“Zookeeper!’’ coach P.J. Fleck yelled encouragingly during the Gophers’ open practice Friday at TCF Bank Stadium. “Let’s go!’’
A zookeeper? On the football field?
Yep, and in the Gophers’ case there are two of them.
Defensive linemen Winston DeLattiboudere and Jerry Gibson answer to that nickname because they spent part of the summer as security guards at the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory in St. Paul. Their duties included patrolling the grounds, greeting patrons and writing parking citations. They’d take turns either manning the desk in the business center or making the rounds.
“Getting to interact with the public and being an authority figure and being able to help people outside of just football,’’ Gibson, a 6-3, 260-pound senior from Theodore, Ala., said of his favorite aspects of the job. “Being a security guard at the zoo and having those people feel safe was a good feeling.’’
DeLattiboudere agreed, especially when it came to putting smiles on the faces of children.
“The kids were the biggest highlights,’’ said DeLattiboudere, a 6-3, 250-pounder from Baltimore. “I’d be sitting at the desk, and a kid would walk up and give me a lollipop that they already licked and sucked on, and I’d say, ‘Oh, thank you so much!’ Just having that relationship with random kids who come up to you was really nice.’’
Norries Wilson, director of player development for the Gophers, alerted players to the opportunity, and DeLattiboudere and Gibson quickly applied for positions. Soon, the burly, bearded teammates were hired and roaming the zoo’s grounds.
“Special individuals,’’ Fleck said Monday after practice. “Winston and Jerry are wonderful people.’’
But the coach also saw a missed opportunity from the duo’s interesting summer job.
“I told them they should’ve had their own reality show. That would have been amazing to watch those two at the zoo and watch their day,’’ Fleck said. “They both have an incredible personality separately, but when you put them together — fireworks.’’
Both players pointed to other memorable moments during their time at the zoo. For Gibson, it was patrolling on a Segway. For DeLattiboudere, it was becoming familiar with the animals.
“The primates, you’ll be able to tell if they like you or not when you’re walking by,’’ DeLattiboudere said. “If they like you, they’ll look at you and keep on walking. If they don’t, they’ll starting banging on the windows.’’
Now, both linemen have turned their focus to the upcoming season. Gibson missed the final nine games last season after suffering a knee injury. He’s rounding into shape, and believes the defensive line is, too.
“The D-line has put in a lot of work in the offseason and a lot of work in camp so far,’’ Gibson said. “We’re not where we want to be, but I definitely feel we’re on track to where we want to be.’’
DeLattiboudere started six games last year and played in all 12, posting 13 tackles and two sacks. He aims to build on that.
“I’m definitely more comfortable out on the field and knowing the broader picture of the defense and not just my position,’’ he said.
Ready to scrimmage
The Gophers will scrimmage for the first time on Tuesday, and Fleck is eager to see how his team performs. “We’re going to find out what these young guys can do,’’ he said.
Two of those young guys, redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan and true freshman Zack Annexstad, are competing for the starting quarterback job, and Fleck isn’t ready to name a starter for the Aug. 30 season opener against New Mexico State.
“You’d like to have, sooner or later, somebody start separating themselves,’’ he said. “They’re both doing a great job of competing with each other. It comes down to, one, taking care of the ball, two, decisive decisionmaking, and, three, who can win the football team.’’
• Defensive back Benny Sapp III, receivers Chris Autman-Bell and Erik Gibson and running back Bryce Williams, all freshmen, returned to drills after working on the sideline with trainers because of injuries.
• The last of the three training camp practices that the Gophers will open to the public is at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at the Athletes Village outdoor fields.