Chip Scoggins
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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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Tom Sawyer had a big game to prepare for last week, but every moment of his daily routine made him pause to consider the significance. There is nothing normal about one's final week in a job.

"It's a lot of, 'This is the last team meeting, the last practice,' " Sawyer said.

And the last game, which could not have been scripted any better. Winona State defeated Minnesota State 18-16 to give Sawyer his 197th career win and send him into retirement on a beautiful note after 25 seasons as head coach. The Warriors finished the season 7-4.

Replacing Sawyer will be difficult because he is synonymous with Winona State football. His association began in the late 1970s when he played for the Warriors as a linebacker and punter, an odd combination.

"I think they made me punt just because no one else would do it," he joked. "Unfortunately, we punted a lot back in those days."

He joined the staff as an assistant coach in 1987 and then took over as head coach in 1996. He built a program that became a model of consistency.

Winona State finished with a winning record in 22 of his 25 seasons. His 197 wins rank second among active Division II coaches. He won 10 or more games six times.

Sawyer took six teams to the D-II playoffs, along with four Mineral Water Bowl appearances. He was named NSIC Coach of the Year five times.

"I owe my whole life to this place," he said. "I got here at 18 years old and I'm still in Winona."

He made one place home while working in a profession known for its fluidity. He won enough to earn longevity and he never desired to leave, which has allowed him to foster deep relationships with his players and his community.

Three hundred former players returned for a homecoming banquet, including Sawyer's four captains from his first team in 1996. The school honored a family at a recent game that had five children attend Winona State, four of whom played for Sawyer.

"That's cool stuff," he said. "Games are games. You'll never remember very many of them, but you'll always remember the kids and what you went through."

Sawyer, who turns 62 this month, decided to retire this season because he wanted to go out with more than a dozen seniors who decided to return for an extra season allowed during the pandemic.

He already has a retirement bucket list. He plans to spend more time with his two grandchildren. He wants to attend college football games as a fan — at places such Michigan's Big House and Alabama — and also check up on former assistant coaches who moved on to other programs. North Dakota State head coach Matt Entz and Bison defensive coordinator David Braun were on his staff previously.

And when it snows in Winona, Sawyer will be there to help plow driveways around town. He loves to put a plow on the front of his Jeep and clear out parking spots for students and driveways for the elderly.

Sawyer keeps a list of driveways of residents who need help.

"It's fun to get out and play," he said.

One bit of warning: Sawyer plans to spend time in Florida this winter, so he might not be as available as usual.

He deserves to put his toes in the sand and relax.

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A MINNESOTA STORY

Friends, then opponents, then teammates — with healthy perspective all around

Dassel-Cokato ended Litchfield's season in a Class 3A section championship game 10 days ago. Those schools are 14 miles apart and have become football rivals.

The foes on the field are also friends who will become teammates in winter sports.

More than two dozen players who competed in that section title game will join forces on the co-op Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato hockey and wrestling teams.

"It's pretty interesting," Litchfield senior Ryan Schutz said. "You have to find a switch to turn off friendship during the game. We still have a lot of fun out there."

Schutz and teammate Wyatt Larson have played hockey with the Dassel-Cokato players since they were little kids and have remained good friends. That makes their football games clean and respectful.

"You're not going to trash talk your friend," Larson said. "If somebody slips, you might joke with them."

Wyatt Larson of Litchfield.
Wyatt Larson of Litchfield.

Submitted photo

Larson plays offensive guard and inside linebacker. He often blocks or tackles a player who will be his hockey teammate after the season. They laugh and pat each other on the backside. There is no animosity or chippy play on the field, even though both teams are competing hard.

"It's a different feel," Larson said.

The Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato hockey team had its first scheduled practice Monday, but the team will be missing a handful of players. Dassel-Cokato won its quarterfinal football game over Fairmont to advance to the 3A semifinals at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The undefeated Chargers play undefeated Esko on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. — the same time as the hockey team's scrimmage.

The section final ended with emotions overflowing. Dassel-Cokato won 45-10. Litchfield seniors were in tears, knowing their football careers were over.

The Dassel-Cokato student section began cheering "We love Dylan!"

Litchfield multisport athlete Dylan Falling died in a car accident in June 2020. He was 16 and had just completed his sophomore year. Dylan played football for Litchfield and hockey for the co-op team. He was a popular student and close friends with kids from both schools.

Litchfield's student section finished every home game with a "We love Dylan" chant while the team huddled on the field. The Dassel-Cokato student section showed their love and support that night, too.

Larson said the packed stadium went silent except for that chant, which made him stop and reflect.

"You work so hard for all those years to try and make state and you fall one game short," he said. "When I heard that, it humbled me. I thought, Yeah, I lost a football game, but his parents lost their son. You have to put it in perspective that it's only a high school football game. There is so much more to life."

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FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME

Going quite a distance for his Gophers

Dr. Matt Painschab recalls missing only one battle for Floyd of Rosedale since 2002. He was living in Peru doing medical work that year.

Otherwise, Painschab has attended every Gophers-Iowa football game the past two decades with a group of buddies that met freshman year in the Middlebrook Hall dorm at the University of Minnesota.

Painschab's trip to Kinnick Stadium on Saturday was a long haul — all the way from Africa.

Matt Painschab, middle with the stocking hat and sunglasses, with friends at the 2019 Gophers-Iowa football game.
Matt Painschab, middle with the stocking hat and sunglasses, with friends at the 2019 Gophers-Iowa football game.

Submitted photo

Painschaub is an oncologist who lives in the country of Malawi nine months a year as a part of a program that focuses on treatment and research of HIV-associated cancers. He scheduled a vacation with his employer, the University of North Carolina, so that he could make the game in Iowa City.

"It was great connecting with everyone and the game was entertaining … but obviously heartbreaking," the 37-year-old Painschab wrote in a text the day after the Gophers' 27-22 loss.

Painschab grew up in Waverly, played football at Watertown-Mayer High and earned his undergraduate degree from Minnesota. A defensive back in high school, he lined up opposite future NFLers Larry Fitzgerald Jr. and Matt Spaeth a few times.

His medical career has steered him to global oncology and, since 2019, a program called UNC Project Malawi. Painschab treats HIV patients diagnosed with cancer, primarily lymphoma. He also trains Malawi medical officials on how to conduct research and provide care for patients.

Malawi is one of the least-developed countries in the world, according to the Human Development Index. Painschab lives and works in Malawi's capital city of Lilongwe nine months a year, spending the other three months at his home in Chapel Hill, N.C. He has a good internet connection so he's able to stream Gophers games. He didn't want to miss being at the Iowa game in person.

His itinerary took him from Malawi to Johannesburg, South Africa, to New York City, to Raleigh, N.C. The flight from Johannesburg to New York was 16 hours alone.

Painschab isn't scheduled to fly back to Malawi until mid-January. He has another trip for a Gophers football game in mind.

"I might try to get to the bowl game depending on where it is," he said.

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WEEKEND REWIND

Game balls

  • Justin Jefferson, Vikings: See what happens when you throw him the ball. Nine catches for 143 yards with big plays in the clutch.
  • Eric Kendricks, Vikings: He single-handedly ruined two Chargers drives with a sack on the first possession and a diving interception.
  • Sam Becker, Chatfield High School: The quarterback rushed for 237 yards and six touchdowns and passed for one TD in a 2A quarterfinal win over Minneapolis North.
  • Isaiah Hall, University of St. Thomas: The Tommies defensive back recorded four tackles, two interceptions and a blocked field goal in a win over Drake.

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He said what?!

"He shouldn't be telling that to the media." — Mike Zimmer in response to offensive coordinator Klint Kubiak acknowledging last week the team's intention to get Justin Jefferson the ball more, even though everyone in the state of Minnesota knew that strategy had to happen.

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Numbers to know

  • 1: Berths for Bemidji State into the Division II playoffs. Welcome to the playoffs party, Beavers.
  • 1: Second left on the clock when St. John's tight end Alex Larson caught a game-winning 3-yard touchdown pass from Chris Backes to clinch the MIAC championship over Bethel.
  • 8: High school teams in all classes that are still undefeated as playoffs move to the semifinals at U.S. Bank Stadium.
  • 18: Interceptions by St. Thomas in nine games, tops in FCS.
  • 43: Touchdown passes by Bemidji State's Brandon Alt, setting an NSIC single-season record.

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UP NEXT

Grab your popcorn

Vikings vs. Packers, noon Sunday, U.S. Bank Stadium. Packers Week carries a different feel after the Vikings put together a complete performance in a much-needed win over the Chargers.

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An important 48 hours for …

The Bethel Royals and coach Steve Johnson. The manner in which they lost to St. John's was a gut punch, but the Royals have to regroup heading into their first-round playoff game at undefeated Central (Iowa) College. Central is second nationally in scoring (58.4 points) and first in total offense (618.5 yards per game), with quarterback Blaine Hawkins throwing 50 touchdown passes in 10 games.

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A FAM FINAL WORD

"Intentional"

The Vikings made a point to get the ball to their best receiver on Sunday. If Jefferson was blanketed by a defender, Kirk Cousins trusted him to make a play. That's how it should be. Every defense will design coverage to stop Jefferson, but the Vikings have to counter that and not just ignore Jefferson when he draws a lot of attention.

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Thank you for reading Football Across Minnesota. I'll publish this each Monday night on startribune.com, timed to kickoff of "Monday Night Football." And you can also join me on Twitter during the first quarter of MNF as I chat with readers about what I wrote each week. Thanks, Chip (@chipscoggins on Twitter)