No tackling dummy

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Saturday, May 3, 2008
— A simple neighborhood game put John Thiede on the road to his athletic destiny.

Moving from a Detroit suburb to Janesville in 1969, Thiede, his parents and six brothers and sisters settled at 625 Lawrence Ave.

The Thiede’s new neighborhood was teeming with playmates.

“We had about 60 kids on the street,” Thiede said. “There were the Ryans, the Ottos, the Thiedes, the Parkers and the other Ryans from a couple blocks away.”

Long before PlayStation and Xbox 360, kids like Thiede played games in parks and their backyards. It was most rewarding for Thiede.

“We played fumble football in Jefferson Park,” said Thiede, who was 12 years old. “You ran with the football until you were tackled and then fumbled it and somebody else would run with the ball. It was a gas.”

Thiede found his niche playing the game.

“I couldn’t hit a basket with a basketball, I couldn’t throw or catch, but the one thing I could do was tackle people—that is what I could do.’’

Thiede grew to 6 foot, 4 inches and more than 200 pounds. He became a leading tackler for Janesville Craig High School’s football team en route to All-Big Eight Conference first-team recognition and Associated Press all-state honorable mention in his senior season of 1975.

Thiede tackled well enough to become one of the few Janesville football players to earn an NCAA Division 1 scholarship, acceptin an offer from the University of Illinois.

A Bozeman, Mont., native, Thiede, 50, will return to Janesville for his induction into the Janesville Sports Hall of Fame on Saturday, May 17, in ceremonies at the Rotary Gardens.

“I can’t believe anybody remembers me,” Thiede said of his first reaction to his Janesville Hall selection.

Thiede started to sharpen his football skills in ninth grade at Marshall Middle School.

Coming from St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran School, which did not have a football program, Thiede was worried about his football skills.

“I was told by a bunch of kids how far behind the curve I was going to be,” he said. “They had attended John Jardine summer camps.”

Thiede discovered middle-school football was not as advanced as his teammates led him to believe.

“Football in ninth grade was played without cleats,” Thiede said. “It was pretty basic.

“Nike had not been invented yet,” Thiede added. “I played in Chuck Taylor Converse All-Stars.”

Thiede found inspiration reading former Green Bay Packer guard Jerry Kramer’s book “Instant Replay,” a first-person account of playing the 1967 season under the legendary coach Vince Lombardi.

“My brother worked at Bower City News in town and brought home Jerry Kramer’s ‘Instant Replay,’” Thiede said. “It was very inspirational. I had my kids read it.

“The Packers and the Lombardi era were a unique time in football,” Thiede added.

A stint on the ninth-grade wrestling team helped Thiede gain strength.

“Wrestling introduced me to the weight room, which was a good thing,” Thiede said.

But Thiede had no use for wrestling.

“I considered that the most excruciating three minutes of my life,” he said competing on the mat.

As painful as wrestling was for Thiede, football at Craig was painless.

Craig’s 1973 sophomore team lost one game. The 1974 varsity Big Eight champions became the first 9-0 team in Janesville football history and finished No. 2 in the Associated Press state ratings.

“It was a great experience to win every game and see all the enthusiasm from the fans,” said Thiede, who was a junior starter on the senior-dominated team. “I remember the quality of excitement. It was phenomenal.

“People couldn’t wait for the next game,” Thiede added. “We won the last game and got to ride on the fire truck.’’

Along the way, Thiede built a reputation as a hard-working athlete.

“Big John had a great attitude and work ethic,” said Bob Suter, who was Craig’s head coach. “There was not a stronger kid in the league pound for pound.”

Mike Liebenstein, Suter’s assistant and the Cougars’ offensive coordinator, said Thiede became a top-shelf athlete.

“He really developed himself with quite a weight-training program,” Liebenstein said. “He built himself up, and he was very strong.

“John was a joy to coach,” Liebenstein added.

High school, not just football, was a joy for Thiede.

He was the Cougar mascot his sophomore year, prom king as a junior, junior class president and voted the student with the most spirit his senior year.

“Being the Cougar mascot was fun,” Thiede said. “It was a diversion. There are always plenty of things to do in high school.’’

Thiede enjoyed the role of merry prankster.

“I got involved in a lot of different shenanigans,” Thiede said. “I had the winters off, so I could think of things for school spirit.”

Painting a rooster green and swinging down from the rafters of the Craig gym during a pep rally were a few of his school spirit highlights.

Thiede and four friends bought a rooster for a dollar, dyed it green and snuck it in the Parker gym before the start of the Craig-Parker basketball game.

“Dale Barry picked the chicken off the floor at halfcourt.” Thiede said. “I don’t know what happened to it, but I’m sure it lived happily ever after in Dale Barry’s backyard.’’

A friend who was savvy in mountain climbing helped Thiede rig himself to the Craig gym roof to swing down to the floor.

“We got permission to swing out of the rafters and pulled it off,” Thiede said. “If my kids came home and told me they were going to do that today, I’d go off the wall.’’

Football and shenanigans in the name of school spirit didn’t fill all of Thiede’s time at Craig.

“I took art classes like crazy,” said Thiede, who received a Janesville Art League scholarship. “I always played to my strength. I had a gift of being an artist and I rolled with it.’’

Continuing on to Illinois in 1976, Thiede played his freshman year under coach Bob Blackman. Gary Moeller replaced Blackman as head coach the next season.

Thiede lettered at Illinois in the 1977-78 seasons. He had 17 tackles his sophomore year, was moved to linebacker from defensive tackle during his junior season and finished his career with 55 tackles.

“I didn’t know if I was going to play in college, but some people were rooting for me in Janesville, and I got down to Champaign (Ill.),” Thiede said.

Thiede said his transition from high school to Division I college football was smooth.

“It just seemed to me to be a continuation of things,” Thiede said, “It was just the crowds were bigger and the training facilities were exceptional.

“As you mature in a sport, the sport slows down,” Thiede said. “When you are a true freshman, everything whips past.

“As you get better and anticipate better, you become more aware on the field,” Thiede added. “The game slows down.’’

Playing Wisconsin at Camp Randall was a highlight for Thiede.

“Around the Big Ten, playing at Camp Randall was considered the most fun venue,” Thiede said. “Fans would yell, ‘Badger bait’ at you.

“It was a noisy snake pit,” Thiede added. “You knew it was going to be fun.’’

When the Badgers visited Champaign in October of 1978, Thiede put himself on the spot.

Wisconsin was 4-0, and Illinois was 1-3-1.

In an advance game story in the Champaign News-Gazette, Thiede was quoted as saying that Ira Matthews, the Badgers’ featured running back, was good but “not as much of a problem as Darrin Nelson was.’’

Nelson played for Stanford, whom the Illini played the week before Wisconsin.

Moeller was not happy with Thiede’s bulletin board material.

“Moeller said, ‘You know, they’re going to come gunning for you when you hold up Nelson to Matthews,’” Thiede said.

Illinois played UW to a 20-20 tie, coming from behind to score eight points in the final three minutes.

“I helped hold Ira Matthews to 60 yards,” Thiede said. “We held that guy down.’’

After his freshman year at Illinois, Thiede headed West.

“I hitched out West,” Thiede said. “I didn’t know I was going to Montana.’’

While heading toward Yellowstone National Park, a rancher gave Thiede a lift in pickup truck.

“I was wearing my Illinois jacket, and it turns out the rancher was from Decatur (Ill.), which down the road from Champaign,” Thiede said.

The rancher offered Thiede a summer job.

“I worked on his ranch on the border of Yellowstone,” Thiede said. “I just fell in love with Montana.’’

With a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture degree from Illinois, Thiede started a food products business in 1981, making Montana Monster Cookies with his sister, Gloria, in Livingston, Mont.

The cookie venture became wildly successful. Thiede’s company sold more than 2 million cookies through a 12-year period. He eventually sold the business to a large baking firm.

From making cookies, Thiede used his considerable art talent. He became an award-winning freelance cartoonist, signing his “Boone ‘n’ Bear” comic strip “John TD.”

“Boone ‘n’ Bear” appeared in a dozen Montana newspapers. His editorial cartoons have appeared in The Janesville Gazette.

Today, Thiede works as a salesman for a plumbing supply company.

Thiede has been married to his wife, Marty, an elementary school teacher, for 23 years. They have two children, Ben 18, and David 15.

Looking back on his life and times in Janesville, Thiede can smile.

“It was really enjoyable times,” Thiede said.

Last updated: 9:13 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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