Welcome to the second edition of Football Across Minnesota (FAM), my weekly examination of the state’s football scene, from preps to pros. The first FAM from last week is online here. Thanks for reading. — Chip
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Close your eyes and picture this: You are a high school football player. A senior. Your team has not won a game since the 2017 playoffs and has lost 41 regular-season games in a row, dating to 2015.
Then you finally win. What do you do?
You dance, of course.
Heck yeah, you dance.
That was the scene at Red Wing High on Friday night after the Wingers put an end to their losing streak with a 32-7 win over Albert Lea.
“It’s been a long time coming,” coach Nate Freier said.
Freier took over the program in 2017, but Wingers football and that community have always been in his heart. He grew up in Red Wing and was a senior guard on the team that lost to Bloomington Jefferson in the 1983 state semifinals.
Freier enlisted and had a 20-year Army career, primarily as an artillery officer. His service took him to different states and countries, but he always knew he wanted to coach football.
He got his first taste coaching an 8-man unit team on the Fort Lewis Army Base in Washington state. He coached defense for a team called the “Automatic 8.”
After leaving the Army and getting a “day job,” he coached high school football in Northern Virginia and central Pennsylvania.
His father died in 2016 and during a visit home, Freier and his wife decided to move to Red Wing to raise their 12-year-old twin boys. The small-town environment appealed to them.
A former player and history buff, Freier knew all about Wingers football, the occasional periods of success and the tough times. Losing game after game isn’t easy for anyone. Freier credits past and current players for sticking with it, believing in the culture that they are helping to establish and understanding the life lessons that high school sports instill in them — what he calls the “power of the game.”
The payoff that came Friday night felt especially rewarding. Freier felt confident going into the game. He planned to talk about history in his postgame speech if they won. Then the final seconds ticked off the clock and the entire student section stormed the field. The celebration was on.
Players finally gathered for Freier’s postgame speech after enjoying that moment. Freier began like he always does after every game: He instructed his players to close their eyes and thank someone who made it possible for them to play in that game.
He loves this exercise. Sometimes, Freier thinks about his old high school coach, or the coach who gave him his first coaching job, or his dad.
When they finished, tears were flowing. Freier included.
“Every last one of them really felt like they had climbed a mountain and finally made it to the top,” he said.
Freier decided to skip the history lesson. The school was hosting a dance after the game, held outside. He told his players to go have fun.
Freier stayed on the field to do some interviews and talk with his activities director Paul Hartmann. About 30 minutes later, he went up to the press box to do a radio interview. The press box has a window in the back that overlooked the dance. Freier stopped and watched for a minute.
“It was rocking,” he said.
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… And the other side of streaks …
Caledonia’s football program has experienced life on the other end of a long streak, a 71-game winning streak that was snapped by Lake City in the season opener. The Warriors lost again this past Friday night, 30-0 to Chatfield.
Caledonia entered the season with the longest active winning streak in the nation. That streak began after a loss to BOLD in the 2014 playoffs, a game and date that Coach Carl Fruechte remembers clearly because it came on the same day that his son Isaac played his final home game as a senior wide receiver for the Gophers. Isaac is now married with two kids and is the offensive coordinator at Northern State.
Carl Fruechte’s message to his players after the first loss: Learn from it and move on.
Fruechte, who has led Caledonia to 10 state titles, reminded his players that losing a game isn’t the end of the world and that learning to handle adversity is a part of high school sports.
“Let’s keep everything in perspective,” he said last week. “Let’s not freak out. We’ve got good boys. I don’t mean as football players. They’re good kids.”
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Shoutout to sideline superstars
FAM primarily focuses on those directly involved the game: the players and coaches. But let’s take a moment to recognize and applaud the work of a few athletic trainers who should be viewed as heroes after performing life-saving measures during games this season.
My colleague Jim Paulsen wrote two weeks ago about Waseca coach Brad Wendland, who collapsed on the sideline and was tended to by athletic trainers from Waseca and St. Peter and a nurse who came out of the stands. The group working on him performed chest compressions and gave his heart a jolt with an Automated External Defibrillator (AED). Wendland is taking a break from coaching while he recovers.
A similar episode happened at Hutchinson High last week. The school was celebrating its “Salute to Service” night by recognizing more than 100 veterans, EMTs, police officers and firefighters.
The pregame festivities included a flyover after the national anthem. Hutchinson resident Bruce McElmury, a 66-year-old Army veteran, was standing along the sideline with Hutchinson’s players and other guests during the anthem.
He started to feel woozy, so he stumbled over to the bench and sat down. Hutchinson’s athletic trainer Amy Rogotzke was standing a few feet away and went to check on him. Within seconds, McElmury was unresponsive.
Rogotzke checked for a pulse and couldn’t find one. She immediately alerted team doctors Mark Stuckey and Scott Staples, who were nearby on the sideline.
The three lowered McElmury to the ground and began CPR. He did not have a pulse for nearly three minutes. They were able to revive McElmury after a few rounds of CPR without using the AED being brought to them, which Rogotzke called “very uncommon.”
“We were really thankful that we were able to be there right away because we know that every minute, every second counts when it comes to some of those life-saving measures,” Rogotzke said.
Recovering at home last week, McElmury said he remembers Rogotzke checking on him on the bench and then, “I woke up in the ambulance with five people around me saying, ‘Bruce, Bruce. Are you with us?’ “
He feels “humbled” by the care he received on the field, and to have a second chance.
“Believe me, I have a completely different outlook on life,” he said. “It’s changed around 100%. Little things used to get me upset. Now I’m looking at it like, I have a roof over my head, I’ve got my family.”
He also has some new friends. McElmury met Rogotzke, Stuckey and Staples at a park a few days after returning home from the hospital. He gave Rogotzke a long hug, thanked her for saving his life and said he will thank her again every time he sees her in town.
“Because she was right there when it happened,” he said, “I have to say that’s why I’m alive today.”
Rogotzke takes a CPR recertification course every year, but this was the first time she’s had to use her training. She had a difficult time sleeping for a few nights as she kept replaying the situation in her head and feeling grateful for a successful outcome.
“It’s crazy for me to think how we’re connected now forever,” she said.
- The fans: This goes to fans of the Gophers and Vikings who traveled to Boulder and Phoenix in large numbers. Watching both games on TV, I thought it sounded like home games for the Gophers and Vikings at times.
- Thomas Rush: Gophers backup defensive end energized the defense with two first-half sacks — one on third down and one on fourth down — that combined for 24 yards lost.
- Emmett Johnson: Holy Angels running back rushed for 360 yards and five touchdowns in a win over South St. Paul. Johnson has rushed for 705 yards and 10 touchdowns already this season.
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He said what?!
“I felt good about that kick. I know he missed the extra point earlier kind of like that. But he’s kicking good, we’re indoors, it’s the perfect surface. I’m thinking this should be an easy one here.” — Vikings coach Mike Zimmer with a closing line that has probably never been uttered or even thought by anyone who has followed his team over the years.
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Team of the week
Yes, the Colorado Buffaloes look totally incompetent but credit the Gophers for showing a mature response Saturday on the road after an uneven outing against Miami (Ohio) the previous week. A 30-0 shutout was more than anyone predicted, but that is a game a veteran team in Year 5 under a coach should expect to win if it wants to be viewed as a legitimate contender in the Big Ten West.
The Gophers had a lot of positives but it starts with the defense. We highlighted the defensive line’s minimal impact through two games in this space last week, and that position group showed its potential in Saturday’s game. The front physically dominated the Buffaloes, which led to sacks, negative yardage plays and zero explosive plays.
Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi put together a solid game plan and his players executed it perfectly.
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Inside the numbers
- 77.8: Opposing quarterbacks’ completion percentage vs. the Vikings after two games, the highest in the NFL.
- 149: Rushing attempts by the Gophers this season, the fifth-highest total among 130 FBS teams.
- 5,079: Career passing yards for Minnesota Duluth’s John Larson, who reached the milestone on a 64-yard touchdown pass in a 29-23 win over Winona State. He became the fifth QB in school history to reach 5,000 passing yards.
- 26: Tackles by Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks through two games, second-most in the NFL behind Seattle’s Bobby Wagner at 33.
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Mike Zimmer and the offensive coaches need to sharpen their final-minute play calling. Greg Joseph has to make that kick. But in this space, reserved each week for something that really bugged me, I’ll point to this: Zimmer calling a squib kick in the final minute of the first half Sunday. Arizona kicker Matt Prater is known for his big leg. A squib kick took only a few extra seconds off the clock but it improved the Cardinals’ starting field position. One broken tackle on a pass set up a 62-yard field goal for Prater, which he nailed to give his team three valuable points.
Zim should have kicked it deep in that situation.
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Grab your popcorn
- Seattle at Vikings, 3:35 p.m. Sunday. At 0-2, another loss for the Vikings would send this season off a cliff and create even more chatter about Zimmer’s job security.
- Hutchinson at Becker, 7 p.m. Friday. No. 1 team in Class 4A on the road vs. No. 2. Both undefeated.
- Butler at St. Thomas, noon Saturday. The Tommies make their Pioneer League debut.
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An important 48 hours for …
Zimmer. His team has lost two winnable games in frustrating fashion. His kicker suddenly becomes a big topic this week, Dalvin Cook has a sprained ankle and Russell Wilson is coming to town. Zimmer’s touch with his team will be important this week in getting players in the right frame of mind.
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A FAM FINAL WORD
Injuries happen in football. Backups inevitably will get their shot. What they do with it is up to them. Trey Potts is averaging 111 yards rushing per game with five TDs as the Gophers No. 1 running back in place of injured Mohamed Ibrahim. Anthony Barr’s injury opened the door for Nick Vigil to become an every-down linebacker and he has flashed with a handful of big plays, including a pick-six against Kyler Murray.
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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)