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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HECTOR, MINN. – Deron Johnson was a teenager when Gophers great Darrell Thompson broke off a 98-yard touchdown run against Michigan in 1987. Johnson spent the rest of the afternoon mimicking that run.
He graduated from the Carlson School of Management in 1995 and has held Gophers football season tickets for 21 years. He can recall exactly where he was, the precise location, for memorable plays throughout his life.
Ask him about a game-winning play, a fourth-quarter comeback or a dropped snap on a punt against Wisconsin, and Johnson remembers where he was so precisely it's as if he's looking at GPS coordinates.
He wasn't inside the stadium or on his couch at home.
He was working on the farm, usually driving a combine during fall harvest.
"Some of my best Gophers moments have been out here listening," he said Saturday, as he maneuvered his John Deere combine through corn fields at Johnson Farms.
Listening to games on the radio because the harvest months of September and October make it nearly impossible for farmers to attend home games. Their days are long, the work too important, but their fandom for the Gophers and Vikings doesn't take a hiatus.
Farming and listening to football on fall weekends is a tale as old as time in outstate Minnesota.
"I grew up in the Murray Warmath era and listening to Ray Christensen," said Johnson's dad, Larry, who is 78 and retired but stays involved with the family business. A farmer's work ethic never retires.
Deron is a fifth-generation Johnson farmer in Renville County, dating to 1898 when his grandpa's grandpa purchased a 160-acre plot.
Johnson keeps photos on his phone of his grandfather Frank's six-man football team at Hector High that won the conference championship in 1937. His grandfather died in 2021 at age 100.
"When he was in his late 80s, he was trying to outwork 20-year-olds," Johnson said.
Johnson majored in accounting and finance and had job offers in the Twin Cities, but he returned home after college because he wanted to farm with his dad and grandfather. He raises corn, soybeans and sugar beets. Most of his corn gets shipped to an ethanol plant in Winthrop throughout the year.
Johnson greeted two visitors at his farm Saturday morning wearing a headset. The Gophers pregame show before their game at Illinois had started, and Johnson was preparing for another long day of harvesting by listening to Gophers radio voice Mike Grimm prime fans for kickoff.
Johnson has a passion for football and Gophers football in particular. The shelves in his office are adorned with Gophers helmets, both life-sized and miniature ones, along with replicas of the Pig, Jug and Axe rivalry trophies. He is a human encyclopedia when it comes to the program's history.
"I was combining, and I can remember heading north when Gary Russell broke off that run to set up the game-winning field goal against Michigan in 2005," he said. "I can tell you where I was in the field."
Johnson told his farming crew in 2019 that he was taking a rare Saturday off to attend the Penn State game. It was early November and harvesting wasn't finished, but the Gophers had not played a game of that magnitude in forever.
One problem. There was a propane shortage that year and Johnson ran out of propane so he couldn't dry his corn at his bin site. A cold snap also hit that week, causing a delay in picking corn.
He got word that Thursday night that he could have propane delivered the next day. Johnson knew he couldn't miss a day of work to watch football, so he gave his tickets to friends.
As he listened to the broadcast, a faulty bearing on top of a grain leg required Johnson to climb high up the structure to repair it. He was wearing his headset, the action on campus filling his ears and mind, when Gophers safety Jordan Howden made a game-saving interception in the end zone.
Johnson started screaming and celebrating — 86 feet above the ground.
"There are a ton of Gophers and Vikings fans out in this area," he said. "They just can't get to games."
One Saturday in the field
Timing is everything, in football and in farming. The fall harvest takes place during the heart of the Big Ten portion of the schedule. Johnson tries to make three home games each season, before and after harvest.
His crew picks corn 12 hours each day. Johnson's goal is 100 acres a day. He often runs the dryer until 2 or 3 in the morning. Saturday was another of those long days.
"That's not the start I was hoping for," he says, bending down to get a closer look at his iPad as Illinois scores on the opening drive.
On weekends he listens to the Gophers and Vikings either on his iHeart radio app or livestreams them on the tablet at his bin site while drying corn that arrives via two trucks every hour.
He has a special trick when he's driving the combine in the fields. The sun visor on the window has a clip attached to the bottom that can hold his phone, allowing him to keep an eye on his DirecTV app's livestream as he's making laps in the field.
Spotty reception Saturday forced him to listen to the radio broadcast in the cab. He records games and usually re-watches them later that day, but that probably was not necessary after a 26-14 stinker against Illinois.
Text messages ping his phone while he works, friends and fellow farmers lamenting the Gophers' struggles. He enjoys that communal bond.
"Just because we're not there doesn't mean we're not out here [cheering]," he says as he pushes a button that transfers the corn from the combine into a grain cart riding alongside. "Outstate Minnesota has a lot of fantastic Gopher fans. A lot of us went to the 'U' and are passionate."
Johnson invites a group of nearby farmer fans to join us for a quick lunch during halftime. Jeff Buboltz graduated from the 'U' in 1990. Taylor Broderius earned his degree in agriculture business in 2016 and returned home to join his dad in running the family farm. The group has been listening to the game, too.
Broderius is working 12-hour shifts in the fields harvesting sugar beets right now. Gophers games help pass the time.
"Sometimes when you listen to country music all day you hear the same song four times," he says with a laugh. "I like country music, but it's nice to listen to a sports game."
Lunch break doesn't last long. A long afternoon and evening and night of work remains.
Johnson's yearly goal is to finish harvesting by Halloween. He's going to squeeze in a pause this week.
He turned 50 this year, so he's taking a guys' trip to Happy Valley this weekend for the Gophers-Penn State game. He figures he will have three days left of harvesting when he returns.
After harvest, a football feast awaits. A friend invited Johnson to join him for the Alabama game at LSU in early November. He's looking forward to cajun tailgate food. And he just found out that he scored tickets for the Alabama-Auburn Iron Bowl the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
"Life is about moments," he says.
So many of those special moments in his life have happened right here, driving a combine in a cornfield on an October Saturday with the Gophers game on the radio. He loves these days.
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- Harrison Smith: Vikings safety grabbed an interception in the final minute of the first half that set up a field goal, and then caused a fumble late in the fourth quarter that ended a potentially go-ahead scoring threat.
- Cade Osterman: Elk River quarterback rushed for 265 yards and four TDs on 12 carries and also passed for one touchdown in a win over Alexandria.
- Max McEnelly: Waconia senior rushed for 272 yards and four touchdowns, threw a touchdown pass and collected four tackles in win over St. Louis Park.
- Zollie Kaplan: Bemidji State senior linebacker recorded a career-high three sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss and a pass breakup in a win over MSU Moorhead.
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He said what?!
"To have these conversations after a win is so much more enjoyable than after a loss. Very much the inverse of '21. I would walk off the field after we had lost and say, 'We're playing so well, and somehow, someway we lost, but we're playing at a very high level.' This year I'm saying, 'Gosh, we can play better, but we won.' It's just kind of an inverse, and I'll take this any day." — Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins on being 5-1 despite inconsistent performances.
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Numbers to know
- 2: MIAC quarterbacks ranked Top 15 nationally in Division III in passing yards per game and touchdown passes — Macalester's Michael Nadeau and St. John's Aaron Syverson.
- 86: Plays run by Illinois' offense, more than double the plays for the Gophers (42) and far above Minnesota's season average of 51 defensive snaps per game.
- 19: Sacks and quarterback hits combined for the Vikings defense against Miami.
- 48: Points allowed by undefeated Mankato West in seven games, including three shutouts.
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The Gophers sputtered to 47 rushing yards in a loss to Purdue before the bye, the lowest single-game output in P.J. Fleck's s six seasons in Minnesota. They mustered only 38 yards passing Saturday against Illinois, the lowest output under Fleck. Once the competition on the schedule got tougher, the Gophers offense has fallen flat.
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Grab your popcorn
Minnesota Duluth at Bemidji State, 1 p.m. Saturday. This is for first place in the NSIC North Division. Both teams are 5-2 overall, 3-0 in the division. Two high-scoring offenses could turn this into a fun shootout.
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An important 48 hours for …
Gophers backup quarterbacks Athan Kaliakmanis and Cole Kramer. Fleck said Monday that injured starter Tanner Morgan is feeling "really good" after taking a shot to the head that sent him to a local hospital during Saturday's game. Fleck didn't update Morgan's status beyond that, so it's unclear if he will be cleared for Saturday's game at Penn State. Kaliakmanis, who filled in for Morgan in the fourth quarter, and Kramer figure to get a lot of prep work in practice this week.
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A FAM FINAL WORD
I knew very little about farming before spending the day with Deron Johnson on his farm on Saturday. Seeing him at work, and meeting other farmers in the area, has given me deeper gratitude and appreciation for the tireless work and dedication that farmers exhibit every day.
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Thank you for reading Football Across Minnesota. I'll publish this each Tuesday morning in time for your lunch-hour reading. I appreciate feedback so please reach out anytime.
Chip (@chipscoggins on Twitter)