By Matt Kane, Sports Editor
COKATO A long-standing tradition will come to an end when the final whistle blows on the Dassel-Cokato Chargers’ football season this fall.
“All good things have to come to an end sometime,” said Steve Aho, a former Chargers player.
“It will be a shock knowing it’s over,” said Seth Aho, a receiver on the current Chargers’ roster.
The tradition being talked about by the two Ahos started with Steve back in 1989 and will end with Seth this fall.
The two Ahos are brothers, and they have 10 other brothers. Combined, the 12 Aho boys from Cokato have put together a streak of 24-straight seasons where an Aho has played varsity football at Dassel-Cokato High School.
“The boys have been a big part of DC Chargers football,” said Steve, referring to he and his brothers.
Steve, who at 38 is the oldest, and Seth, 18, the youngest, represent the bookends of that streak.
“It’s kind of crazy with it being that long,” said Seth. “People remember Ahos from a while ago, but they don’t realize it was my brother.”
In all 24 seasons, coinciding with an Aho in uniform on the field, was the presence of Tom and Karen Aho, the boys’ parents, in the grandstands at most of the games.
Karen always jokes about her family having its own football team.
“We had a football team, a coach, and three cheerleaders,” Karen said. “I’m the mom.”
Former DC football coach Jeff Neutzling would have loved to have that lineup on his team at one time.
“It would have been nice to have a whole team of them,” said Neutzling, who coached four of the boys Steve, James, Carl and Bill during his tenure with the Chargers, both as a head coach and an assistant. “They were just a pleasure to coach; always listened, and were great to work with.”
The cheerleaders Karen spoke of are the three Aho daughters, who were sprinkled into the mess of boys. They are Lorna, Melissa and Erin.
“The girls were spaced so far apart, it worked,” Karen said of the streak not being interrupted by the birth of a daughter. “I didn’t think about how rare it is. I just thought it was neat we had enough boys for this to work.
“My boys all enjoyed football, and I enjoy football. It gives me a warm feeling inside.”
Tom, who was a defensive end at Cokato High School until he graduated in 1963, said the boys were given an ultimatum when the family moved to town in Cokato following a fire that destroyed their farmhouse in 1992: “Work or play.”
“I didn’t push one specific sport; we just kind of told them once we moved off the farm in 1992, if they weren’t going to participate in a school activity, they had to work. I didn’t want them just hanging out around town,” Tom said.
The boys chose football. Any pressure to play the sport came from siblings, not the parents.
“I’m sure there got to be some peer pressure when the group went on,” Tom said. “But everyone really looked forward to football.”
In 11 of the 24 seasons of the Aho tradition at DC, two of the Aho brothers were teammates with the Chargers.
The line of Aho children, which does not include any twins, began with a gender push, with the births of Steve and then oldest daughter, Lorna, but then the Y-chromosomes dominated for a few years. The next eight children were all boys James, Carl, Billy, Nate, Joel, Ben, Todd and Doug before second daughter, Melissa, broke the string. After Melissa, came the final three boys Josh, Brian and Seth. Third daughter, Erin, was the 15th and final child.
This lineup wasn’t what Tom was expecting.
“My husband told me, when we started having kids, we would have lots of girls,” Karen said.
That’s because Tom grew up with seven sisters. When he and Karen started a family back in 1974, he was just hoping he would get some free labor.
“At the time we got married, we were milking cows, so I was hoping for some help,” Tom said.
The Aho girls may not have been football players, but they were active, as well. Lorna was in track and gymnastics; Melissa played volleyball and was in FFA; and Erin is a swimmer and basketball player.
Erin is currently a sophomore at DC. The idea to put her in shoulder pads and a helmet has already been thrown around.
“We’ve been teasing Erin that she needs to take up kicking to keep the tradition moving on,” said Steve, jokingly.
“The boys were trying to teach her (how to kick), but she is our swimmer,” Karen said.
Current Chargers head coach Ryan Weinandt wishes the Aho tradition would continue.
“I think it is an amazing streak and I’m guessing the longest of its kind anywhere,” said Weinandt, who coached Doug, Josh, Brian and Seth. “ I just wish it would continue longer; they’ve been great players for us.”
But Erin will undoubtedly stay in the pool next fall, so the Aho streak will come to an end with Seth. That, Seth says, comes with some pressure.
“I feel a lot of pressure to do well. All the brothers are watching,” he said.
The irony of Seth’s comment that his brothers are watching is that two of those brothers Steve and James were already finished with their high-school football careers by the time Seth was born in 1994.
“The oldest one I remember is Todd. Maybe Joel and Ben,” said Seth, who played one season with Brian, a linebacker. “I was very young when Joel and Ben played.”
Seth admits he looked up to Josh, who graduated in 2008, the most when it came to football. Seth wears jersey No. 3, just like Josh, and two other brothers Carl and Brian did.
(The other jersey numbers worn by Ahos in the 24 years were No. 13 Steve, Joel and Todd; No. 41 Billy and Brian, and also Tom, at Cokato High School; No. 36 James; and No. 61 Nate.)
Seth, who also plays basketball and runs track, appreciates the love of football that was passed on to him by his brothers.
“I really like that they brought me into all the sports, especially football. They helped me grow a love for the game,” he said.
That love for football started with Tom, who grew up as one of 10 children in Cokato, and was passed on to each and every one of his and Karen’s 15 children.
“Everything we do, there is a football being tossed around, or football is on at the house,” said Seth. “We go to the state tournament every year, watching nine-man and all other levels to the very end.”
“They played a lot of pickup football in the yard,” said Karen, who grew up as one of six siblings in East Bethel.
The boys have played a variety of other sports during the winter and spring seasons, but fall is for football.
“We all grew up playing at home, listening to games on the radio with the Vikings and Gophers, and playing DC Charger football. I vividly remember as a little kid coming out here and watching these guys and being in awe,” Steve said. “I was the first one to go through it, and, since then, this is the one thing that every one of the boys has done. We’ve scattered after football. We’ve had wrestlers, swimmers, basketball players, baseball players, track stars. People have gone all over, but football has been the one constant.”
Five of the Aho boys at least tasted football in college.
The love for football was instilled in the three Aho girls, as well.
“Our girls really enjoy the football games,” said Karen, who has worked at the Cokato Dairy Queen for 30 years. “We always took babies-on-up to all the football games.”
The entire Aho family, including some from out of the state, was back together in Cokato Sept. 28 for the Chargers’ 21-14 homecoming win over New London-Spicer. They all posed for a photo prior to the game, with the 12 boys wearing their football jerseys.
“When mom said she wanted us all to come home for one more game, we said, ‘Absolutely,’” said Steve, who lives with his family in Houghton, MI. “This is a special thing, and it means a lot to her, and I’m glad we had the opportunity to do it.”
After the Hutchinson game, the postgame affair was back at the Aho’s five-bedroom home a house that, at its busiest, was the home to Tom and Karen and 12 kids just as it has always been.
“The tradition after football games is that our family comes over and we make pizzas and talk about the game,” said Karen. “This time, the boys gathered around the fire and talked and talked and talked. We were out there until 1 a.m.”
With those talks, the natural testosterone-induced competitive nature often comes out in the boys, according to Karen.
“There is a lot of football talk, and reminiscing about football things,” she said. “They were always trying to outdo each other when they were playing out there on the field.”
Nearing the end
As each year passes, though, those football talks around the bonfire at the Aho home occur less frequently. They may never stop completely, but the conversations might change a little after the final football son, Seth, plays his final game.
“That will probably be hard for me,” Karen answered, when asked about her thoughts of the streak ending. “I love watching my boys out there. It brings tears to my eyes when I think about that. When this season is done, I will probably feel it.”
Tom echoed his wife’s thoughts.
“It’s going to be interesting at the end of the year, for sure,” he said. “There has always been one coming up. As it goes, it probably won’t hit home until next fall.”
The Aho name was slated to remain on the Chargers’ football roster for two more seasons after Seth graduated, but that changed when James moved his family north to Virginia. James’ son and the grandson of Tom and Karen, Jordan Aho, is a sophomore football player.
Tom and Karen Aho will no longer have a son on the DC football roster to cheer for come next season, but one can bet they will still be in the crowd.
“I guarantee my mom and dad will still go to a few games,” Steve said. “My dad is one who will drive a couple hours to watch a game where he doesn’t even know who is playing. He loves it.”
Actually, Tom and Karen are far from the end of their cheering days. While the tradition of having an Aho son on the football field will end this fall, Erin will be active until she graduates in 2015. And then there are the grandchildren. Forty-seven grandchildren, to be specific, with three on the way.