Chris Bunders will play his final college football game Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium. He is one of 24 seniors who will be honored before the Gophers face Illinois to conclude a season that has provided more heartache than thrills.

Not to hear Bunders describe it, though. He sounds like a guy who's about to wrap up his fifth consecutive undefeated season, even though the record book says the Gophers are 19-42 since he joined the program.

"Playing college football, it's pretty hard to have a low moment," he said.

Maybe that's partly rose-colored introspection from a guy nearing the end of a personal journey. Senior Day always carries extra emotion for those involved. Everyone has different experiences and perspective, and a career rarely follows the mental road map athletes bring with them to campus.

Bunders, a 6-3, 292-pound offensive lineman, began his about a mile from where it will end, on the practice field at the Gophers football facility. He took part in the Gophers summer camp after his junior year at Osseo High and allowed me to shadow him for a story. Like many high school recruits, Bunders attended the camp with the hope of impressing the coaching staff enough to earn a scholarship.

He performed well that week and ultimately received a full-ride scholarship from Glen Mason. Bunders celebrated by going walleye fishing at his family's cabin.

"Minnesota just seemed like the right place for me," he said at the time.

Bunders still feels that way, despite a career littered with difficult moments and challenges. He's been in a losing locker room twice as often as a joyous one. He was recruited by Mason, played 3 1/2 seasons for Tim Brewster, five games for interim coach Jeff Horton and his senior season under Jerry Kill.

He has had too many coordinators, assistant coaches and offensive systems to count.

"We've changed our offense almost on a yearly basis," he said.

He is able to laugh about it now. He even described it as "fun." That's just Bunders' personality. To dwell on the hardships obscures all the positive experiences.

He experienced two bowl games and had two home stadiums, the Metrodome and TCF Bank Stadium. He will make his 40th career start Saturday. He has played three different positions -- right guard, left guard and now right tackle -- and avoided serious injury.

He's on track to graduate with a degree in civil engineering this spring, and he's engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Jennifer Polansky. The two met the first day of their sophomore year at Osseo and began dating in college. Bunders popped the question on a cruise in front of several hundred people this past spring. (He was pretty confident in the answer, but boy that could have been awkward.)

"That would've been a long cruise," he said, smiling.

His highlights on the field come easy.

"Obviously the last two years beating Iowa," he said. "You can't explain that feeling or atmosphere after the game with all the people on the field. It's crazy. Just amazing."

The low point(s)? He paused for a few seconds.

"You know, I really can't think of one," he said. "Every time something changes, it brings new challenges. I've enjoyed all the new challenges that we've had. Obviously you have some tough moments, but it's been a blast."

Bunders hopes to continue playing football, but he understands the odds of him making it to the NFL. He plans to work out for scouts at the Gophers' pro day, but he's also actively looking for employment in the engineering world.

"Hopefully by the time next semester gets done, I'll have a job one way or the other," he said.

Thus will begin a new chapter in his life. That's one of the great things about college athletics. You meet a big, affable kid entering college wide-eyed and then get to watch him grow as a person and player over the years.

It doesn't always work out that way, of course. Some don't make it. They choose different paths. Some can't handle the responsibilities and commitment required of them.

But for those that do, Bunders said, the reward is immeasurable. Maybe not always in wins and losses, but with the entire experience.

"It's a great journey," he said. "Now it's kind of coming to an end. It's a surreal feeling. You dream about it growing up high school. When it finally comes true, you just enjoy the ride."

Chip Scoggins •