'He was always there': Legendary Moorhead sports figure 'Pebbles' Gravalin passes away
Longtime Spuds equipment manager remembered for his loyalty, fun-loving nature
FARGO — A legendary sports figure in Moorhead with a legendary nickname, Al “Pebbles” Gravalin, died in his sleep overnight, leaving a legacy that will never be forgotten to those who knew him.
Fans didn’t even have to know him, to know him.
“He was always there,” said Larry Knutson, longtime friend and radio announcer.
A lasting image for Knutson came in the 1987 state football championship game, a video that showed Pebbles standing on the Metrodome artificial turf looking up at the horde of Spud fans.
“He was giving them a thumbs up, as if to say we did it,” Knutson said. “That was the gist of what he was trying to say. We did it.”
Moorhead head coach Dan Kostich gave him the role of special teams coach. It was Pebbles who delivered the championship trophy to the Sunday welcome home celebration. The Spuds were the last outstate team to win the biggest class of Minnesota high school football.
“The rough side that you saw, he always had a soft spot for kids,” Kostich said. “Kids were No. 1 in his life. He did anything for them, especially the ones that didn’t have the best upbringing and maybe didn’t have all the bells and whistles that other kids had. He bled orange and black with all athletics.”
Gravalin was 76 years old.
Knutson said he doesn’t remember Pebbles ever missing a game, a loyal Moorhead alum who gave back to his alma mater. He was an all-state offensive lineman for the 1964 Spuds football team.
“It’s hard to get to know me,” he told The Forum in a 2010 story. “Let’s just say I have a very gruff exterior, but deep down, I am a big pussycat.”
Gravalin retired in 2000 after suffering a heart attack. He never retired from following the Spuds, however.
He was the equipment manager at Moorhead High for 20 years and head scorer at Spud basketball and hockey games. He was the head groundskeeper for the baseball program. At Concordia, he was “assistant football equipment strategist.” He also volunteered with the Minnesota State Moorhead athletic department.
He knew how to catch a walleye having the reputation as one of the best fishermen around.
He also knew how to play a prank, never shy to pull something over on a coach.
“He was a great friend, with a lot of great stories and a lot of great times,” Kostich said. “He enjoyed athletics. He enjoyed life. He was a character and he loved playing pranks on people. He was the recipient of many that he gave out. He kept life interesting.”
Perhaps one of the most interesting moments of his life was the day former Spuds standout Matt Cullen brought the Stanley Cup to Moorhead after being on the Carolina Hurricanes team that won it in 2006.
Cullen says he remembers that day like it was yesterday.
“I was happy I was able to share it with him, he was like a proud parent,” Cullen said.
Like other sports, Gravalin did a little of everything with the Spud hockey program. He handled the equipment and worked the penalty box during home games. Suffice to say, any Moorhead player who took an ill-advised penalty was susceptible to a comment or two from Pebbles.
“He was there to let you know,” Cullen said with a laugh. “He had that spark. It’s hard to describe — an unbelievable wit, super funny, intelligent, he could find a way to give you a hard time and keep you on your toes. He had a different way to show everybody that he cared. You just knew he loved you.”
Cullen said when his father, Terry Cullen, was the head hockey coach at Moorhead, Gravalin gave Terry “words of wisdom” that meant a lot to him.
“He made everybody feel part of the group,” Matt Cullen said.
That was true at Concordia, too, where he developed a special bond with Cobber baseball coach and head equipment manager Bucky Burgau. For instance, on Thursdays before home football games, the two would meet at Jake Christiansen Stadium at 11 a.m. and paint the field lines.
After Pebbles retired from Moorhead High, Concordia hired him part-time, mainly to help when Burgau had duties as the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks assistant coach.
"I trusted him so much, our football staff did too, because he knew the business," Burgau said. "If a helmet needed fixing, he could fix it. He knew the business of running an equipment room."
And, of course, that included monkey business. Pebbles made sure to let Burgau know he was an MSUM alum.
"He had a great sense of humor with our football guys," Burgau said, "but he was tough, too. If somebody goofed off, he in a good way let them know that wasn't acceptable."