Shacking up: Hindt, Zimmer recall unforgettable year

Dan Zimmer stands with his family as he is inducted into the Wabasso Hall of Fame on Jan. 14 at the Wabasso Activity Center. Zimmer was Wabasso’s first-ever state champion with a 26-1 record at 132 pounds during the 1975-76 season.

WABASSO — Heading into his senior year, Dan Zimmer was faced with an unusual choice: Either move with his parents to Litchfield, or finish the 1975-76 athletic season at Wabasso.

Zimmer chose the former, going on to become Wabasso’s first-ever state champion in wrestling. He capped off his 26-1 senior season with a 10-8 victory against Minneota’s John Pennings in the 132-pound Class A state finals.

“I knew I wasn’t going anywhere; I knew I wasn’t going to go to Litchfield,” Zimmer said. “I remember coming to school saying that we were moving and I remember [then-Wabasso athletic director] Leo Grossman saying, ‘Well you’re not going anywhere.'”

But that begs the question, how did Zimmer, an 18-year-old kid with no prior experience living on his own, manage to stay in Wabasso for his senior year?

By living with Wabasso wrestling coach Gary Hindt, of course.

Dan Zimmer during his high school wrestling days.

Last month was special for both: Zimmer was inducted into Wabasso’s Hall of Fame and Hindt surpassed 800 career dual meet wins as a coach, putting him at No. 7 all time nationally and No. 2 in Minnesota.

Zimmer went on to wrestle at St. Cloud State University before working as a pilot for Delta Airlines and moving to Atlanta upon retirement. But his senior year living with his wrestling coach serves as a unique tale that seems unlikely nowadays.

“We volunteered — somebody started talking, saying he was looking for a place to live,” Hindt said. “We don’t want him to go to Litchfield or wherever, so that’s kind of how it was decided.”

Hindt and his wife, Jenny, took in Zimmer, whose family had moved to Wabasso when he was in sixth grade. Zimmer was already focusing on the upcoming football season and as a captain of the football, wrestling and baseball teams, his presence was needed.

“Your senior year, you’re sure you’d hate to screw that up,” Hindt said. “I was the head football, head wrestling coach and we had room.”

Wabasso/Red Rock Central co-head coaches Brett Bartholomaus (left) and Gary Hindt coach Mason Irlbeck during his 106-pound match in a dual meet against Adrian Area at the Wabasso Invitational on Jan. 14 at the Wabasso Activity Center. Hindt has been the head coach of Wabasso wrestling since 1968.

Staying in Wabasso was the obvious choice for Zimmer, even though his path to the state tournament was not a sure thing.

The 1975-76 season was the first in which wrestling was divided into two classes, but there was still a hefty amount of teams that flooded the Region 3A tournament. Zimmer had pinned Pennings in the region finals but narrowly won 10-8 in the 132-pound state finals in Class A.

“You’re never a sure thing to get to state, our region was always pretty tough,” Zimmer said. “Our region, to me, was as tough as the state tournament.”

At home, the arrangement was not awkward at all for Zimmer or Hindt. Zimmer was well-behaved and even served as a great babysitter for Gary and Jenny’s kids.

“It worked out great for me,” Zimmer said. “Gary’s got a great family, the kids were great — Eric was just born, Heather was 3 or 4 years old at the time — but that’s probably the best thing that happened to me was living with Gary and Jenny. Made for a perfect senior year.”

Hindt never let his coaching leave the football field or wrestling room, which ensured that their relationship did not strain.

“Honestly, Jenny talked more sports with him than I did,” Hindt said. “I did divide the coach and friendship up more or less. We always talked some sports, but it wasn’t like, ‘OK, Dan, here’s what you’ve got to do now, do this or that, do this move…’ No, it wasn’t advice time. We just visited, coaching was still left up to the locker room.”

Even though he initially resisted going to Litchfield, Zimmer eventually moved there after high school to work at the town’s Kraft manufacturing plant. Because Zimmer’s familiar job at the local feed mill was taken, he took the opportunity and left.

“The hardest part for me was leaving,” Zimmer said. “I remember that night when I got a call to come up to Litchfield to work, they said I had to be up there tomorrow and I didn’t have a job here. … That was tough, [Jenny] wouldn’t come out to say goodbye to me. She went to the room and didn’t come out.

“I really didn’t want to go, but I had to. I had to do something.”

Hindt is a living legend, having taken over as the Wabasso wrestling coach in 1968. He is now co-head coach with Brett Bartholomaus of the Wabasso/Red Rock Central wrestling co-op since 2008 and has coached thousands of wrestlers — including six state champions — through his nearly 50 years at the helm of the program.

When Zimmer returned to Wabasso last month for his induction into the school’s hall of fame, it was clear that he was one of Hindt’s wrestlers.

“When you’re a Wabasso wrestler, that’s pretty special,” Hindt said. “The wrestling culture around here is unbelievable. Once you’re in there, you can’t get out.”

When he was younger, Zimmer followed his older brothers Randy and Mike into becoming a Wabasso wrestler. Once he got hooked in, he was a Wabasso wrestler for life.

“It really is a lifetime fraternity; that’s just the way wrestling is,” Zimmer said.

And he can always get to say that he was the program’s first state champion.

But as for Hindt, he has a unique bragging point of his own.

“They jokingly always ask and I say, ‘Every kid that’s stayed in my basement bedroom has been a state champion,'” Hindt said. “Who else wants to stay?”