For nearly three decades he was the Brainerd Warriors defensive guru, coordinator of a defense that won seven conference and four section championships during his time on the sideline.
Coaching football wasn’t the only thing at which Steve Nunnink excelled.
He was outstanding in the classroom. In 1991, he was named Brainerd’s teacher of the year.
Nunnink was a pioneer in the field of strength and conditioning. He was instrumental in founding the current Brainerd High School weightlifting program in the mid-1970s.
In 2000, Nunnink was selected the Minnesota Strength and Conditioning Association Strength and Conditioning Specialist of the Year. He was named the National High School Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year in 2001.
Possibly the greatest honor that Nunnink has ever received will be presented Saturday night when he will be one of the first two assistant coaches inducted into the Minnesota Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame at the DoubleTree Park Place Hotel in St. Louis Park.
“It means a lot,” Nunnink, 64, said of his induction. “It’s really a neat deal. I’m honored to (represent) the team and players and coaches and what a good job they’ve done for Brainerd High School.”
The honor is even more special for a man who was dealt a life-altering medical event Aug. 29, 2003. Shortly after the Warriors’ season opener against Sartell that night, Nunnink suffered a brain aneurysm, an event that has sent him to rehabilitation facilities and back home, and forced him to undergo hundreds of hours of rehab.
There have been many bumps in the road, but Nunnink has never surrendered. He has battled like a true Brainerd Warrior.
Nunnink’s wife, Randi, has been at his side throughout the ordeal. She said the hall of fame induction has motivated Steve to continue rehabilitation.
Shortly after Christmas, Steve fell at home and had to be airlifted to St. Cloud where he had to stay for about three weeks. The fall required 20 staples to close a gash in his head. Fluid built up between his brain and skull. In mid-January he was moved to the care facility at Cuyuna Regional Medical Center (CRMC) in Crosby.
Nunnink was scheduled to be discharged from CRMC on Thursday and return home. Randi said Steve couldn’t have been discharged without the help from CRMC therapists and nursing staff, including certified nursing assistants, who have worked with Steve, and have done in her words “an awesome job getting him ready for the banquet.”
“It’s kind of a godsend he’s getting this award,” Randi added. “It’s helped him get through therapy. It’s given him something to look forward to and he’s done an amazing job.
“It will be special. A lot of coaches haven’t seen Steve in a long time. That will be good. Hopefully, Steve will be well-rested and he will be on that day. Some days he’s like the old Steve. I’m hoping Saturday will be one of those days.”
Friends for lifetime
Nunnink coached four years at Park Center and 28 in Brainerd with Ron Stolski. The two forged a lifetime bond. Stolski has tried to visit Nunnink at least weekly for the last 8-plus years.
In 1971, Stolski was hired as the first football coach at Park Center. And Stolski, who coached at Princeton before Park Center, needed a defensive coordinator.
At the time, Nunnink was a graduate assistant at the University of North Dakota. The two met through a college coach who was recruiting current Warriors offensive line coach Chet Stevenson, who played for Stolski at Princeton. Stevenson happened to play freshman football for Nunnink at UND.
“From the moment he stepped inside our little house in Princeton I knew there was something special about Steve Nunnink,” Stolski said, “so we went to Park Center together, Steve as defensive coordinator and science teacher.
“When we moved here in 1975 part of the move was that Steve could come with. Brainerd was looking for someone who could bring a coach with him. Steve was such an outstanding teacher, there was a position open, and we spent all those years together.”
At UND, Nunnink was attending medical school and initially planned on becoming a doctor.
“In the spring of what I think was his fifth year he got involved in coaching football,” Stolski said. “As the coaching bug does to some of us it bit Steve hard, and changed his direction. For the good of us, and Brainerd, and for the good of the state, Steve decided what he wanted to do with his life and we’ve all benefited.”
Stolski called Nunnink an “incredibly smart and well-prepared” defensive coordinator as well as a strength training trailblazer.
“One of the remarkable things about Steve is that it wasn’t just Brainerd that he cared about, and he cared so much about Brainerd, he was also a guru throughout the state,” Stolski said. “I can name many schools that called on Steve for his expertise. He would help anybody who called for any kind of advice on anything. He is one of those kinds of human beings.
“Wherever I go in my travels today, in a football capacity, people always say to me, ‘How’s Steve Nunnink? At a national level ... It doesn’t matter where it is it’s, “How is Steve Nunnink?”
Nunnink was one of the first to preach the value of core strength.
“Steve taught all of us early on the value of core strength,” Stolski said. “He never just talked about football strength, he talked about core strength.”
Stolski calls Stevenson and Scott Parsons, currently the Warriors’ inside linebackers coach, “disciples” of Nunnink’s strength program and its principles.
“They value strength as much as Steve did,” Stolski said.
When Nunnink applied for the Park Center job, Stevenson said Stolski called him.
“Ron said, ‘Who is this Steve Nunnink guy? He’s applied for a job down here,” Stevenson said. “I told Ron I had Steve as my freshman coach. I said he was a good guy, and Ron said, “I don’t care if he’s a good guy. Can he coach football?’ And I said, ‘Guess what? He’s a good guy who can coach football,’ and they got together.”
Shortly after Stolski and Nunnink came to Brainerd, they invited Stevenson to join their staff.
“I swung through town to say hi and the next thing I know I was here,” Stevenson said. “Steve’s an incredible man, there’s no doubt about that. He’s a heck of a coach and just a great human being. Pretty much whoever gets to know Steve knows that about him. He has a tremendous capacity to give.
“Randi’s an incredible wife, to hold it together as long as she has. Our community is so lucky to have those kind of people.”
Parsons has known Nunnink since his freshman year at Park Center. He later played at St. Cloud State and after graduating he communicated with Stolski, who asked him to consider student teaching in Brainerd and helping with Warrior football.
“I hadn’t thought about it, but when I started thinking about it, what an opportunity, not only to play for them, but to coach with them,” Parsons, said. “Ron mentioned that I would be working with the defense so I would have the opportunity to work directly with Steve and I jumped at the chance. I enjoyed every minute of it.
“I couldn’t have been associated with a better mentor, in coaching and in life. The way Steve treats people hasn’t changed. One thing I discovered was he was treating kids in Brainerd the same way he treated us at Park Center.”
Nunnink is one of the reasons BHS’ football and strength programs are as highly respected as they are today.
“Even though he hasn’t been with us for about 10 years his philosophies, principles and ethics still live on in the program,” Parsons said. “We miss him a lot.”
Parsons said Nunnink helped all Warrior athletic programs, not just football. In 1975, Nunnink introduced the MPPO concept in Brainerd. MPPO is a measure of a lifter’s overall strength in relation to body size.
“Steve always encouraged kids to be multisport athletes,” Parsons said. “He was a believer in strength for everyone, no matter what sport. He embraced kids in every sport. The weight room wasn’t for football only. If you wanted to be a better volleyball player Steve would show you how.”
Parsons said one of the best ways to measure Nunnink’s impact in Brainerd was the number of people who attended a fundraiser for the former coach in 2003.
“A lot of the same faces of kids I started with here in Brainerd were there, and others who played for Brainerd before I came,” Parsons said. “Even kids from the Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park areas came. I thought that was really a testament to the kind of guy Steve is.”
Nunnink may be remembered for coaching football, his strength and conditioning work and for teaching science. But he had an another admirable trait.
“He always found a way to balance his time between his profession and his family,” Parsons said. “Family was No. 1, and his work always took a back seat, but he did put a lot of time and energy into his job. He just wanted to make sure he was doing things the right way. I think the other coaches and kids fed off of that.”
Saturday night, those at the DoubleTree will learn about the Steve Nunnink we in Brainerd have cherished for decades.