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Grappling with the Family Farm

For the Schiefelbeins of Minnesota and their nine sons, wrestling and agriculture go together

It's a spectacularly stark and stunningly quiet winter morning on Frank Schiefelbein's 2,700-acre farm, 4.3 miles from downtown Kimball (pop. 651), Minn. Schiefelbein and some of his family are in the house, looking out across the snowswept landscape, down toward Scott Lake. They are waiting for the cows to get up so they can feed them. "There's no need trying to get them up earlier," explains Schiefelbein. "They're females, you know."

Everyone waits on the cows. Quietly. This family is comfortable with quiet. Indeed, in 1991 the Schiefelbeins are right out of 1941. They are making it in farming when many others seem to be failing, although Frank Schiefelbein says, "There isn't much money in this business."

Frank and Frosty Schiefelbein have nine sons. Seven of them work on the farm; two more are dying to. On the living room wall is the sheet music for Amazing Grace. The Schiefelbeins are one for all and all for one. Nobody gets a paycheck. The single goal is betterment of the farm.

One reason this old-style farm family makes it is high school wrestling. Yes, wrestling, and the lessons it has taught. Each of the boys wrestled for Kimball High—starting with Frank III, now 36, who graduated in 1972, and finishing up with Danny, 17, who just closed out his senior season. In those 22 years the Schiefelbein brothers have had 553 victories for the Cubs. The old man sees a direct correlation between wrestling and farming. "What are you going to gain from wrestling except getting beat up?" he says. "That's what farming is. But some of us just like it."

Rick, 34, agrees. He says, "If you're the best in the world at wrestling, you get nothing. That's how it is on this farm." Bob, 29, adds, "What wrestling does is get you ready for getting beat in life."

In a community where nearly everyone is involved in farming, the Schiefelbeins stand out. Kimball wrestling coach Kayo Aslagson, who has had all the brothers except Frank on his teams, sees a common thread of "pride and stubbornness. They all worked hard to be good." Seven of the nine were team captains. "Each one of them really competed," says Aslagson. Here's a quick rundown of the Schiefelbein era:

•Frank III, Kimball High class of 1972, started the family wrestling tradition. "Basketball required too much coordination," he says. He was 39-18-2 at Kimball and for a time held the school record for takedowns, with 46. A Kansas State graduate, he's married, has six children and works on the farm.

•Rick, class of 1975, was probably the best in the family. His 92-31-7 record at Kimball puts him fifth on the school's all-time win list, and his 130 consecutive matches are still the school record. He was 25-5 as a senior. An Iowa State graduate, he's married with five children and works on the farm.

•Bill, 32, class of '77, was 22-31-2 at Kimball. "I was tough," he says, "but I didn't like it." He attended the University of Minnesota for 3½ years but didn't graduate. He's single and works on the farm.

•Bob, a 1980 Kimball grad, went 58-35-3 (27-3 as a senior), and was never pinned. "I was totally engulfed in wrestling," he says. "I wouldn't take a chance on doing anything that might make me lose." He graduated from Michigan State, is married with two children and works on the farm.

•Tom, 27, class of '82, was 71-24-2. "I'd love to go back to Kimball for one more year," he says. He graduated from North Dakota State College of Science and works on the farm.

•Mike, 25, class of '84, was 82-33-1, and 22-2 his senior year. He is in eighth place (Danny is in seventh) on Kimball's alltime win list. "All the other boys used their brains," he says. "I used muscle. I knew I was stronger, pound for pound. They knew they were smarter, ounce for ounce." Mike went straight from high school to working full-time on the farm.

•Donnie, 24, an '85 grad, participated in the sport, but with only mediocre results. He once told his mother, "Just say you had eight boys who wrestled." A graduate of Texas A&M, he's married and works for a livestock association in Denver but is eager to get back to the farm.

•Tim, 22, class of '87, was 81-31-4 and held the school record for most takedowns in a season with 89 in 1986, which he tied in 1987. He is set to graduate from Texas A&M next month, is married with one son and, according to his father, "would live in a hollow tree if he could come back here."

•Danny, class of 1991, is 84-43-2 and reached the final eight in the state tournament. "Everything works around the farm," he says, "because we all like the same three things—workin', wrestlin' and football." Is Danny spoiled, being the youngest of the bunch? The other day Frosty gave him $10 for incidentals. "That's too much," said Danny. He gave back $5. He has been accepted by Colorado State University.

"None of the boys were natural athletes," says Frosty. "They just put every ounce of energy they had into wrestling." Well, not all the time. Trying to raise all these boys, Frosty—whose real name is Donna Mae—says the secret when they were growing up was to send them outside in the morning with one set of instructions: "Don't any of you dare come back inside unless you're bleeding."

"I see that wrestling taught them responsibility," Frosty says. "In both wrestling and farming you can do everything right, but some circumstance is wrong, so you lose. That's what life is. You don't get everything you want. But that doesn't stop you from trying."

You can make a case for wrestling being the most demanding sport, the one that takes the most and gives back the least. Bright-lights guys don't wrestle. Such qualities make it a perfect parallel to farming. It's all inner enjoyment. Once, Frank, a graduate of St. Thomas College in St. Paul, with a degree in math and physics, was in western South Dakota on business. He drove the 750 miles home to see Rick wrestle in a high school match, then drove back to South Dakota the next day. Another time, he went to a match in which three of his boys were wrestling, one was timing, one was refereeing, one was coaching—and the school still charged him $2 to get in. "Imagine," he says, "paying to see what I saw every day around home for free."

It would be easy to argue that this is not a wrestling story but a farm story. Easy, but wrong. Because at the story's core, those wrestling lessons learned at Kimball High and in those rough-and-tumble sessions on the mats out in a barn on the farm are the lessons upon which these nine boys' lives are based. Simple lessons: Work hard and you might win; don't work hard and for sure you won't win. Those are odds any wrestler—and any farmer—understands. And will take.

On the whole, the boys were good high school wrestlers. Not poor, not terrific. Good. But they loved it. Says Bob, "Wrestling meant so much to me. I still think about it a lot." In an age when the idea of dedication sounded old-fashioned to some people, the Schiefelbein boys were dedicated. Wrestling teaches that. It also teaches, perhaps better than any other sport, physical toughness.

And beyond that it teaches mental toughness. Talk on this early morning turns quickly to farming, as it has always done around the Schiefelbeins'.

"So, what if the farm fails?" somebody asks Bob.

"It won't."

"But what if—?"

"It won't."

That's clearly the end of this line of questioning. Bob is rock-solid resolute. Wrestling taught him that. Farming makes him practice it.

For all the brothers' heroics, only Rick truly wrestled in college, and he had a so-so varsity record at Iowa State. Yet wrestling wasn't the point. Education was. The old man wanted each boy to go someplace different, to bring new ideas back to the farm. So the seven boys who have gone to college have attended six institutions. Frank's goal is to have all nine boys working on the farm, but only if it makes financial sense.

Each cow, he says, should have about four acres (although that can be squeezed at times), so the key is buying more land (the property is worth from $300 to $2,000 an acre) so there can be more cows so there is more work so all the boys can be home. "If they want to be," says Frank. They all do.

There are some 1,200 head of cattle now, being raised for breeding and for eating. The Schiefelbeins pride themselves on running a first-class operation, using few chemicals and the latest technology. "I do all this," says Frank, "and then this guy comes by and buys one of the cows because the tag in its ear was the year his wife was Miss Wisconsin. It drives you nuts."

Meanwhile, with Danny's graduation, Kimball High will be without a Schiefelbein wrestler next season for the first time in 22 years. But not for long. Frank III has an 11-year-old son, Frank IV, who will be in seventh grade this fall.



Danny, the last of the Schiefelbein nine, closed out his prep career as team tri-captain.



Young Frank is an assistant coach.



The brothers pitch in (from left): Danny, Bob, Rick, Tom, Frank, Mike and (foreground) Bill.