All heart: Despite health scare, Larson finishes 15th season coaching the Thunderbolts
Denny Larson had heart surgery a year ago, but that didn't stop him from coaching the south Washington Thunderbolts adapted soccer and softball teams this past season - leading the latter to the state tournament last week.
Larson, 65, has coached the 'Bolts the past 15 seasons. However, just recently retired from teaching, he doesn't know if he'll be back next year.
"There's just so many success stories," Larson said. "When you see these children - where they were and where they are now is totally amazing. I'm very, very blessed to have been a part of anything that's seen kids succeed at any level."
Five years ago, Caleb Gotz began playing soccer and softball for the Thunderbolts as a seventh grader. A 2012 high school graduate, Gotz played his final season for the teams this year. Over the years Gotz has become a standout player, a team leader and, according to Larson, is one of the Thunderbolts many success stories.
Gotz said he'd miss Larson next year.
"Coach Denny has been my gym teacher from middle school," Gotz said. "It's been a long time. He's a longtime friend. I love him."
Larson's road to south Washington County was a meandering one.
A 1965 graduate of St. Paul Johnson High School, Larson grew up on the East Side of St. Paul, where he competed in gymnastics and track and field and played baseball and tennis. His first coaching and teaching job came at North St. Paul in 1970. At the age of 23, he was the Polars' head gymnastics coach, assistant track and field coach and a physical education and health teacher at North St. Paul High School. Because of cutbacks, Larson said he was let go after just a few years. Unable to find another teaching and coaching job, and with mouths to feed, Larson took a job at a local packaging company, where he spent 18 years. In 1997, however, Larson won a teaching job at Armstrong and Hillside elementary schools at the urging of one of his mentors - Roger Kocinski, a former teacher in District 833 and assistant principal at Crosswinds Arts and Science School. Larson taught Developmental Adapted Physical Education (DAPE) at Armstrong and Hillside until 2005. While there, Larson grabbed the reins of the Thunderbolts.
The rest is history.
Under Larson, the Thunderbolts soccer team reached 14 straight state tournament s and was state runner-up twice (in 2005 and 2006). The Thunderbolts softball team has qualified for 11 state tournaments, including this year, and has two state championship titles (in 2005 and 2006).
"It's totally amazing," Larson said. "Success comes in many different forms. I've seen throughout my career. I don't care what success means to everyone else, it's what it means to the individual child. They do something that can change their life forever and I've had a part of that. I see that as a big trophy."
The Minnesota Adapted Athletics Association first formed in 1984. Its mission is to "provide youth with disabilities the same opportunity as other students to enjoy the benefits of a quality high school sports program." In 1992 the MAAA was accepted into the Minnesota State High School League.
Larson said he's proud to have been a part of the MAAA and MSHSL.
"It's not what I've done, it's what these kids have done," Larson said. "They're the ones that have accomplished something, I've just been a little part of it and gave them the opportunity. I didn't do it for them. They did it and became successful. That's my legacy -- all these kids' lives I've been a part of. That's what I can hang my hat on."
Bruce Fiedler and John Culbertson have been longtime assistant coaches with Larson and the 'Bolts. With two kids in the program -- Eric and Lucas -- Fiedler has been an assistant coach of the Thunderbolts for seven years. Culbertson has been with the program 10 years.
"Denny brings a lot of sports knowledge and brings a lot of humor as well," Fiedler said. "I can be real competitive. Denny does a good job of trying to make jokes and keep everything light. He brings that combination."
More recently, Fiedler and Culbertson have spent more time coaching the players on skills and aspects of the sports, while Larson manages administrative duties and communicates with the parents.
"He's always talking to parents, letting them know what is going on, letting the kids know what's going on. He's very informative," Feidler said. "He doesn't care too much if we win or lose, he just wants us to play the best we can. Some years we've had great teams, some years we didn't. He's just rolled with it."
Last April Larson underwent surgery to clear multiple blockages in his heart. Larson said it was a scary ordeal at the time, but that he feels better than ever now.
"My blood flow is so much better," Larson said. "It's been a full year. Everything is starting to get better. I can see better even, my prescription is better than it was a year ago, and my feet are warm now. It was a different experience."
Larson lives in Inver Grove Heights with his wife Shirley. They've been married 42 years and have four children - Tonya, Daniel, Michelle and Nathan - and eight grandkids.
About retirement, Larson said "it's time."
"What's going to happen next? I'm not sure," Larson said. "A little bit of freedom. There's a lot of pressure in education and the dynamics are really changing. I don't know what we're going to do. But, Shirley and I have such a good time. I have the best woman in the world and I have a new heart, so I can go and enjoy life. We're going to have a party every day. I'm so blessed."