By Liz Collin

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — He’s remembered as a high school football legend for leading his small Minnesota city to two state titles in the 70’s. Tony Thiel died last month at the age of 88.

In our Faces of COVID series, the story of a Hall of Fame coach who changed lives on and off the football field.

Once a lineman for the Gophers, Ross Ukkelberg played for Lou Holtz at the University of Minnesota.

“A lot of my life wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for Tony Thiel,” Ukkelberg said.

But, it’s his high school coach back home in Battle Lake that tops even his D-1 days.

“I don’t know anyone who played for him that wouldn’t run through a brick wall for him,” he said.

Tony Thiel started teaching and coaching in Battle Lake in 1966.

“He taught math, a little science, phy ed over the years,” his daughter Shari Prigge said.

His daughter has heard from so many about the man who never coddled and wasn’t politically correct.

“I’m going to tell it like it is. Always his thing, I’ll tell you like it is,” Prigge said.

Instead, he was honest about what you needed to do differently.

“He was very much a straight shooter,” she said.

His “Tony-isms” as they came to be called are still repeated to this day.

“If you haven’t got common sense, then you haven’t got anything,” Prigge recalled him saying.

“In practices, he always said ‘once a more boys, we’re going to do it once a more,’” she said.

Once a more helped pave the way to two state titles in 1974 and 1977. It’s an incredible feat for a town of less than a thousand people.

Thiel retired in 1994. He suffered two strokes and memory loss in his later years.

Then,COVID-19 infected the nursing home where he lived for the first time in November.

“His positive test came back the day after Thanksgiving day. We lost him early that Monday morning, November 30,” his daughter said.

That night, they turned on the lights to honor Tony Thiel. A mentor who believed in passion and potential — called up to a new coaching gig.

“He’s chewing on somebody upstairs, let’s put it that way. Right or wrong, you’re gonna know where you stand with Tony Thiel,” Ukkelberg said.

Thiel was inducted into the Hall of Fames of Moorhead State University, Minnesota State Coaches Association, and Minnesota Football Coaches Association. But, he always said he was most proud of his four kids who also became educators, following in his footsteps.

If you’ve lost a loved one to COVID-19 and would like to share their story please email tips@wcco.com.

Liz Collin