Most of the 44 young men from faraway places in Mesabi Norsemen jerseys had never heard of the Iron Range before they signed up to chase the elusive dream of playing big-time college football.
All the pregame strutting and smack talk meant nothing by halftime of the Mesabi Range College season opener. Mesabi, so confident and borderline brash before the game, found itself trailing Ridgewater 20-0 in Willmar.
There was near chaos in the visitor’s locker room. Montana Coates, the 6-3 center from Ohio with meaty arms and big tattoos, had to be pulled away from Terrence Allen, the lineman from Chicago with the 4-year-old son, as they argued over missed blocking assignments. The shouting, as usual, was laced with swearing. “Nobody blocking,” yelled Gary Vaughn, the wide receiver from Washington, D.C., who said he had recently been homeless. “I’m watching this s--- from the sideline. S--- looks stupid.”
Finally the locker room quieted and Dan Lind, the team’s coach with a crew cut and an affinity for John Wayne, got to the point. “You guys talk a big game, right? ‘I got all this speed. I’m from Florida, Georgia, [Detroit], Chicago’ — and you play like s---,” he said. “I told you, [these Minnesota] farm boys are going to kick you in the mouth.”
It was wake-up time for the Mesabi Range Norsemen, a two-year school on the outer fringe of American college football.
Of the 44 players who sat for the Mesabi team picture in late August, almost all were from out of state, and only four were white. Seven players were from Florida, five from Illinois, four were from Georgia and 12 more were from South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. Most arrived on the Iron Range — the main campus is in Virginia, an economically depressed and overwhelmingly white city of 8,700 — having never before stepped foot in Minnesota. Few had cars, most struggled for money. Home was now three squat apartment buildings in back of the college with little in the way of furniture, food or fun.
For most of them, the 1,700-student school is a desperate, Hail Mary pass to playing football at a four-year school, and building a better future. Like other schools in the Minnesota College Athletic Conference, which has members stretching from Rochester to Bottineau, N.D., it is a last chance to find a college that would admit someone who barely graduated from high school yet still harbors big-time football dreams.
The roster included players such as Uriah English, an out-of-shape nose tackle from Louisville who scored a 14 on his ACT college entrance exam. “Grades killed me,” said English, known as “U-U” to his teammates. He found his way to Mesabi after a high school coach in Kentucky sent a tape to the school. “I wanted to wing it,” English said. “I’m liking it so far.”
Though out-of-state tuition at Mesabi is only $3,250 a year, many of the players have a tough time making ends meet. Eric Taylor, an offensive lineman from Kentucky, arrived by bus and stopped at a family reunion in Chicago, where relatives gave him $400 so he had money when he came to Minnesota. Vaughn, the wide receiver, was ineligible for Mesabi’s first games because a college in North Carolina would not release his academic transcript until his mother took out a loan and paid a $1,800 bill. Allen mopped the bathrooms on a Friday night in the darkened school as part of a work-study job — and asked that no pictures be taken because he was embarrassed.
They arrived in early August at the campus with one building for classrooms, a college smaller than many high schools.
Mesabi is governed by the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), as opposed to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which regulates Division I, II and III four-year schools, everything in Minnesota from the Gophers in the top division to St. John’s and St. Thomas in Division III.
The NJCAA has 511 member schools, but only 68 field football teams. Mesabi is evidence of the hardships that have prompted many junior colleges to drop football, including Minnesota schools such as Normandale, Anoka-Ramsey and Hibbing.
Aiming for a long shot
Taped to the wall outside the coach’s office was the latest story on running back Khiry Robinson, who attended Mesabi and now plays for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. But the numbers say that for most of the Norsemen the odds of succeeding, especially on that level, are long. Only six players returned from last year’s team, suggesting that many simply gave up or drifted to something else. “Most of them just went different ways,” said Kalil Grice, a defensive lineman from Florida who stayed and works in the school library.
Of 65 players since 2010 who were even on the team for a second season at the two-year school, only 21 earned a degree at Mesabi. Of 14 second-year players on the 2013 team, four graduated from Mesabi. Of nine second-year players on last year’s team, only one earned a degree.
But a school official said the figure can be misleading: Though only one football player graduated last year, the school estimated an additional six to eight players successfully transferred to a four-year college.
Last year’s grade-point average for the team was 2.62 on a 4.0 academic scale — the highest since 2010. But a school official added that the team’s grade-point average has never been below 2.36 in the past five years.
The football field is a daily reminder how far removed players are from big-time college sports — and how indifferent Iron Range residents can be to the team. When Mesabi opened its home season on Sept. 6 — it uses a high school field near the college — only 44 people were in the stands at kickoff. On their mile-long walks from the school to Target and Kmart, the players regularly passed a parked pickup truck with a large Confederate flag in its window.
Despite their rough edges, the players frequently showed a softer side. After every practice, the team gathered on the practice field to say the Lord’s Prayer, and many players — especially those from the South — addressed adults with “yes sir” and “no sir.”
Thomas Dorsey, a defensive back from Chicago, said he arrived in Minnesota after getting clearance from his probation officer to leave Illinois. “I was locked up in the joint,” Dorsey explained, standing outside his campus apartment. Dorsey said he was at a New Year’s Eve party, trying to fire his .380 pistol into the air in celebration when the gun jammed and the police arrived.
“It was just a mistake,” Dorsey said. “l wasn’t right with God. Now, I’m right with God.”
He worked at Walmart, then made seats for Chicago transit buses. Both of his brothers, he said, served time in jail. Now four years out of high school, he decided one month before practice began to come to Minnesota. “You get sucked up whole by it,” he said of his neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. But “it’s cool out here” in Minnesota. “It’s mellow. You [chill]. Virginia, Minnesota, changed my life.”
When he turns 30, Dorsey said, “I want a degree under my belt.”
Elvin Turner, the linebacker and team co-captain from Chicago, spoke to his mother by phone early in the morning on every gameday. “She prays for me. We have a little talk. She tells me, ‘Good luck,’ ” he said. “This is another opportunity [to] try and make my mama proud.”
Turner, moments before Mesabi’s first game, got emotional with Ben Allen, a friend and defensive back from Georgia. “You got your second shot, man,” said Turner, looking Allen in the eye. “God do things for a reason.”
Two blocks from the empty storefronts on Chestnut Street, the Norsemen in late August lowered themselves into the warmth of the basement at Hope Community Presbyterian, an old church with an equally aging congregation. Women from the congregation served hot dogs and chicken on paper plates. The hulking players sat awkwardly in a dining room with checkered tablecloths.
White-haired Jacquie Ault sat down to break the ice with Mike Ritacco, a defensive back with multiple tattoos, and began talking about her dog. “I have a nine-month-old baby pit bull,” Ritacco said politely, in reply. “They are very scary dogs, [but] it’s all how you raise them.”
Standing off to the side, Janet Koski pronounced the annual luncheon, which began more than a decade ago, a success. “We don’t expect anything in return, [just] hope they know they’re welcome here,” she said.
Pepper Lysaker spent 31 years as Mesabi coach before retiring in 1998 and was a catalyst in recruiting black players from out of state. It was a move borne of necessity, he said, as football rosters at local high schools shrunk amid a long but fundamental downturn in the Iron Range’s mining industry that scattered a community settled by European immigrants.
“Some of these little old ladies would go to a supermarket, and here would come a black kid. And they were afraid,” said the former coach. “These [Iron Rangers] came from Yugoslavia. They came from Finland. They worked hard. [But] they got the old-fashioned attitudes.”
The influx of out-of-state players has not come without problems for the state’s northern junior colleges.
A breakdown of the states represented on this year's 44-player Mesabi football project:
|State||Number of players|
One player each: Wisconsin, Texas, Washington, D.C., Missouri, North Carolina, Michigan, Ohio, Louisiana, Maryland, Alabama.
In 2002, three football players at nearby Hibbing Community College, including one from Miami, were arrested in a series of incidents that included what was described as a riot at the courthouse and a fight among a group armed with baseball bats. Four years later, a former Hibbing Community College football player from Milwaukee was one of four black men charged with criminal sexual conduct. The public defenders asked the case be tried away from the Iron Range, saying that in Hibbing “the trial of a transplanted African-American man” would be “unavoidably biased.”
In the wake of the off-the-field troubles, Hibbing Community College dropped football in 2007, citing the team’s poor grades.
Mike Flaten was Mesabi football coach more than a decade ago, and now is Hibbing’s athletic director. Football is not coming back to Hibbing, he said, and explained that he left Mesabi in part because “I saw the way the league was going” in recruiting more minority, out-of-state players. “We were bringing them into an environment that, quite frankly, isn’t all that welcoming,” he said. “They’d just show up. They hardly got any money.” One player, he said, told them he could not practice because he had not eaten in two days.
Flaten said the atmosphere was made worse by too many players who clung to irrational dreams that the Iron Range might be a steppingstone to the National Football League. “They don’t realize that they’re at a [junior college Division] III, nonscholarship, kind of the bottom-of-the-barrel” school, he said.
As the team rode to its first game in late August, Lind grappled with a column in the local newspaper that had again taken aim at Mesabi. “I do not understand for a second what today’s purpose of community college football is,” the opinion page memo said. “Please justify this huge taxpayer’s expense.” Lind grimaced, and leaned over his seat to vent. “These kids pay out-of-state tuition,” the coach said. When the players go to local stores, “they’re spending cash. [But the locals] don’t see it that way.”
But Mesabi has produced players such as Justin Burum, who played for Lind at Mesabi, coming from Tennessee after being kicked out of high school and settling for a general educational development diploma (GED). Now he teaches and coaches at a high school near Nashville, and alerts Lind of possible recruits for Mesabi. “It made me become a man,” he said of his time on the Iron Range.
The prize recruit
Denzel Washington surprised his coach when, accompanied by his father, Charles, he showed up at Mesabi four days before practices began in early August. A willowy 5-7 wide receiver, Washington was a second-team all-state player from rural Live Oak, Fla., 85 miles west of Jacksonville.
Father and son had arrived in Minneapolis at 1 a.m. — their first time in Minnesota — and by lunchtime stood in Lind’s doorway. His father, after spending roughly a week on the Iron Range, would leave his son on his own. “I’ve never been up this far,” the father said.
Washington, meanwhile, was matter-of-fact about his goals. “Do really good in football this season, keep on top of my grades and hopefully [land] a D-I scholarship,” he said. Privately, Lind said Washington was one of his prize recruits.
Washington said he heard of Mesabi through his ninth-grade coach in Florida, who sent word that he had found “this college” in Minnesota. And Washington, citing what he called “school work issues,” said he had limited options. So he began football practice and tagged along with carloads of teammates as they went cliff diving into the waters of an old iron ore pit near Gilbert. “It’s like a nice little cool place,” Washington said of the Iron Range two weeks after arriving.
Before the first game, Washington told the team in the locker room he would run back the opening kickoff for a touchdown. Washington never touched the opening kickoff, and on the second play Mesabi’s quarterback threw an interception that was run back for a touchdown.
By the first home game, Washington was in trouble. “Three of the boys thought it was OK to come late [to] study table,” Lind announced. Washington, being one of them, would not start. But with Mesabi down at halftime and Washington now playing, he gave the team its first lead of the season with a punt return for a touchdown. Mesabi would coast to a 34-10 victory.
The victory had come over Northland Community College of Thief River Falls, Minn., which had 24 players from Florida and had just resumed its own football program after suspending it for a year partly because of the team’s poor grades. The school felt the team “didn’t have the type of academic culture that we should have had,” said Richard Speas, the school’s new athletic director.
Speas had a bottom-line answer as to why the schools continue to play football. “If we have 50 students that would not have been here had it not been for football, [you] can do the simple math, and [conclude it] is really revenue-producing,” he said.
The Northland game would be a highlight in an uneven season for Washington. After five games, his 24.2-yard punt return average was still leading the 12-team conference. But Lind was not satisfied. “Hey,” he said to Washington, as the player stopped by his office, “when are you going to show up again?”
“Tomorrow,” Washington promised. The next day, with Washington largely a nonfactor, Mesabi would lose 19-7 to previously winless Vermilion.
Things would even get worse. In its next two games — both blowout losses — Mesabi would give up a whopping 139 points. The team lost its final five regular-season games.
Now in his 11th season at Mesabi, Lind has his picture from his playing days at Virginia High School hanging on the wall at the stadium. In his office, there are pictures of football heroes from a bygone era, including the New York Giants’ Y.A. Tittle and legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi. When the team rode back to Virginia after its first loss, Lind had them watch “Gran Torino,” the movie that directly confronts racism as a white, aging Clint Eastwood deals with a Hmong family as new neighbors.
Lind tries to change what he can, including the swearing that seems such a part of his players’ vocabulary. Change comes slow. During one early practice Lind sent players to the sideline who used obscenities, though the issue lingered through the season. “He f----- up on that,” said one player, during a late September film session. “That’s right,” said the coach, but “you got another adjective, though?”
“He messed up,” the player replied.
Lind’s right-hand man during the season was Jamie Freiheit, his only assistant. It was Freiheit, a large, emotional coach, who held up his cellphone, telling the players to call him if they got into trouble. And it was Freiheit who, in the dark, carried a large TV into an adjoining apartment to supervise the team at night. “I’m the ‘Dorm Dad,’ ” he said. “They’re all good kids.”
MESABI RANGE 2015 REGULAR SEASON
|Fond Du Lac 20
|Central Lakes 68
|Dakota State 32
There were good times this season for Lind. When the team thumped Northland, a smiling Lind did a dance as the players hooted and laughed. Mostly, Lind savored another season coaching. “What a day,” he told the team during one practice. “We’re playing the great game of football — a lot of people ain’t.”
Carol Helland, the school’s provost, is also positive about the benefits of football. “If I felt that the football program was harming this institution, [I] would not want to have a football program,” she said. “We have many success stories. [That’s] what motivates us.”
This year’s team had plenty of examples of the hope school officials say football brings to campus.
Afernee Alexander, the fidgety cornerback from tiny Yazoo City, Miss., had sat on a couch before the season began and explained that “I have four homeboys that died this year” from crime and violence. “Where I’m from, that’s natural,” he said. Keendarius Truesdale, the backup quarterback from South Carolina, had hurt his shoulder, and said becoming a culinary chef might be a backup plan “if I don’t go to the NFL.”
But as Mesabi’s losses mounted, there were already rumblings that some players would leave the school and continue their vagabond journey. “I’ll play next year, for sure, here,” said Zach Hilliard, the white free safety from Colorado was is ineligible this year.
But “it’s very possible we could have 30 new guys next year — and 30 guys that aren’t here,” he said.