Bruce Smith was Minnesota’s lone Heisman Trophy winner as a Gophers halfback in 1941. A few months later, Columbia Pictures cranked out a 66-minute film titled “Smith of Minnesota,” with the quiet and humble Smith playing himself in what was actually a secondary role.
Smith died of cancer at age 47 on Aug. 26, 1967. As he went through that ordeal, Smith was responsible for many kind acts in visiting children in hospitals. His companion on those visits, Rev. William Cantwell, would start a campaign to have Smith canonized as a saint in the Holy Roman Church.
Father Cantwell didn’t succeed, although sainthood truly is an area where it’s an honor just to be nominated, right?
It is unlikely that Mitch Leidner, the current Gophers quarterback, will receive similar backing from Steve Frederickson, with a good reason being that Frederickson practices the Lutheran faith.
Beyond that complication, there’s not much more in the way of praise that Frederickson could offer for Leidner as a young man — particularly for one that he’s never met.
This all started when Jonah Pirsig, an enormous lineman from Blue Earth, Minn., was a junior being recruited by a number of big-time schools in the winter of 2010-11. Pirsig had played for Steve Frederickson in middle school, and for Steve’s son Jay, an assistant with the Blue Earth Area High School program.
Jerry Kill, the new Gophers coach, came to the school for a visit with Pirsig. The Fredericksons were impressed with Kill’s country charm and found themselves privately hoping that Pirsig would choose Minnesota.
Pirsig announced for the Gophers in the summer before his senior season. Lakeville South’s Leidner also committed to the Gophers, and was an early enrollee for the spring semester of 2012.
Leidner and Pirsig were freshman redshirts that fall. They discovered a mutual fondness for outdoor activities — fishing and deer hunting — and became roommates.
Leidner started the 2013 season as the backup to Philip Nelson. Pirsig had injury problems and talent in front of him, and would play in seven games.
The Gophers and Nelson started with a pair of blowouts. They struggled in a 29-12 victory against Western Illinois and Leidner was given some duty. That also was the game in which Kill suffered an epileptic seizure at halftime.
A week later, on Sept. 21, the Gophers had a dominating 43-24 victory over San Jose State. Leidner was 5-for-12 for 71 yards passing, and bulled for 151 yards and four touchdowns rushing.
It was during the second half that Steve Frederickson put in an excited call to his son.
“Dad couldn’t stop talking about how impressed he was with Leidner’s play … how excited he was about his future,” Jay said. “It was surprising because my dad is an old-fashioned Norwegian and usually a man of few words.”
Jay decided to give his father a surprise. He called Pirsig’s cellphone after the game and asked him to have Leidner call Steve Frederickson that night. Pirsig arranged it.
“Jay didn’t tell me what was going on, but he did say there would be a call in a few minutes and be sure to answer it,” Steve said. “Five minutes later, Mitch Leidner called, thanked me for my support, and said he would try to live up to my confidence in him.
“We talked for 10 minutes. I could tell from that conversation that he was a terrific young man, with the attitude to lead a team. When I read a story recently about how the Gophers are rallying around Mitch as their quarterback, I wasn’t surprised at all.”
There was a big surprise for Steve Frederickson, now 60, last December. He was discovered to have a leaky valve in his heart. He was set for surgery at Christmastime. Pirsig told Leidner about Steve’s predicament — and again there was a call to Blue Earth.
“Mr. Frederickson seemed like a really nice guy, and I just wanted to wish him the best,” Leidner said.
All is well. Steve is back painting houses (all old coaches in rural Minnesota are house painters in the summer) and waiting for the start of the Gophers season.
“I’m optimistic, about Mitch as the quarterback, about Jonah showing what he can do, about the whole team,” Steve said. “I’d like to get up there to see a game this fall and meet Mitch in person.”
Footnote: The Holy Roman Church doesn’t have a St. Mitch. I looked it up.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. firstname.lastname@example.org