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Chris Murphy, Published August 24 2013

Passion for developing his players has Seipkes coming back for OTC

Battle Lake, Minn. - The Otter Tail Central varsity football team rested against their pads Thursday at Battle Lake High School, awaiting the dreaded end-of-practice sprints, while the junior varsity ran some plays. Bulldogs coach Don Seipkes couldn’t hold back his smile.

“You see him?” Seipkes asked with a point at the JV offensive line. “He’s a 265-pound eighth-grader. He’s got a lot of big, raw talent. He’s stuck his nose in there and is playing really well. He’s going to play some JV for us as an eighth-grader because he’s big, but he’s also athletic.”

And the idea of that eighth-grader somehow growing more is what has brought Seipkes back each season for the past 41 years to coach football. It’s not the whistle around his neck or days like Thursday’s practice where the weather seems constructed and the sky seems painted for football. It’s not the 237 wins, the 15 conference titles, five section championships, five section coach of the year awards, two state runner-up finishes or the induction into the Minnesota High School Football Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame last April.

“I just love the kids,” Seipkes said. “Just being around them, watching them grow from young kids. I love it.”

Seipkes is a history book for Henning football because he is Henning football. A 1967 graduate from Staples High School where he lettered in football, basketball and track, Seipkes went to Brainerd junior college where he played basketball and graduated from Bemidji State University after two years of playing football.

A 23-year-old version of Seipkes with a fuller amount of colored hair and a few more pounds took over the football program at Henning High School in 1973 when Dick Steensland decided to solely coach basketball.

“I thought I knew it all,” Seipkes said. “We had some great kids to start with. We made the state playoffs that first year, but it wasn’t because of me. It was because of the kids we had.”

And he’s never left nor missed a game in 40 seasons. He was at the helm when Henning paired with Deer Creek from 1985 until 1990 and has been right there ever since Henning paired with Battle Lake to form Otter Tail Central in 1991.

Not only has he never left, but it’s because of Seipkes so many come back. Eric Olson has coached alongside Seipkes for 10 years after playing for him from 1993 to 1995.

“The thing I remember the most about playing for coach was the rapport he had with his players,” Olson said. “He said what he meant and he backed up whatever he said. It’s role models like him that make people want to go into the coaching and teaching profession. To him, it’s not about winning and losing games, it’s about being there and working for the kids and doing something for football and the Battle Lake and Henning communities.”

The game has changed in the four decades Seipkes has coached, but he’s changed along with it.

“The kids’ knowledge of the game has been greater over the years,” Seipkes said. “We used to practice in the morning and afternoon, but we had to get away from that because we had a lot of farm kids who had to combine or bale hay. They don’t do a lot of that stuff nowadays, so we just practice. The kids are smart. They say, ‘Big, dumb football kid,’ but if you have smart kids it makes a difference. Three years ago, I had two kids that didn’t have a 3.0 GPA or better. If you have intelligent kids, it makes a difference as to if you have to repeat things.”

According to Seipkes, the brains aren’t the only thing growing on high school football players.

“Kids are also bigger,” Seipkes said. “Guards were 140 or 150 pounds in 1973. My guards this year are 198 and 228. My smallest lineman is 170 and that would have been a big kid back then.”

Andrew Smith will be the quarterback and safety for Otter Tail Central this season. He’s a three-year starter and he couldn’t help but laugh when asked for examples of Seipkes showing his age.

“He always makes fun of us because he has the trainer’s phone number and he says, ‘I bet you wish you guys had her number,’ but then he says, ‘Even though I can’t call her because I don’t know how to work this thing,’ talking about his cell phone,” Smith said. “He also says things that don’t make sense. Like he tells us to go ‘warsh’ out our mouths with soap instead of wash.”

There may be a few generational hiccups with coaching for over four decades, but the respect is still there, no matter what the age.

“He’s so knowledgeable,” Smith said. “He’s been around for a while, so he knows what he’s doing. He always asks us captains to think of ways to get everyone ready, so he listens to us along with bringing his own ideas to the table.”

If anyone knows Seipkes, it’s the Smiths. Andrew is the youngest of three brothers to play for Seipkes. Erik, 22, was a quarterback and free safety and Jake, 20, was running back and cornerback for Seipkes. The tree doesn’t stop there, as their father, Grant, was a tailback for Seipkes from 1977 until 1981. Grant is a pilot for American Airlines, but his schedule for the last seven years has revolved around shooting film for Seipkes and the football team.

“He’s a fatherly figure,” Grant Smith said. “He treated you with respect and talked to you like you were somebody special. That really is an effective way to get kids to play for you. That’s why he’s been there as long as he has.”

The football team, the track team he coached for 15 years and the junior high basketball team he’s been a coach of for over 20 years are not his only teams.

When asked what his favorite memories of coaching football were, Seipkes did not hesitate to say coaching his three sons Chad, Josh and Grant.

“Having the opportunity to coach my three sons was a great honor,” Seipkes said. “That’s probably the biggest thrill.”

Off the field, Seipkes is co-head coach with his wife Mary. It takes a patient woman to allow 40 years of never missing a football game.

Mary got on him a little bit for skipping a bachelor dinner for his niece’s wedding to coach a game, but in 2010 Mary proved once again how she is Seipkes’ biggest fan. The night Otter Tail Central was playing Breckenridge for a section championship and a ticket to state, Mary had to go to the hospital and she told Seipkes to go to the game. The Bulldogs won 35-7.

“I’m on the field and she calls me,” Seipkes said. “She had a hysterectomy and she ended up with a blood clot. We suspected something, but she said, ‘You got to go. It’s the section championship.’ She’s been great over the years.”

Seipkes retired two years ago as the special education teacher at Henning, a position he held since 1973. As for hanging up the whistle for the football team, Seipkes can see that only happening if a trend in high school sports continues. He’d retire for the same reason he coached: The kids.

“I still love being around the kids,” Seipkes said. “The thing that may get me out of it more than anything else is the summer stuff. I think we’re taking the summer away from the young kids. The basketball kids are playing 50 or 60 games a summer and they don’t get to be kids anymore. Maybe we’re putting too much pressure on them from the standpoint that we want them to be good. I think some of it comes from the parents wanting their kid to be a big-time recruit in whatever the sport may be.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548