MCFEELY: Legendary coach needs all of his competitiveness after car crash
FARGO — Erwin Warner possesses one of the great nicknames in Minnesota high school sports history. He was known as Cactus when he coached the Norman County West boys basketball teams to three state tournament appearances, one of which included the school's only state title in the sport. That came in 1987.
The nickname was given by a clever close family member who made note of Erwin's personality, which could be described as prickly. Unable to use a shortened version of that word as a publicly acceptable moniker, Cactus was seen as a suitable option.
"Cactus is one of those guys who, if he fell in love with a game, would go all-out with everything he had to be good it and to win every time," said his nephew, Jeremy Melting. "Playing board games with him sucks, because he takes that tenacity into everything he does. You're having a good time until he turns it on."
It led to great success on the basketball court for Warner, a Halstad, Minn., native who was an all-conference player for Moorhead State in the mid-1960s. It also led to success for basketball teams he coached.
Warner led the Terry Terriers to three Montana small-school state tournaments in the 1960s and '70s. He also coached his hometown co-op of Halstad, Hendrum and Perley — Norman County West — to state tourneys in 1986, '87 and '97 in two stints at the school. All told, he coached NCW from 1980-89 and 1995-97, compiling a 208-70 record.
He quit coaching for good after the 1997 season to concentrate on farming, which he did across the Red River near Hillsboro, N.D. He later retired altogether and moved to Riverton, Wyo. It's been awhile since Cactus has been in the news locally. But he's still a legend around Halstad.
"He's a sharp cat," said Norman County West's current coach, Ron Ohren. "And just that name. Cactus. If he was named Bill Olson or something, it probably wouldn't have been so memorable. But everybody remembers somebody named Cactus."
Warner was traveling to Halstad from Wyoming last weekend for a reunion of his three state tournaments, including a 30th anniversary celebration of the '87 title team, when he failed to yield at the intersection of Cass County Road 26 and Highway 38 near Page, according to the North Dakota Highway Patrol. A pickup struck Warner's car on the driver's side.
Warner was taken by air ambulance to Sanford Medical Center in Fargo with serious injuries. He is in stable condition, Melting said.
The injuries aren't good, particularly for a 72-year-old. Warner suffered a ruptured bladder, broken pelvis, multiple broken ribs, broken sternum and a broken vertebra, according to his nephew.
"They are very painful injuries, as you can imagine," Melting said. "It's going to be a long road to recovery."
Warner's wife, three children and grandchildren all live in Wyoming and Nevada and are traveling to Fargo on short notice. Some of Warner's former players have set up a GoFundMe page with the goal of raising $5,000 to help the family defray some of the immediate travel and medical costs. The page is titled "Helping Cactus' Family." It had raised $1,725 as of late Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 21.
"I've had many great coaches throughout my life, but he was hands down the greatest motivator, leader, life mentor and teacher of the game that I ever had," said Scott Hemberger, who played for Warner from 1995-97 and now lives Corpus Christi, Texas. "Words can't even describe."
Melting played for his uncle for three seasons during Norman County West's glory run in the 1980s. The Panthers finished fifth in the state tournament in '86, won the title in '87 and lost in the region championship to Crookston in '88. This was back in the two-class days of Minnesota high school basketball. Even competing at the smaller Class A level, Norman County West was tiny with about 90 students.
"For as competitive as he was, I remember he was always calm in the huddles," Melting said. "We were doing a lot of firsts during that time — first time playing for a district title, first time playing for a region title and so on. But he was always in control. He always felt that if you still had a rook and two pawns, you could still win. His sense of calm and control never wavered."
There is another nugget about Warner: He became a successful sugar beet farmer, from scratch. A Forum of Fargo-Moorhead story from 1993 recounted how he returned to Halstad from Montana to manage a grocery store his sister and brother-in-law owned before they were killed in a car crash. Warner also worked at the American Crystal Sugar plant in Hillsboro, where he met a retiring farmer willing to sell the equipment needed to raise beets. Warner started farming in the Red River Valley in 1980 — without inheriting any land. He raised beets, wheat and barley on 1,100 acres.
He was also on the American Crystal board of directors from 1981-93, serving as chairman of the board in 1993.
Clearly, there are benefits to being ultra-competitive and having a prickly nature.
Those traits led to Cactus' nickname and he's going to need them now during what is sure to be a long and difficult recovery from his car crash.