Vikings' Hilgenberg dies after battle with Lou Gehrig's disease

Updated: September 23, 2008, 4:30 PM ET
Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- Former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Wally Hilgenberg died after a battle with Lou Gehrig's disease Tuesday. He was 66.

Friend and former Vikings tight end Stu Voigt said Hilgenberg died peacefully, surrounded by his family, at his Lakeville, Minn., home.

"He'd say, 'It's not when you go, it's where you go,' " Voigt told The Associated Press. "He handled these last six months with a lot of dignity."

Hilgenberg played in college at Iowa, then spent 16 seasons in the NFL, including 12 with the Vikings from 1968 to 1979. Hilgenberg was a solid member of a feared defense that led the Vikings to four Super Bowl appearances.

Overshadowed by the Purple People Eaters playing in front of him, Hilgenberg started 116 games of the 157 he played for Minnesota, tied for 21st on the franchise's career games played list.

Hilgenberg led the team in total tackles with 110 in 1971, and his 13 combined tackles at Chicago on Oct. 23, 1972, remains tied with Scott Studwell for the most by a Vikings player in a game. He ranks 12th on the team's all-time tackles list with 739.

Voigt and Hilgenberg met when Voigt joined the Vikings in 1970. Hilgenberg was already with the team, and because of their positions on opposite sides of the ball, the two "literally ran into each other every day for years" during practice, Voigt said.

"We were teammates and friends from the very start," Voigt said.

Voigt said Hilgenberg made him and other members of the team better players, but that Hilgenberg's strong faith and community involvement also made them better people.

"We were back in the era when athletes were role models," Voigt said. "He was a role model for myself and a lot of other guys."

Hilgenberg was active through his religious affiliations, in charity events and in his community. He was also an avid outdoorsman, Voigt said.

After the Vikings, Voigt and Hilgenberg remained friends and ran banking and real estate businesses together.

Voigt said the last few months were rough. Hilgenberg was in a wheelchair, crippled from the effects of Lou Gehrig's disease, also called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS damages the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord, eventually leading to death.

"It takes away your body," Voigt said of the disease. "But I could tell the mind was there, and the twinkle in his eye. ... He was really quite a guy."

He is survived by his wife, four grown children, and several grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were pending.


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press