By Dan Ninham
Brad Croaker, 45, (Leech Lake Ojibwe) lives in Cass Lake, MN with his family including his partner Lori and five children: Bradley, Jennalee, Rasean, Brody and Devante. He is the program manager for Leech Lake Sports Management.
Croaker had a 134 won and 12 loss amateur record. He was a three-time National Silver Gloves Champion, three-time National Junior Olympic Champion and eight-time National Indian Champion. He earned multiple regional, state and 4-state championships.
Croaker was the 1992 National Junior Olympic runner-up. He said, “I spent eight days at the USA Olympic Training Center in Denver, Colorado training with Olympic coaching staff.”
He was the 1993 North American Indigenous Games 156lb champion, 1993 Upper Midwest 156lb and 1994 and 1995 165lb 4-state champion. He was also the 1995 165lb National Golden Glove runner up and was ranked second in the nation.
“I did a lot of traveling when I was young through boxing for Leech Lake, then when I graduated high school I started traveling and playing softball with the MN Chipps and basketball with the Cass Lake Anishinaabe.”
“Sports has allowed me to see and travel the world and it has opened many doors for me in my life,” said Croaker. “It’s allowed me to meet new people, new religions, new places and faces.”
“Sports opened my eyes to the importance of living a healthy life-style. My native heritage, being a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, has always played a role in how I carried myself throughout life in and out of the ring.”
“My first mentors were Wanda Faye Headbird and William Leland Croaker,” said Croaker. “RIP to my father who passed December 4, 2021. My father was with me throughout my boxing career and in my corner for every match. I learned so much from him in and out of the ring.
“With this nomination for the North American Indigenous Athletics Hall of Fame (NAIAHF) for my boxing accomplishments, I would like to dedicate this to my father William and to my mother Wanda for always believing in me and pushing me to be the best I could be in all sports and in life.”
“From the very young age of 8 years old, Brad was the breed to be a champion,” said mom Wanda Headbird. “Brad’s father Bill was heavily involved in boxing even into his young adulthood. After Bill hung up his gloves, he coached all three of his sons throughout their pro and amateur careers. Both of his older brothers boxed for the reservation under the experienced and watchful eye of their dad.”
“Brad’s family traveled from reservation to reservation with the LL Boxing club. Brad has represented the Leech Lake Boxing Club in tournaments all over the country,” added Headbird.
Older brother Archie LaRose talked about his brother being a part of a family of elite boxers. He said, “Brad started boxing when he was around 10 years old. He won state titles. When he turned 16 he was a Golden Gloves boxer.” LaRose was the 1985 National Silver Gloves champion as well as champion of numerous state and national Indian tournaments.
LaRose said there are four Leech Lake boxers that won the Upper Midwest Golden Gloves Championship including Brad Croaker, Cedric Littlewolf, Tim Lindgren Jr., and Nate Rubin.
“Brad was gifted in boxing having the height, reach, speed and power. After the end of my boxing career, I jumped in to tribal politics becoming a tribal leader for 18 years. The values myself and Brad learned from boxing being an individual sport was discipline, courage and motivation,” added LaRose.
Croaker said, “Mr. Henry Harper gave so many youth and adults the opportunity to learn, to compete, to play and participate in sports in various stages throughout my life. He always was a man that pushed me in all sports be it in boxing, basketball, or softball, he always said to me, ‘kid that’s not your best, I know you can do better.’ No matter if it was a win or a loss he taught me to learn from it, and change the things I needed to change.
“I have had many mentors in boxing that included many who are no longer with us. Eugene (Ribs) Whitebird, Sid Jones, Peter Paquette, Bill (Rink) Sargent and Ervin Sargent. Also many teammates that helped me achieve my goals in sports.
“For many years Leech Lake had what was considered the best boxing team in the state of Minnesota with many boxers from our small community. And I would like to thank all my teammates, friends and mentors for helping me achieve this high honor of being nominated for the NAIAHF.
“I had five professional boxing matches and finished with a 4-0-1 record with the 1 being a draw. I was 28 when I first boxed professionally and finished my career when I turned 33. I had many injuries in between sports which would not allow me to box anymore.”
Byron Wilson, (Leech Ojibwe) is the current head coach of the Leech Lake Boxing Club. Wilson is also a Level 2 USA Boxing official. He talked about the influence of Brad Croaker to others: “Brad was very influential to other boxers. I’ve known Brad since we were very young watching him at events and we would travel to and from Minneapolis. I boxed for Curtis Buckanaga back then and I’m a year younger than Brad but I’d always wanna check his bouts out. Most definitely he was fast and had the best footwork I’ve seen for somebody our age.”
“As we got to be 13 or 14 his level of competition was rising fast. He was much taller and just had natural talent. I could tell he had taught himself how to move that way and do certain things and I wanted that as well. Many times a group of us boys from different reservations would watch him and just be in awe of his abilities.”
The legacy of an international level boxer from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is continuing to climb. “Now I’m working to bring more sports back to Leech Lake for our youth to be in it,” said a soon-to-be named North American Indigenous Athletics Hall of Fame inductee.