Pine City brothers make horseshoe history

Eric and Nathan Dehkes share a moment of triumph during their state championship match.

Two Pine City brothers made Minnesota horseshoe history this summer.

Eric and Nathan Dehkes took first and second place at the Minnesota Men’s State Horseshoe Tournament in Hibbing on Labor Day weekend.

“That was, in my opinion, the most awesome thing I have ever seen, with two brothers playing for the championship,” said Minnesota Gopher State Horseshoe Pitchers Association President Rick Wright. “Both of them are very good pitchers. And the thing about those two guys, both of them have the best attitudes ... what you want to see in all horseshoe players.”

It was the first time that two brothers had ever pitched against each other for the championship. And what’s more, it was the first time in exactly 100 years that their unusual multi-flip style of throwing horseshoes was used to win the state tourney.

Wright was talking to one of the competitors who fell to the Dehkes on their way to the championship.

“He goes, ‘I got beat by a flipper.’ I said, ‘No you didn’t. You got beat by a flipper, flipper, flipper, flipper, flipper.’”

Brothers battle

“The funnest and toughest person I’ve ever had to pitch against was my brother,” Eric Dehkes said. “I will never, ever be able to re-create that again. I was so nervous. My brother was nervous. I wanted to win so bad.”

This was Eric’s fifth year competing in the state tournament. His first year he didn’t place in the top five. Then, in consecutive years, he got fourth, third and second. To get to the 2019 championship match, Eric had to beat three other former Minnesota state champions.

It was something the two brothers – big brother Eric and youngest brother Nathan – had talked about before. What if it came down to the two of them for the state championship?

Finally, there they were, with 100 people watching and more viewing it ivestreamed through the internet – including their parents, Wayne and Rose.

And it was close, right through to a finish that could have gone either way.

“I think it took like 64 throws to determine,” Eric said.  “We played to 40 points, so it was about a 45 minute to an hour game that we sat and threw back and forth. And it was dead silent in there.

“My knees were shaking, my hands were sweaty, my fingers were shaking,” he said. “Finally, I got him.”

Flipping history

According to the Hibbing Daily Tribune, the Dehkes’ flip pitching style has not been used to win a tournament since 1919.

“There are two kinds of throwers – a turning style shoe, it’s kind of turning like a frisbee in the air,” Eric explained. “And then there’s the one-flip. You hold your hand underneath the horseshoe and it just does the one flip. That’s 99% of the horseshoe pitchers in the entire world, that’s how they pitch. So if you look at my brother and I, and the way our dad taught us ... it’s a very unorthodox way of pitching. We hold the shoe on the top and we flip it four or five times.”

“The first time I saw him do it, I’m going, ‘How in the heck do you do that?’” Wright said. “He holds it backwards. The horseshoe is in his hand but it is rolled over so when he lets it go, I mean...I don’t know. But boy I tell you what, nine times out of 10 the doggone thing goes on. I don’t know how he does it.”

“They can’t figure out how we can hold the averages we hold,” Eric said. “They just don’t get it. To me, it’s simple logic. The shoe is either open or it’s closed. Well, 99% of the time, my shoe comes in and it’s open.”

That style of throwing is how everyone in the Dehkes family pitches horseshoes (several of whom also did well in the state tournament) and it all came down from the lessons of their father Wayne.

“He kind of developed it himself, I believe,” Eric said. “I never really asked him that.”

Family tradition

“Well, I started shooting when I was ... about 7 to 8 years old,” said Wayne Dehkes. “That would be about 1955.”

Wayne’s own father pitched horseshoes, but not competitively. And he also pitched using the standard turning style.  The flip was Wayne’s own innovation.

“When I was small, it just seemed like it was easier flipping it than it was that reverse turn,” Wayne said. “I just kept shooting that way, with the flip, and the kids just kept up with me. They were 8, 9, 10 years old when they started. They stuck up with that way and that is how they kept playing. They came out pretty doggone good.”

Wayne has been dealing with health issues (“I’m still kicking, but not too high,” he joked),  and no longer competes in horseshoes. But he and Rose love watching their kids and grandkids pitch.

“It has really been a fun deal for us, cheering them on,” Wayne said. “To me it doesn’t make any difference if they win or lose. You want to see them win and stuff but it is just like anything else – you do things together. That’s really the big thing.”

Support the sport

Eric will heading to the 2020 world championship in Louisiana, but his passion for the sport of horseshoes goes well beyond competing.  He is vice-president of the Minnesota Gopher State Horseshoe Pitchers Association, and has been working with Pine City Summer Rec to try to get young athletes interested in horseshoes.

“I’m trying to promote the sport the best way I know how,” Eric said. “That’s what I’m trying to show to youth here – there’s a lot better things to be doing than video games and sitting inside.”

He’s also part of another longstanding horseshoe tradition in Pine City. For the past 35 years, on 10 Monday nights at the Pine City beach, 16 teams face off in friendly – but intense – summer competition.

“That’s what got me into [competing],” Eric said. “It took me about six years to get into that about 20 years ago. And now I’m running it.”

The best part of the sport? Coming up with that answer is easy.

“The camaraderie,” Eric said. “There’s no money to be made. It’s the horseshoe family. I love the sport. I love the people. The people you meet are great. Everybody’s playing to win, but it’s just the people I enjoy.”

He noted that, after coming in first and second in the state, he and Nathan recently pitched doubles together against a duo from Askov – and lost.

“It’s a very humbling sport,” Eric said, chuckling.

The family tradition of pitching horseshoes is being built on and expanded in the next generation.

“It’s really neat that we have a couple of kids that are getting involved with it now,” Eric said. “My mom pitched, my dad pitched, my daughter, my son. It’s a pretty big family thing. And now we’ve got lots of friends involved in Pine City that pitch with us.

Of all their memories of the sport, one that neither he nor Nathan will ever forget is coming back to Pine City just after winning the state championship.

“We got home about 5 o’clock, my dad was just ecstatic on how well my brother and I did,” Eric said. “And he is not a gentleman, you know, to say ‘Good job.’ He is not that type of guy. But he did. He finally said, ‘You guys did good.’ And I said, ‘Dad you did good. You taught us this way.’”

Wayne may not often praise them to their faces, but his happiness shines through when he talks about what his children have accomplished.

“They do well,” Wayne said. “The wife and I are really proud of them. I am really proud of them.”

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