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FOOTBALL: A look at the Bemidji area’s footprint in NFL Draft history

While Bemidji High School and Bemidji State can’t lay claim to a huge presence in the NFL, the First City on the Mississippi has produced a few players who have reached as far as the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

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After his high school days with the Gonvick-Trail Bulldogs, Al Wolden established then-BSU program records for career rushing yards and all-purpose yards during his time with the Beavers from 1983-86.
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BEMIDJI — The NFL Draft’s signature chime is upon us again.

ESPN’s annual music — signaling the newest selection in each year’s draft — is set to ring out tonight, April 28, as the 2022 edition kicks off from Las Vegas.

There will be Buckeyes and Wolverines, Bearcats and Tigers who hear their name called over the next three days.

But what about Lumberjacks? Beavers?

While Bemidji High School and Bemidji State can’t lay claim to a huge presence in the NFL, the First City on the Mississippi has produced a few players who have reached as far as the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

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Here’s a look at Bemidji’s footprint in the NFL Draft and beyond.

Mike Falls

Prior to the Common Draft Era (1967-present), Mike Falls was drafted by the New York Giants in the 20th round (237th overall) of the 1956 NFL Draft. He didn't sign with the team and bounced around a bit — including stints in the U.S. Army, the Canadian Football League and on Vince Lombardi's Green Bay Packers — before landing on the Dallas Cowboys' inaugural team in 1960.

Falls, an offensive guard, had 25 career appearances between 1960-61 for the Cowboys, including 19 starts. Dallas went a combined 4-20-2 in his two seasons.

He is the only Bemidji High School football player who has played in the NFL.

Prior to his professional days, Falls played for the Gophers at the University of Minnesota. In high school, he was a co-captain on Bemidji’s undefeated 1951 football team, playing fullback and defensive guard for three seasons. He was an all-state selection in 1951 and was enshrined in the BHS Athletics Hall of Fame in 2002.

Dave Casper

Dave Casper’s life started in Bemidji, and he’s now immortalized in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Casper was born in Bemidji but attended high school in Chilton, Wis. After a college career at Notre Dame, he was selected in the second round (45th overall) by the Oakland Raiders in 1974.

Casper had a stellar career in the NFL. The tight end played in 147 games, racking up 378 receptions for 5,216 yards and 52 touchdowns. He made five Pro Bowls, was a four-time All-Pro and won Super Bowls with the 1976 and 1980 Raiders.

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Casper also had stints with the Houston Oilers and Minnesota Vikings. He retired after the 1984 season and was a 2002 inductee to the Hall of Fame.

Bronko Nagurski

Perhaps the most famous football name attached to Bemidji lore is the great Bronko Nagurski, the Pro Football Hall of Famer who never suited up for the Lumberjacks.

Nagurski grew up in International Falls but transferred to BHS ahead of his senior season in 1926. Yet the state high school league ruled him ineligible to play for head coach Buck Robbins, and so he sat out in the fall before enrolling at the U of M. Nagurski did, however, play on Bemidji’s basketball team in high school.

In the NFL, Nagurski played nine seasons for the Chicago Bears, but his professional days predate the draft itself. The first draft happened in 1936 in an effort to end bidding wars among the league’s teams in their attempts to sign amateur players.

Nagurski was inducted into the Hall in 1963 after four All-Pro Selections and three NFL Championships.

Al Wolden

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Bemidji State University and Gonvick-Trail High School standout Al Wolden appeared in three games as a replacement player for the Chicago Bears during the 1987 NFL players' strike.
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Al Wolden became the pride of Gonvick when he suited up for three games as a replacement player during the 1987 players strike.

The running back grew up in Gonvick and then became an All-American at Bemidji State. Wolden’s agent speculated that he’d be a potential late-round draft pick, but he signed instead as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears. He also had an offer from the New Orleans Saints, but he chose Chicago because it was closer to home.

Soon after the strike ended, so too did Wolden’s brief NFL career.

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Gunner Olszewski

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New England Patriots wide receiver Gunner Olszewski scores on a 38-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Chargers on Dec. 6, 2020, at SoFi Stadium. (Kirby Lee / USA Today Sports)

Gunner Olszewski owns Bemidji’s biggest spotlight in today’s NFL. The fan-favorite former Beaver signed a two-year, $4.2 million contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason.

After an All-American career as a defensive back at Bemidji State, Olszewski signed as an undrafted free agent with the New England Patriots in 2019 and converted to wide receiver. In his rookie season, he went from a longshot to crack the roster to perhaps the final player to make the cut. He was selected as an All-Pro punt returner in 2020.

Olsewski is the lone active player in the NFL with Bemidji ties.

Brian Leonhardt

Brian Leonhardt became just the second Bemidji State grad to reach the NFL when he joined the Oakland Raiders in 2014.

Leonhardt played in 16 games across two seasons in the league, joining the San Francisco 49ers in 2015. He was also the first former Beaver to score in the NFL, catching a touchdown pass from Derek Carr in 2014.

Troy Hendricks

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Troy Hendricks, Bemidji High School Activities Director. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

Bemidji High School’s current activities director has some professional experience under his belt.

Hendricks, a 1982 BHS grad and an All-American at Moorhead State (now called Minnesota State Moorhead), was invited to training camp with the Seattle Seahawks following his college days. He played alongside franchise legends Steve Largent and Curt Warner, though Hendricks didn’t crack the team’s roster by the end of camp.

Frank Mays

Frank Mays played for Bemidji High School and attended college at Florida A&M.

The defensive end signed as an undrafted free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2014 but was cut during the preseason.

Mays didn’t have any NFL regular season appearances, but he played in three 2014 preseason games and made seven total tackles.

Micah Friez is the former sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer. A native of East Grand Forks, Minn., he worked at the Pioneer from 2015-23 and is a 2018 graduate of Bemidji State University with a degree in Creative and Professional Writing.
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