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Gophers assistant feels personal connection in helping MD fundraiser

  • Article by: Joe Christensen
  • Star Tribune
  • September 26, 2013 - 12:21 AM

Gophers defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel never got the chance to meet his brother-in-law, Steven Rowe, but he’s heard the stories.

Rowe was perfectly healthy until about age 4, when he started falling down frequently and was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. It’s a disease that affects about 1 in 3,600 children, most of them boys, and it has no cure.

By third grade, Rowe was in a wheelchair. He was an artist who loved to paint and made his way to Northwood University in Michigan, but his muscles slowly deteriorated. He was 6-4 and weighed only 69 pounds when he died at age 21 in 2000.

Thursday would have been his 35th birthday.

“He was a true inspiration to everybody,” Sawvel’s wife, Jeannine, said of her younger brother. “He smiled every day.”

On Saturday, Sawvel and other members of the American Football Coaches Association will wear special patches on their sleeves as part of the sixth annual Coach to Cure MD campaign. Sawvel will be featured in a public service announcement at TCF Bank Stadium during the Iowa game.

Fans will be asked to make a donation to help fight Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Contributors can text the word CURE to the number 90999 and have their $5 donation automatically added to their cellphone bill.

“When I found out there were 115 families in the Twin Cities that have a child with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, I was shocked,” said Sawvel, who met his wife after her brother passed away. “It would be like an entire team of kids that have that.

“We’ve all heard the great cancer story where somebody’s been told they’re going to die and they don’t. And that option doesn’t exist for these kids yet.”

Nelson’s progress

Quarterback Philip Nelson, who missed last week’s game because of a strained right hamstring, continues to make progress, but all signs still point toward Mitch Leidner starting Saturday’s game against Iowa.

“I could tell [Nelson] pushed himself a little bit today,” coach Jerry Kill said after Tuesday’s practice. “After his workout [Monday], he wasn’t real, real sore, which is a good sign.”

But Kill pointed to the way Ohio State has handled starting quarterback Braxton Miller’s knee injury. Buckeyes backup Kenny Guiton has thrown for 12 touchdowns over the past three weeks.

“I think Ohio State’s done the same thing,” Kill said. “Their No. 2’s pretty dang good, too, so they’ve kind of stuck with him until that other kid’s truly ready to go. And you’re always better off playing a player that’s 100 percent.”

Kirkwood’s available

Running back Donnell Kirkwood returned to special teams duty last week after missing the previous two games because of a sprained ankle. Kirkwood will get more carries in practice this week, but it’s uncertain how much he’ll play against Iowa.

“We’ve got the other two [David Cobb and Rodrick Williams] playing at a high level right now, so we’re in a good situation,” Kill said. “If we need a spark, and we hit a snag or whatever, [Kirkwood’s] definitely more ready than he was last week. He missed a lot of time, and now he’s got to get his rhythm back.”

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