Remembering a SD coaching legend, who I called 'Grandpa Gordie'
In between coaching Dakota Wesleyan University basketball teams to new heights, Gordie Fosness was a grandfather, a father and friend to many.
To many, Gordie Fosness was a basketball giant in the state of South Dakota and beyond. But to me, he was my grandpa who taught me how to sneak into basketball games, eat way too much fast food and talk a speeding ticket down to a warning.
But most importantly, he taught me how to walk with Jesus Christ and God. Of all the things he taught me, I know that is the most important lesson he wanted me to learn. After my grandpa took his last breath on Tuesday morning and went up to join eternal glory, his five children, said it was, “The morning our dad got his greatest win ever.”
It was such a powerful statement for the man who passed away while being the winningest coach in the history of Dakota Wesleyan University men’s basketball. Among all of those 351 wins as a coach for the Tigers, the day he met the Lord was truly his biggest win yet. It was also the day he finally got to reunite with his wife and my grandma, Carol Fosness, who was by his side through all of his success as a player and coach for DWU and the Minneapolis Lakers until she passed away when he was only 54.
Throughout my days of playing basketball for the Mitchell Kernels, I would always have a spectator from the opposing team come and ask me at away games, "So I see your last name is Fosness. How do you know Gordie?" With so much pride, I'd always respond by saying, "He is my grandpa.” In response, people would light up and always say, “He was DWU basketball.” I will add that many of the reactions also started with, “You sure didn’t get his height I see.” (Thanks, mom.)
While those were typical reactions, my favorite ones were, "He changed my life." "He helped me become a better person." "He showed me how to walk with Christ." While it meant so much to hear those things, it also added a lot of pressure. Anytime I would play games, having his last name, people automatically expected a big game from me.
However, the one person who never put one ounce of pressure on me before a basketball game was my grandpa. He was just proud to see a grandson playing a sport he loved.
One of my favorite memories I have with him was the time he joined me on a recruiting trip to watch a Valley City State University vs. Augustana College basketball game in Sioux Falls.
Following the game, I met the Valley City coaches in the hallway, and after I finished my conversation, there grandpa was talking to the trainer and an assistant coach. What was supposed to be a recruiting trip for me turned into waiting for my grandpa to finish his long conversations and leave the gym, because so many people wanted to talk to him. No matter where we went, there was always someone wanting to talk to him.
When I asked who the guys were after the game were, his response, in typical, bluntly honest Gordie Fosness fashion, he said, “One of the guys tried out to play for me, but he was bad, Sam. He was bad,” followed with a big smile. Needless to say, he never made the DWU roster.
Despite being one of the few grandkids who lived within a few hours of my grandpa, I love that all of his grandkids had the same type of strong relationship with him. Every single one of them.
My aunt, Jen Spears, grandpa's second youngest daughter summed it up best, “He always said no father ever loved his children, their spouses and his grandchildren more." There is no better family member to explain the type of love grandpa had for his kids than my aunt, Kathy Fosness, grandpa's youngest daughter, who was a teenager living with him and Jen after my grandma passed away.
“When my mom was dying on her deathbed when I was 17, knowing that she was going to miss my graduation and me being the baby, she always asked him to take special care of me. And he always has,” Kathy Fosness said. “When he called, he would sometimes jokingly say, ‘Are you sure you are doing alright, I have to take special care of you all because of your mother, and I can't fail her.’”
As Kathy said, "He was just always there whenever I needed him." I can attest to that. When I was at a low point, he was the first one to bail me out of jail and pray for me in the car, casting no judgement. Instead, he gave me hope at a time when I felt like there wasn't any.
However, always being there for you was not exclusive to his family members. If a former player or friend was at low point in their life, he was there. He would literally bring people into his home who had just been released from prison to provide them with a fair and equal chance at a better life. He did it all in the name of Christ, his Lord and Savior. That is what I believe defines a true Christian.
While he was a legendary basketball coach and player, being a true Christian was what he wanted to be most. And that he was.
A true father
After my grandma’s passing, my grandpa had four daughters, Val, Tonja, Jen and Kathy and one son, Chris, to raise on his own. I can’t explain how incredible he did as a father, who raised five of the most caring, humble and genuine souls I will ever know. While there are endless stories of him told by former players who love to relive the glory days, I want to focus on the side of Gordie Fosness that no one but his kids know.
Among his kids, he gave them all nicknames that no one really knows to this day why they were given. But his youngest daughter, Kathy Fosness, who he called Lote, and second youngest, Jen Spears, whose nickname was Duck were just teenagers finishing high school and college when his wife of many years passed away. They were both by his side during the most difficult days of his life, mourning the loss of his wife. Kathy, the youngest daughter, said one of my grandma’s wishes for Gordie was to “take special care” of her children, especially the baby of the family.
Not only did he not fail my grandma in taking special care of Kathy, he was in the room to witness his youngest daughter giving birth to his last grandchild, Kambell Fosness. It’s a memory Kathy will hold close to her heart forever, she said.
Although he was known for his gritty coaching style on the basketball court, Jen’s favorite memories show the side of Gordie that no one but his kids got to see. The one that tops it all for Jen was when Gordie, who had one of the deepest voices of all time, would pretend to be an old lady looking to sit down for a tea party.
“He would knock on the door and talk to us like he was the old lady, and we would go crazy and have the tea party all set up for him,” Jen said. “He wasn’t a playful kind of dad, so it was rare when he did the tea parties, but it was a side of him I love and will cherish forever.”
While Kathy and Jen built a special and unique relationship with their father, my dad, Tonja and Val all had the same type of bond with him. Every time I see all of my aunts and my father, I see my grandpa and grandma’s love on full display. And that’s the biggest blessing I could ever ask for.