the festivities scheduled to begin?
“We’re saying 5:30, but that’s happy hour, so everyone probably will want to have a couple in them before we show the game film,” Ritacco said.
Will there again be tears? “Maybe, but a lot more laughs and cheers,” he said.