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Perham grad and Canadian Football Hall-of-Famer, Melvin 'Fritz' Hanson, remembered in new book

Hanson was born and raised in Perham, where he honed the athletic skills that drove his career. Ryan Christiansen, an author and professor at North Dakota State University, wrote "Border Boys" to honor Hanson and the handful of other American football players who went on to play professionally in Canada, transforming the way the sport was played.

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Fritz Hanson, a Perham native and famous Canadian football player, sprints across the field with a football in his hand.
Contributed / Winnipeg Blue Bombers / Perham Focus
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PERHAM—Despite being a household name in Canada, few people in the U.S. have heard of Perham native Melvin "Fritz" Hanson.

A new book, released last month, aims to change that.

A 1930s and '40s-era football player for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Calgary Stampeders, Hanson helped to transform football in Canada. In 1963, he was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

He got his start, of course, in Perham, where he was a running back for the Perham High School football team. Nicknamed "Twinkle Toes" and the "Perham Flash," he was a fast player — and a big deal in his small hometown.

Still, outside of a few local circles of athletes and historians, Hanson's name doesn't come up much today.

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Even massive football fan Ryan Christiansen, an English professor at North Dakota State University, Hanson's college football alma mater, had never heard of Hanson. That is, until 2018, when he attended a Winnipeg Blue Bombers football game.

"I had decided that because Winnipeg was just as far from Fargo as Minneapolis, I could be more than a Minnesota Vikings fan," Christiansen explained. "I decided to be a Winnipeg Blue Bombers fan, too."

At one of the Blue Bombers games he attended, Christansen heard the team posthumously induct a player into their Ring of Honour — an NDSU graduate named Melvin "Fritz" Hanson, a Canadian Football Hall-of-Famer.

"I said, 'Why haven't I heard about this guy?'" Christiansen laughed.

And so, when he returned to his home in Fargo, he started doing some research.

So much research, in fact — reading through 2,300 different sources of information — that he had compiled enough to put it all into a book. And in January 2022, he published "Border Boys," an account of Hanson and the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.

The book's subtitle is, "How Americans from Border Colleges Helped Western Canada to Win a Football Championship." Hanson's picture is on the cover.

"I kind of felt like I really got to know these guys," Christiansen said of his research process. "I dedicated the book to these guys I wrote about. My dedication says: 'For the boys. We're sorry it took so long to tell your story.'"

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Ryan Christiansen, Fargo professor and the author of "Border Boys," smiles as he holds up a copy of his book.
Contributed / Ryan Christiansen / Perham Focus

Christiansen recently sat down with the Perham Focus to share more about Hanson's story, starting with his formative years in Perham, which began in 1914.

From what Christiansen was able to discover, Hanson began playing football with his brother in their early teen years. Their father, a Perham businessman, didn't want his sons playing football; he wanted them to work in the family business.

The boys, however, were able to come to a compromise with their father. They agreed to practice football only every other day while also continuing to work in the business. Soon after that, Hanson's brother — realizing the extent of Hanson's talent and wanting to see him succeed — made a new agreement with their father: That if his brother could play football full-time, then he would work in the family business full-time. Their father agreed.

With that sacrifice, Hanson's skills on the football field took off.

"He was a big deal in high school," Christiansen said.

Hanson is known to have scored 277 points in eight games, and, while Christiansen was unable to verify it, it's rumored that he once scored 11 touchdowns in one game.

"He was hard to tackle because he was so small," Christiansen said. "He was the type of runner where he would run all over the field. He eluded people like crazy. The blockers, they had to improvise because they didn't know where he was going to go."

In 1930, Hanson went to college at NDSU, where he started on the freshman football team. He quickly progressed over the next few years, playing on the school's varsity team. While he was occasionally out with injuries, he had some spectacular runs along the way.

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His coach, Casey Finnegan, had a very specific strategy for Hanson's games, Christiansen said. Since he was such a fast player, the coach would hold him off until later in the game.

"(Finnegan would) put Fritz in fresh when the other team was tired, and he would just tear up the field," Christiansen said.

After college, Hanson was sought after by the Blue Bombers, and signed on to play with the Canadian team. The coach, Bob Fritz, had played football at Concordia College and saw Hanson's talents for himself during the college's games against NDSU.

So, Hanson, along with several other NDSU football players, made their way up to Winnipeg to begin their professional football careers.

At the time, no Canadian western football team had ever beaten an eastern one, and western provinces really wanted to win the national championship — called the Grey Cup. That year, 1935, with the help of coach Fritz, Hanson, and the others, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers not only beat an eastern team, but won that coveted Grey Cup.

Hanson continued to play for the Blue Bombers through 1946, winning the Grey Cup a few more times — in 1939, 1941 and 1948, after switching teams to the Calgary Stampeders in 1947. He ended his career on a high note, retiring from professional football in 1948 after his fourth Grey Cup win.

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Perham native Fritz Hanson, considered one of the 'greats' of Canadian football, almost never got into athletics at all. His father didn't want football practices getting in the way of his work at the family business. A deal initiated by Hanson's brother, who recognized his brother's athletic talent, got their father to allow Hanson to play football full-time; to strike the deal, Hanson's brother had to agree to work for the family business full-time.
Contributed / Winnipeg Blue Bombers / Perham Focus

During those years of playing football in Canada, it seems Hanson took a liking to the country, Christiansen said, because he continued to live there for the rest of his life. He married a woman named Maxine and had four daughters, and in 1963, he became a Canadian citizen. He died in Alberta in 1996, at the age of 81.

"From what I've been able to gather, he was a shy person," Christiansen said. "He didn't want to take credit for anything… He sort of shied away from attention. He was just an amazing character."

In the same year that he became a Canadian citizen, Hanson was inducted into the very first class of the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

"When they started the Hall of Fame, they decided, 'We definitely need this guy,'" Christiansen laughed, reemphasizing Hanson's major impact on Canadian football. "In Canada, he's a big deal."

After these "border boys" went up to Canada, beat an eastern team and won the Grey Cup, there was a massive shift in Canadian football, Christiansen explained. He wanted to honor that, and bring these influential players to life, in his book.

"I guess I just felt like these guys were forgotten," Christiansen said. "I just knew this story had to be told."

"Border Boys" can be found on American and Canadian Amazon. For more information, visit the book's website at borderboysbook.blogspot.com .

Elizabeth (she/her), 23, graduated with a degree in Journalism and Communications from the University of Wisconsin–Stout in 2020. Elizabeth has always had a passion for telling stories about people and specializes in community features, which she uses for her Perham-centered content.
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