When Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood was 11, his father built a sled out of steel pipe to drag around the backyard, helping build leg strength and speed. Donnell Sr. works as a welder, so pretty soon he had requests from football players all over the neighborhood.
The family lives in Delray Beach, Fla., about a half-mile from Atlantic High School. Kirkwood didn’t bother with a driver’s license; he usually walked or jogged to school.
In an age of pampered college athletes, when schools are falling over themselves to build lavish training facilities, Gophers coach Jerry Kill considers Kirkwood “a throwback to the old-school guys.”
“I think he’s grown up and been raised right,” Kill said. “I think he feels like it’s a privilege to play.”
Likewise, the Gophers have discovered that having a 1,000-yard rusher is a privilege, not a right. They haven’t had one since Amir Pinnix in 2006, but Kirkwood has two more years to do it after gaining 926 last year as a sophomore.
“I’d love to [reach 1,000],” Kirkwood said. “But if we’re successful and it doesn’t take me going over 1,000 yards, I don’t have a problem with it all.”
His final year in high school, Kirkwood actually saw his rushing totals dip. He piled up 1,013 yards and 14 touchdowns as a junior, but had just 491 yards and seven touchdowns as a senior.
The team’s passing game took over that season, then-Atlantic coach Andre Thaddies said. Quarterback Mark Leal went to Virginia Tech, wide receivers James Louis and Quadarias Mireles to Ohio State and Ole Miss, respectively.
Kirkwood narrowed his college list to Minnesota, Rutgers, Pitt and Kansas State, but the cards were stacked against the other schools. Thaddies was a Gophers defensive back from 1988 to 1991. As Atlantic’s coach, he started a pipeline to Minnesota that included defensive back Jamal Harris and linebacker Brandon Owens.
One of Kirkwood’s classmates at Atlantic, linebacker Jephte Matilus, is a Gophers teammate.
“I told [Kirkwood], ‘Don’t go for a visit to Minnesota if you don’t want to go there. You’re going to love it, with the four seasons, the facilities and the people,’ ” Thaddies said. “Out of the seven people who’ve gone to visit there [from Atlantic], we’re 5-for-7.”
Kirkwood committed to the Gophers under former coach Tim Brewster after connecting with then-running backs coach Thomas Hammock. Kirkwood knew all about the school’s success in developing running backs such as Marion Barber and Laurence Maroney.
When Kill’s staff took over and preached a renewed emphasis on the ground game, Minnesota became an even better fit for Kirkwood’s between-the-tackles running style. After taking a medical redshirt season in 2010, Kirkwood ran for 229 yards as a freshman in 2011.
At this time last year, he wasn’t viewed as the favorite to lead the team in rushing yards. Junior college transfer James Gillum seemed like the guy, but Kirkwood emerged as a workhorse, especially against Syracuse in Week 4, when he carried 28 times for 99 yards and two touchdowns.
The Gophers pulled a potential redshirt from freshman Rodrick Williams, in part to save wear and tear on Kirkwood. As a result, Kirkwood’s yards-per-carry increased.
“I was more fresh,” Kirkwood said. “If Rodrick would have played in the Syracuse game, I feel like that game would have been kind of out of reach in the second, third quarter. I’m in shape, but 28 carries is a lot on a man’s body.”
This year, the Gophers can add incoming freshman Berkley Edwards to the running back mix. Edwards is listed at 190 pounds, so he’s considerably smaller than Kirkwood (223), Williams (235) and David Cobb (225). But Kirkwood said Edwards has another entire gear when it comes to speed.
Still, Kirkwood’s importance to the Gophers was clear when they picked him as one of three players to represent them at Big Ten media days, joining seniors Ra’Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen. There, Kirkwood bristled at the suggestion that he’s established himself.
“It doesn’t seem like that me; it seems like that to everybody else,” Kirkwood said. “I feel like I have to do more.”
It’s an attitude that hasn’t changed since he was running around the backyard in middle school, pulling his father’s handmade sled.