Denfeld News

July 2, 2011
Duluth News Tribune

Denfeld athletic legend dies at 81

Rudy Monson didn’t single-handedly bring Duluth Denfeld its only boys basketball state championship, but his performance in the 1947 title game hasn’t been forgotten to this day.

Monson scored 23 points in a 46-44 win over Crosby-Ironton, making the Hunters Duluth’s first single-class champions.

“We were a good team, but with Rudy we were even better,” teammate Ken Sunnarborg said. “Rudy was the generator, he made that team. He was outstanding, one of the great athletes to come out of the Duluth area.”

Monson died Thursday in Duluth after a lengthy illness. He was 81.

An all-state football, basketball and track and field athlete at Denfeld, Monson earned a football scholarship at the University of Minnesota. He never played football due to an injury, but played on the Gophers’ freshman basketball team before transferring to Minnesota Duluth and becoming an all-conference player.

“Rudy was an all-around athlete who thoroughly enjoyed competing,” said Sunnarborg, who turns 82 next week. “He excelled in most everything that he did and had an attitude that was one-of-a-kind. He made many friends through his athletic ability and never put anybody down and was always warm and gracious.”

Monson was among the first group to be inducted into the Denfeld Athletic Hall of Fame in 1966 and also is a member of the UMD Hall of Fame and the Minnesota Centennial Sports Hall of Fame as one of the top athletes in the state’s first 100 years.

Monson, who retired as systems operations manager for the city’s water and gas department in 1993, also spent 35 years as a member of the National Ski Patrol, was a private pilot, received a citation from the Secretary of the Navy and was a founding member of the Denfeld Alumni Association and remained on its board of directors until his death.

But it’s that 1947 team that people always wanted to discuss. The five starters — Monson, Sunnarborg, Paul Nace, Eugene “Pug” Norlander and Larry Tessier — still met to play cribbage or reminisce about high school until recently.

“It was the best time of my life as far as I’m concerned,” Monson was quoted in a 2005 News Tribune article. “No question about it.”

Denfeld beat No. 1-ranked Mountain Lake in the final minute in the semifinals and then edged 1945 runners-up Crosby-Ironton, a team the Hunters had beaten twice during the regular season.

“He was the focal point of the team; we revolved around him,” said Norlander, 81, who played alongside Monson for three years at Denfeld, one year at Minnesota and two at UMD. “(Crosby-Ironton) couldn’t handle him because he was strong under the basket. He did a really great job that night.”

Sunnarborg recalls a parade being thrown to celebrate the victory.

“The whole community came together. It wasn’t just Denfeld, it was the whole city,” he said. “Even after all these years, people still remember it because it was great for the city. Everyone was very proud that Duluth had produced that team.”

Current Denfeld coach Jeff Nace fondly remembers his godfather.

“He and my dad were best friends forever and hung out together. He was a real gentleman in every aspect,” Nace said. “He’s been like a second dad to me and always was good to my family.”

Sunnarborg says that had to do with Monson’s fun-loving approach to life.

“Rudy was always having a good time, but he wanted to make sure others around him were having a good time, too,” he said. “I always thought that was a unique quality that Rudy had.”

Monson is survived by his wife, Marilyn.

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