HELENA — Legendary Montana sports figure Don Wetzel Sr., known affectionately as “Soaring Eagle,” died Tuesday in Helena. He was 74.
Wetzel, a member of Blackfeet Nation, was the first Montana Native American to graduate from an NCAA Division I school while playing four years of basketball. He also co-founded the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame.
Wetzel was born Aug. 1, 1948, on the Blackfeet Reservation.
He was a multi-sport athlete at Cut Bank High School, participating in baseball, football and track and field, where he won the 1966 high jump and low hurdles state championships. But it was basketball that stole his heart. He tells the tale of building a basket in shop class, with the rim barely able to comfortably fit a softball. Wetzel perfected his shooting with that rubber ball and small hoop in an old grainery and it paid off.
Cut Bank captured the 1966 state championship during Wetzel’s junior season, a 60-46 win over Chester. The following year Wetzel earned first-team All-America honors. He scored 1,787 career points, despite not becoming a starter until the district tournament his freshman season. Wetzel averaged 15 points per game in that tournament.
“I would go feed the cows and come back and play that basketball. And I loved it. I’d go out and the big basket be just ice cold and shoot. So I shot all the time. I broke into gyms. The cops knew I was breaking in there, but I was a gym rat,” Weztel Sr. told MTN Sports in 2018. “I had to get some place. I found a way in there, and they would just let me play. I’d run up and down that court. My God, I don’t know how many times. They said John Havlicek run around the world seven times. I think I beat him.”
After earning all-state honors three times, Wetzel continued his playing days with the Montana Grizzlies and was named the MVP his senior season.
Wetzel returned to the Hi-Line in 1972 and coached basketball and cross country at Browning High School. He guided the Runnin’ Indians to seven straight cross country titles from 1972-80 and led the boys basketball team to a 68-63 win over Lewistown in the 1980 Class A state championship.
After leaving Browning, Wetzel coached numerous high-level teams across Montana and received his master’s degree in education in 1981. He was inducted into the Montana High School Association Hall of Fame in 2002 and created the Montana Indian Athletic Hall of Fame a few years later. He, along with his son Donny, continue to recognize the top Native American athletes in Montana’s history. Wetzel was inducted into the Indian Athletic Hall of Fame in 2011.
Wetzel’s father, Walter “Blackie” Wetzel, designed and supplied the logo for the NFL’s Washington Redskins. It depicted John “Two Guns” Whitecalf, a Blackfeet chief whose likeness appeared on the Buffalo nickel.
When the franchise re-named it’s team the Commanders, Wetzel Sr. made it his mission to return to the logo to the Blackfeet reservation to use as the image for a non-profit and shelter for victims of abuse and raise awareness for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) epidemic.
According to Don’s son Donnie Jr., the Wetzel family will plan a funeral service in Helena and a potential tribute on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning.