Thank you for reading Football Across Minnesota (FAM), my weekly column that tours football topics in our state from preps to pros. You can find all the previous FAM columns right here. — Chip
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The idea for a weekly football-centric column sprouted from an impromptu brainstorming session in the summer.
Sports editor Chris Carr and I started discussing topics for stories and columns as training camp approached. Carr noted that since joining the Star Tribune two decades ago, I had been a football beat writer for high schools, the Gophers and the Vikings, and that I still spend considerable time each fall watching and writing about all levels of football.
Wonder if there is a way to combine all things football into something new, he asked.
Yeah, maybe a regular column about Minnesota football, preps to pros, I said.
Thus, "Football Across Minnesota" — FAM — became a weekly undertaking designed to uncover and highlight happenings in Minnesota's football community beyond the Vikings and Gophers, though those two teams most assuredly had to be included.
I loved this assignment.
And Minnesota delivered.
This is the 14th and final installment of FAM for the 2021 season, and what a rewarding experience this has been for me, personally and professionally, in getting to chronicle so many wonderful stories.
Stories about overcoming adversity. Stories about near-death experiences and heroic actions by individuals to save a stranger's life. Stories of triumph and disappointment. Stories of kindness and good deeds, reminders that a cynical world offers those kinds of stories, too, if we look for them.
And football stories. Lots of cool football stories. Exhibit A: The coach of state champion Lakeville South is an Air Force veteran who learned the intricacies of his team's throwback Power T offense at a secretive meeting with a "cult" of Power T coaches at an American Legion post in Traverse City, Mich.
That is pure gold.
FAM debuted with the story of Grand Rapids quarterback Andy Thomsen, who fractured his C6 vertebrae in the lower neck/shoulders area on a tackle in a preseason scrimmage.
Fearing that further damage could lead to paralysis, doctors arranged for Thomsen to be flown by medical jet to the Twin Cities for spinal fusion surgery. Doctors told the family that Thomsen is expected to make a full recovery.
Update: Thomsen had his halo brace removed in November and now is wearing a neck brace. He has a checkup in the Twin Cities on Wednesday to learn the plan for easing out of that brace.
"Everything is good," Thomsen said of his recovery.
As for the support he received from the Grand Rapids community and throughout the state, Thomsen is grateful. "It's been awesome," he said.
Grateful is how Hutchinson resident Bruce McElmury, a 66-year-old Army veteran, feels after being revived on the sideline at a September game.
Hutchinson athletic trainer Amy Rogotzke was standing a few feet away when McElmury experienced a medical emergency during the national anthem and became unresponsive.
When she couldn't find a pulse, Rogotzke alerted team doctors Mark Stuckey and Scott Staples, who were nearby on the sideline.
The three began CPR on McElmury, who did not have a pulse for nearly three minutes.
Update: The American Legion awarded Rogotzke with a Medal of Honor before Hutchinson's homecoming game. McElmury was there to place the medal around her neck.
McElmury underwent a heart procedure on Dec. 1 and is recovering. His family and Rogotzke's family recently shared a meal together. They will be connected forever.
Writing FAM has taught me how much I don't know about football. That realization hit while observing a day-after video session with the Minnesota State Mavericks.
Football coaches and players often answer questions with a shrug and a "I've got to watch film" reply with asked about specifics. I asked Mavericks coach Todd Hoffner if I could see what that process looks like, a peek behind the curtain.
The film session was eye-opening. Hoffner's coaches and players dissected and scrutinized every single aspect of every play from their game the previous day. Nothing went overlooked. Some of the corrections were so minor that I didn't notice anything wrong. Coaches corrected mistakes on touchdown plays, and they also offered praise to players for perfectly handling situations or techniques.
The film session was a reminder of just how complex this sport can be.
One of FAM's primary objectives was to unearth human interest stories, to shine a light on the names and faces and stories of the person under the helmet or coaching on the sideline.
Bethel quarterback Jaran Roste is one of the most impressive college athletes I have ever met, which has nothing to do with his football talent, though he's terrific in that regard, too.
Roste worked 60 hours a week this semester as a full-time university employee — along with being a student and athlete — as a supervisor in a program for Bethel students with intellectual disabilities.
Students in the program learn independent living skills, and they adore Roste, who showers them with love and attention. Roste led Bethel to the Division III playoffs this season, but his work off the field is far more impactful.
KiJuan Ware's dream is to become a Division I head coach, and on that path he has been to 11 colleges in 10 different states in 20 years as an assistant coach. Ware served as Macalester's interim head coach this season, only the second Black football coach in Macalester's history. "It's been a journey," Ware told me.
Minnesota State linebacker Eli Thomas was surprised to learn in late October that he had been nominated for a national award that honors courage. Thomas transferred to Mankato seeking one final chance to play football after suffering a stroke and three ACL surgeries on the same knee at previous schools.
As the 25-year-old New York native and father of two young kids sat on a bench outside the locker room, he reflected on all that he overcame to get back on the field one last time.
His story, and many others, reinforced why FAM became so enjoyable to the author: There are so many great stories out there. It's our job and responsibility to go find them.
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- Prep undefeateds: Three Minnesota high school teams went undefeated in winning state championships: Dassel-Cokato (3A), Mankato West (5A), Lakeville South (6A)
- Joe Rossi: Gophers defensive coordinator received a well-deserved extension and raise after overseeing a unit that finished No. 4 nationally in total defense and No. 9 in scoring defense.
- Justin Jefferson: The Vikings' second-year wide receiver is putting up historic numbers to become one of the league's best young stars.
- Fans: Watching football in empty stadiums last season was eerie. Hearing that noise again this season made everything feel right. I saw packed high school stadiums on Friday nights. The Gophers student section had its best season since moving into the on-campus stadium. And U.S. Bank Stadium gave me a pounding headache again.
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Numbers to know
- 138: Combined passing attempts for the entire season by three teams that won Prep Bowl titles: Dassel-Cokato, Hutchinson and Lakeville South.
- 7: Wins for St. Thomas in its first season in the Division I Pioneer League.
- 7: NSIC players who were voted Division II All-American by the American Football Coaches Association.
- 25: MIAC players honored on the Division III All-Region teams, a record for the conference.
- 38: Career starts by Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan, who is returning for another season along with his top two playmakers, running back Mohamed Ibrahim and wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell.
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He said what?!
"OK, another fun night." — Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, sarcastically, after another roller-coaster performance by his team in a 36-28 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, a Thursday night game that showcased the best and worst versions of a squad that specializes in producing crazy finishes.
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A FAM FINAL WORD
There is no other way to end FAM's rookie season than with a word of gratitude. A heartfelt thank you to those who granted me special access and allowed me to share their personal stories, especially those who were dealing with health issues. I was blown away by the resilience I witnessed week to week.
I also want to say thank you to everyone who made FAM a weekly read and responded with kind words through e-mail or Twitter. The reception supported our belief that there would be an appetite and audience for this new endeavor.
I had an absolute blast getting FAM started and can't wait to continue it.
See you next season!