Wally Hilgenberg stood tall on Thursday morning even though he never left his wheelchair. Hilgenberg, the former number 58 for the Minnesota Vikings, was honored at a Search Ministries breakfast for his courage on the football field in the 1960s and '70s and his more recent courage and conviction of faith while dealing the debilitating and terminal illness ALS.
In a two-hour event emceed by former Vikings linebacker Jeff Siemon, a handful of Hilgenberg's former teammates presented video highlights of his career and regaled the approximately 1,000 people in attendance with stories of old No. 58 while he and his teammates spoke of their faith.
Hilgenberg was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease in November 2006.
The linebacker, known for his immense toughness on the field during the Vikings' glory years and four Super Bowl runs and his clothesline tackles, said his diagnosis "was a blindside for me," but Hilgenberg didn't make the appearance to be honored as much as he did to profess his faith in God even while his body fails him.
"He is the author and he is the finisher of every good thing," Hilgenberg said from a wheelchair on the stage of the packed ballroom. "My heart is still good and my heart is still strong for the Lord."
During his playing days, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound right linebacker registered 748 tackles in 157 games for Minnesota. For 18 years, he held a franchise record with 13 assisted tackles in 1972 that stood until Scott Studwell matched it.
Hilgenberg's determination on the field was remembered by those in attendance as well. Some attended the breakfast as part of regular attendance for Search Ministries while others were there to honor the linebacker while thinking of their own loved ones affected by ALS. Hilgenberg's toughness during his playing days no doubt helped him to share his thoughts in the face of a terminal disease.
"This is different than a heart attack," he said. "You've got time to think about your mortality. You've got time to think about your relationships. … It's not so important when you go, but where you go."
Hilgenberg, who even off the field made a point to line up with his linebacker teammates in the same order they appeared on the field, said he went duck hunting last year with Roy Winston and Lonnie Warwick. He joined those two in the Vikings' starting lineup in 1968 and spent three years with all three of them together – numbers 58 (Hilgenberg), 59 (Warwick) and 60 (Winston).
Before the disease had robbed him of so many of his physical abilities, the three set out on their hunting trip. Throughout the trip, his former teammates expressed their concern over his physical condition. When he returned, it was Hilgenberg who said he made the call to Warwick to express his concern about his teammate's spirituality, saying he wanted numbers 58, 59 and 60 to spend eternity together.
Hilgenberg said the outpouring of support has been incredible, not just from the Vikings – with a surprise call from former owner Red McCombs – but also from past rivals like Mike Ditka, Lem Barney and Jim Otto.
Siemon did a video interview with Hilgenberg days before Thursday's event because they were sure if old number 58 would be in a condition to speak much during the live event. He was, and he was inspiring. The tough old linebacker was able to talk through most of his emotions without a tear running down his face or a crack in the voice – until it came to discussing the most difficult part of the disease.
"The hardest thing for me right now is that I can't stand up and hug (my wife Mary) with a masculine hug," Hilgenberg said, pausing during that sentence to compose himself.
ALS has robbed him of full use of his arms, but it was Mary who helped him to faith, which was the focus of much of this event. During the twilight of his career, he recalls re-entering Met Stadium shortly after a win that helped get the team into the playoffs once again. Forty-five minutes previous, he said the stadium was so lively and now when he went back to sit in the bleachers to think about the win, the stadium was not just cold and empty.
"I looked at my wife and said, ‘That's a lot like my life,'" Hilgenberg recalled.
Mary said she had been trying to tell him that feeling was because he was missing Christ in his life. She had come to faith six months before and prodded him to start thinking about it. Wally recalled sitting in a hotel room during a road game and finally getting out his King James Bible and started to really feel connected to his faith.
That's now something he leans on heavily.
"Being in a wheelchair is an inconvenience," he said. "Not knowing Christ is a handicap."
And there was a significant portion of his playing days when he was more concerned with football and the fame it brought than he was about faith. Hilgenberg was known as a hellion for much of his time with the Vikings, from 1968-79, after spending two seasons with the Detroit Lions and a non-playing stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"Wally was the one I learned the most from because he was a cheap-shot (artist)," said running back Chuck Foreman, who claims he learned to avoid tacklers because of the hard-nosed defense he faced every day in practice.
And now? "Wally Hilgenberg is one of the finest men I've had the privilege to be associated with in my life. He's a great man," Foreman said.
Foreman also recalled Hilgenberg being a reason the running back got sick one night before training camp after a bit too much carousing. Linebacker Matt Blair, who joined the Vikings in the middle of Hilgenberg's career, remembered old number 58 as a jokester.
Paul Krause recalled their days together at the University of Iowa, where both of them started out as quarterbacks. But "I couldn't throw and he couldn't run," Krause quipped.
Hilgenberg's running days are over, but Thursday morning he was running with an opportunity to promote the faith he embraced about 30 years ago, encouraging others to join him for one final party after his life is over.
"That banquet table is going to be a lot better than those losing Super Bowl parties," he said. "Don't miss that party because it's going be pretty good and it's going to be pretty long."
Hilgenberg Testifies During Trying Times
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