John’s Journal: Giving Thanks For High School Football
It’s Been A Season To Remember As ‘Normal’ Returns
Posted: Monday, November 22, 2021 - 12:18 PM
From border to border, North to South, East to West, this has been one of the most amazing high school football seasons I have witnessed. The weather has been exceptional for the most part, but the biggest marker of the 2021 football season has been the sense of normalcy after a 2020 season that saw limited fans, disrupted schedules and no fall state tournaments due to Covid-19.
There was a clear sense of joy, happiness and gratitude everywhere I went this fall. I think we all have a renewed feeling of appreciation for high school activities after the pandemic changed so much for so long. I saw nonstop smiling faces during my travels to schools, practices and games.
I watched 16 outdoor football games before we headed indoors to U.S. Bank Stadium for last week’s 14 semifinals and this week’s seven Prep Bowl championship games. This week’s contests will be a major celebration of high school football in Minnesota.
In my eyes, football games provide the epitome of community. At schools large and small, folks gather to watch football but also to visit with their neighbors, catch up on the news and support their kids. It’s a magical scene, with the action on the field the focus, but with so many other things happening; the pep band performing, cheerleaders working hard, student fans having so much fun, little kids playing football and chasing each other behind the bleachers. There is nothing else like it.
I have been going back through the football-related stories I wrote this fall here on John’s Journal. I saw it all, from Nine-Man to Class 6A, in little rural villages and giant suburbs. This resulted in the below brief reminders of each story, along with links to read the full stories.
What a season it’s been!
--As the Chisago Lakes football team prepares for a new season, one small moment at Monday’s practice – a very brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene – encapsulated everything that Minnesota high school athletes and teams have gone through since Covid-19 began its long, slow bat flip and home run trot around the planet.
The Wildcats wrapped up the day’s drills with 40-yard sprints. Starting at one goal line on their grass practice field, they ran out to the 40-yard line, then back, then out and back again in three groups. Head coach Bill Weiss offered a reminder as one of the groups prepared to run: “Behind the line, not on it! Little things matter, guys!”
They absolutely do. Little things like the simple act of playing a football game. The Wildcats experienced that just once last fall. That’s correct: The Chisago Lakes football team played all of one game, with Covid driving a stake through the rest of their 2020 schedule. (Rush City is the only other team that played just one game in 2020, while Wabasha-Kellogg played no games a year ago.)
--The night had not gone well. The boys on the Wabasha-Kellogg football team – all 19 in uniform -- had hoped to win their season opener against Cleveland High School on a lovely Friday night at their home field, nestled on a piece of ground surrounded by southeastern Minnesota bluffs, a short distance from the Mississippi River.
In the final gathering before kickoff, in an equipment shed near the field, Wabasha-Kellogg coach Tim Klingbeil reinforced how special nights like this are: “It's an exciting thing that we get to do as young men. When high school football is over, it's done, it’s over. It ain’t golf. You get to create as many memories as you can on that field right now, tonight, because it just doesn't last very long. It disappears really quickly.”
--Brad Wendland wants you to do something, no matter who you are, where you live or where you work or go to school. Wendland, the head football coach at Waseca High School, knows he is lucky to be alive and he wants others to have the second chance he’s getting.
His heart stopped beating during a game early this season. Wendland collapsed on the sideline and athletic trainers from Waseca and St. Peter (the visiting team), joined by a nurse who was in the stands and others, absolutely saved his life. They maintained his airway, they did chest compressions, they used an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) to shock his heart.
Wendland was fortunate. When he was struck by sudden cardiac arrest, he was surrounded by people who were trained in life-saving skills, at a school that had implemented plans to handle such a crisis.
“You’d better put in (this story) the importance of CPR training and having AEDs available,” Brad told me. “If one person hears it and does it, or one person in the crowd that night gets a checkup or asks at work, ‘Where’s our AED,’ or gets trained in CPR, it will be worth it.”
--Alexander Hamilton never gave a thought to football or high school marching bands, since neither was even a thing when the founding father came out on the short end of a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804. But Hamilton gets a share of the credit for what is happening with the Farmington High School football team and marching band this fall. The two groups – 60 varsity football players and 140 musicians – have formed a close relationship with an assist from good ol’ A dot Ham.
Bradley Mariska, one of the school’s band directors, and Jon Pieper, the Tigers’ co-head football coach along with Rick Sutton, have been working together to create a class based on the life of Hamilton and the Broadway musical about him. Mariska will handle the musical aspects of the class and Pieper, a social studies teacher, will focus on history.
--Gary Sloan retired as the football coach at Grand Meadow, a Nine-Man powerhouse, after the Superlarks season ended. I have known Gary for years and always enjoyed spending time in Grand Meadow.
Gary’s teams won four consecutive state championships from 2013 to 2016 and went to state many times in his 29-year career as head coach. Asked about his memories, Sloan didn’t mention state championships or big wins. He talked about the important people in his life: the players.
“The games are fun but I’ve built so many relationships with kids,” he said, “and a lot of those kids now are 35 or 40 years old. A handful of them still call me coach.”
--On back-to-back days in October I went to football games at two new stadiums; Class 6A Forest Lake and Class 1A Lakeview in Cottonwood. Both schools celebrated the arrival of artificial turf as part of stadium renovations that have put both schools on the map. Lakeview is the second-smallest school in Minnesota with its own turf field. The smallest is Mountain Iron-Buhl, with an MSHSL enrollment of 136 … 12 fewer students than Lakeview.
--Four years ago, I wrote about a unique high school football team. The St. Clair/Mankato Loyola Spartans were in their first season as a combined, cooperative team. There are 12 seniors on the 2021 Spartans roster, and they remember well what it was like when the now-rock-solid bonds began to be forged.
“Some of my closest friends go to Loyola,” said St. Clair senior Hayden Kasprowicz. “Thinking back to four years ago, I would have never, ever thought about that. I knew of people but didn't know them on a personal level. I think we were all kind of nervous but also excited.”
--I was in the press box at St. Thomas Academy when the Cadets defeated Hastings in the section playoffs. It was the final event of a nearly two-decade radio career for Nick Tuckner, the voice of the Hastings Raiders. After he had signed off for the final time, St. Thomas Academy coach Dan O’Brien, one of the classiest people I know, came into the press box to shake Nick’s hand and congratulate him. It was a wonderful moment.
Kim Royston was an all-state football player at Cretin-Derham Hall and an All-Big Ten selection at the University of Minnesota. This fall was his first season as an MSHSL football official. Royston, a middle school principal, said, “I’m loving it. I’m learning new things every week. It’s really therapeutic after a long hard day at the middle school to go out there in nice weather, working in the game you love.”
--Marshall Behrens is one of the most well-known and respected officials in Minnesota high school sports. He officiates football and volleyball in the fall, girls and boys basketball in the winter, and baseball and softball in the spring. Away from high school sports, he also works Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference football games and amateur baseball. Yes, he is a busy guy. He wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Officiating has become such a passion for me,” he said. “I’ve often used the word addiction. It’s so much a part of my life. The people and the relationships, the good friends, just giving back and seeing the kids. I don’t know what I’d do without it.”
--During a football game between Cretin-Derham Hall and St. Thomas Academy at Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center, a receiver caught a pass in the left flat and had one tackler to beat in order to gain big yards. As the receiver was brought down quickly by the lone defender, a man watching from the press box said, “You’ve gotta beat that guy.”
Michael Floyd knew what he was talking about, because he made a living by catching passes and beating tacklers. Floyd was a star at Cretin-Derham Hall, where he graduated in 2008, set Notre Dame records in several categories during his four years there, was a first-round NFL draft pick and played with Arizona, New England (earning a Super Bowl ring), Minnesota, New Orleans, Washington and Baltimore from 2012 to 2019.
Floyd, who teamed with 1994 Cretin-Derham Hall grad and former NFL player Matt Birk as honorary captains for the Raiders in Friday’s game, is back in his hometown filling a new football role: coach. Floyd is a first-year assistant wide receivers coach at NCAA Division II Concordia University in St. Paul.
--Ron Stolski, the most well-known football coach in Minnesota annals, retired after the 2019 season. He coached for a total of 58 years, the last 45 at Brainerd High School. No high school head football coach in Minnesota worked more seasons than Stolski.
He announced his retirement in January 2020, and a ceremony to honor Stolski was scheduled for that spring. But the Covid-19 pandemic derailed those plans; the event was rescheduled and postponed again. A celebration was finally held in October in Brainerd, and it was magnificent. Hundreds of people gathered at the Northern Pacific Center, including former players, men who coached alongside Stolski, men who coached against him, friends and family. Later in the day, a reunion of Brainerd football alumni was held in the same location. It was a grand day in Brainerd.
--Since about fourth grade, Phillip Klaphake knew he wanted to be a coach. He comes from a family of coaches, and as the head football coach at Sauk Rapids-Rice put it, “I don’t know if I’m good at anything else. Coaching is in our blood, for sure.”
Phillip was on the football, basketball, baseball and track and field teams in high school before becoming a record-setting quarterback at St. Cloud State. He remained at St. Cloud State for a year as a graduate assistant coach, then worked as an assistant coach at Gustavus Adolphus College for one year before becoming head coach at Sauk Rapids-Rice in 2016.
--On an absolutely perfect night for football, I watched Grand Rapids play at North Branch. The North Branch Vikings came out on top 21-20 in an exciting game (the Thunderhawks would even the score by defeating the Vikings 14-12 in the Class 4A Section 7 championship game).
I wrote about two individuals after that game. A week before Grand Rapids’ first game, senior linebacker/quarterback Andrew Thomsen was hurt as he was tackled during a scrimmage. He walked off the field, but later was diagnosed with a serious injury. A broken neck. He was flown to Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, where spinal-fusion surgery was performed. Andrew missed the season-opening game against Mora but has been with his teammates at every practice and game since.
A motto for the North Branch football team is “Family.” For the players and coaches, including head coach Justin Voss, that concept extends well beyond the shirts on which the word is printed. “I don’t want that to be a loose term,” Voss said. “Our guys have invested in that. We show love by sacrificing for each other. We want to show it on the football field, in the classroom and in the community. The kids want to be part of that and welcome others in. We talk about attitude, effort and family.”
As the teams warmed up Friday night, Voss sprinted from the field and over the eight-lane track to a fence. He ran to a little girl named Molly and hugged her. Voss is a special education teacher who works with severe profound children. Molly is one of his students.
“I love it when they come to the games,” Voss said. “I tell them to call me over so I can come and say hi.”
2021 Prep Bowl
Friday, Nov. 26
1A: Minneota vs. Mayer Lutheran, 10 a.m.
2A: Chatfield vs. West Central Area/Ashby 1 p.m.
4A: Kasson-Mantorville vs. Hutchinson, 4 p.m.
6A: Maple Grove vs. Lakeville South, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Nov. 27
Nine-Man: LeRoy-Ostrander vs. Fertile-Beltrami, 10 a.m.
3A: Plainview-Elgin-Millville vs. Dassel-Cokato, 1 p.m.
5A: Mahtomedi vs. Mankato West, 4 p.m.
--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at [email protected]