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Coach leaves giant shoes to fill

Warrior coach put Marion football back on the map

Staff writer

Standing a quarter of an inch shy of 9 feet, Robert Wadlow was the tallest man ever recorded.

Because of his immense height, Wadlow had to have specially made shows, a pair of them once being on display at Hillsboro’s Adobe House.

There’s none on display in Marion, but the high school football program will have a pair of shoes almost as large as Wadlow’s to fill as the sun rises on the 2018 season.

For the first time since George H.W. Bush was in the White House in 1988, the Warriors’ football program will be without legendary coach Grant Thierolf.

After a few years of speculation that each year could be his last, Thierolf announced Friday that he would be stepping down after 29 years at the helm.

Before his arrival in 1988, Marion’s football program was in a dismal state, quite similar to the present Kansas Jayhawks and to the days before Bill Snyder at K-State.

Since the days of standouts such as Ron Oelschlager, Gary Melcher and Lou Wegerer in the ’60s and early ’70s — years that included the Warriors’ lone state title in 1968 — Marion football dropped off the grid.

Thierolf immediately showed change was in the air, tying Marion’s best mark of 4-5 since 1983, before showing what he could really do a year later.

Behind a massive offensive line spearheaded by the late Calvin Hett and a shifty Mike Helmer at quarterback, word was out that Thierolf had a team some believed could be as good as the ’68 one.

Marion actually broke into the top five statewide, and upended Hillsboro 28-13—the first time since a 6-0 win over the Trojans in 1983.

Chase County put the brakes on the Warriors’ dream season with a 20-0 shutout, but Marion’s 8-1 finish marked the end of losing seasons for quite some time.

Thierolf got a glimpse of what was yet to come in 1991 when Marion-Florence’s junior high team went unbeaten.

Three years later, that team took center stage, and after a five-year hiatus from postseason, the Warriors advanced to the state title game.

Wichita-Collegiate tailback DeAngelo Evans and wideout Harrison Hill were too much, with the Spartans denying Marion a second state title, 28-6. But the Warriors’ 11-2 season marked the best finish ever by Thierolf.

The 1995 season began with both the Spartans and Warriors opening the year atop the Class 3A polls.

The two would meet in what many call “The Game of the Century,” with ESPN televising the matchup to showcase Evans.

The Warriors gave Evans and the Spartans all they could handle, but turnovers and missed extra points allowed Collegiate to hang on in a game in which Evans said they were lucky to survive.

Even after the loss, many believed the two would meet again in Hays for all the marbles.

Word never reached Silver Lake, however, and the Eagles avenged a first round loss a year earlier with a 15-6 victory over the Warriors—a loss that still haunts Thierolf’s 1995 seniors.

Just like Thierolf, the Warriors continued to be competitive and gritty, qualifying for the postseason seven more times.

Even with an unbeaten record, the Warriors could never quite match the success of the 1994 or ’95 teams, advancing past the opening round only three times.

That didn’t stop Thierolf from leaving his mark on both the program as well as his players.

Since Hett became the Warriors first player to named to the Kansas Shrine Bowl in 1990, five others joined him — the legendary Wheeler trio of John, Jason, and Morgan, along with Brendan Kraus and Kyle Palic.

While Thierolf won’t be riding off into the sunset with a football title under his belt, the lessons he taught his players both on the field and off were almost as good.

“I sure wish he could’ve won a state championship,” former standout Bill Griffith said. “He is one of the best coaches of all time.

“He was and is like a second father to me and he was always there for me. He’s a great man for sure.”

Griffith was a standout fullback and linebacker from Thierolf’s fabled Class of 1996—his winningest class of an impressive tenure.

Last modified Nov. 16, 2017

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