Ever since joining the MIAC conference at its inception in 1920, athletics have been an important part of the St. Olaf community. With the school fielding 27 varsity teams that compete on a division III level as well as countless intramural teams, over a third of the student body participates in St. Olaf sports to some capacity.
However, the athletic community that is oddly overlooked is the one you would think should be celebrated the most. Largely absent from the annals of St. Olaf athletic history are the best of the best, the creme de la creme, those good enough to translate their collegiate success into a professional career.
Admittedly, pretty much every Ole who has made it to the big leagues has crashed out of them within a few years, but with elite prospects like Rosen Jaswal ’20 and Anthony DeBella ’20 making the transition this coming season, it seems only appropriate to dive into the history of St. Olaf athletics and explore exactly how former Oles have served as professional athletes.
Within the major sports leagues of the United States, there is really only significant St. Olaf representation in two of them — the NFL and the MLB. In total, 16 players have represented Oles in the world of professional sports, a number, while nothing compared to the average college athletics program, is impressive considering our DIII ranking.
Four of those Oles who made it to the pros had football as their sport of choice, with Hal Erickson (1923-1930), Fred Putzier (1924-1924), Pete Saumer (1934-1934) and Bill Winter (1962-1964) all spending time in the NFL. The most successful of the group was Hal Erickson, who followed up his St. Olaf career with a seven year stint in the NFL. Erickson played three different positions (back, tailback and wide back) for three different teams in the NFL, spending time with the Milwaukee Badgers from 1923-1924, the Chicago Cardinals from 1925-1928 and the Minnesota Red Jackets from 1929-1930.
Erickson won significant accolades during his time in the NFL, earning 1st team and 3rd team all-pro selections in 1923, as well as a 3rd team all pro selection in 1925. He would also become the first and only Ole to ever be a part of a professional championship team, winning his ring as a member of the 1925 championship winning Chicago Cardinals. However, despite his successful career, Erickson was never drafted by an NFL team, having to make his way to the league as an undrafted free agent.
The only Ole to ever hear his name called on an NFL draft day is Bill Winter, who was drafted out of Olaf as a linebacker by the New York Giants in the 1962 draft, with the team taking him in the 18th round with the 250th pick. Winter’s career in the NFL would only last for three years, failing to live up to the high standard set by Erickson four decades earlier.
The other 12 Oles to represent Olaf in the realm of professional sports devoted their careers to baseball, spending their post-Olaf playing time in either the MLB’s minor league or with other iterations of minor league baseball. While none of these Olaf alumni ever made their major league debut, all had some semblance of a career, the most successful of which was Colin Brackeen ’01.
After being drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 15th round of the 2002 draft, Brackeen played professional baseball for six years, playing for five different teams from 1997-2002. Unfortunately, after bouncing from the Dunedin Blue Jays, to the Medicine Hat Blue Jays, to the Hagerstown Suns, to the St. Paul Saints, back to the Dunedin Blue Jays and then finally to the Duluth-Superior Dukes, Brackeen was never able to find a permanent home and was out of the league following the 2002 season.
While not common, Ole participation in professional sports is not an unheard of phenomenon. While no recent Ole athlete has been able to turn athletics into a stable full-time career, we as members of the St. Olaf sports community should celebrate those who choose to make the jump to the professional level far more than we do, for they represent the very best that St. Olaf athletics has produced.