BLUE EARTH, MINN.
Juba's Super Valu grocery store has been a landmark in this small town nine miles north of the Minnesota/Iowa border for decades. Along with the price for produce, owner Tom Juba has seen something else grow.
"A lot more requests for Friday nights off," he said.
They come to Wilson Field along Hwy. 169 on the south edge of town to watch the Buccaneers football team. But most eyes this season are fixed upon the giants on the line -- most notably, 6-9 senior left tackle/defensive end Jonah Pirsig, a Gophers recruit who even towers over fellow 300-pound lineman Sam Lee by four inches.
Bob Martig coached football at Blue Earth for two decades. He never had a player like Pirsig, let alone two.
"If we had kids that big back then, they didn't play football," Martig said. "They didn't do anything. The big kids didn't generally have the ability to move."
Lee has heard from colleges, but has yet to receive a formal scholarship offer. Pirsig gave a verbal commitment to Jerry Kill at Minnesota on July 30. He chose the Gophers over, among others, Iowa, Wisconsin and defending national champion Auburn. He is one of eight in-state recruits to stay with Kill and the Gophers.
"Everything I wanted was right here at the U," Pirsig said. "Getting all these verbal commitments from all the top guys in the state, I really think it means something."
Perhaps this is why near everyone in Blue Earth not only has heard of Pirsig but is eager to see what the kid can do next.
"This is unusual for our team," said coach Randy Kuechenmeister, who took over for Martig in 1991. "We'll probably never have it again."
Giant in a small town
Bill Christiansen was a 5-8, 150-pound senior for the Buccaneers football team that advanced to the state's first state tournament in 1972.
He played center.
"That kind of size would have done something for our opponent -- one more thing to prepare for," Christiansen said of Pirsig.
Christiansen works the chain gang at Blue Earth home football games these days. He used to just watch the ball. That changed last year when he kept a closer eye on the line.
"He's raw yet," Christiansen said, putting on his Xs and Os cap. "I don't know Jonah, I've probably talked to him once. But I've heard that since last football season, all he's done is gotten better."
Blue Earth -- with a population of a little more than 3,000 and a high school enrollment of 322 -- has turned out Division I athletes before. In the last decade, Luke and Ty Eustice both went to Iowa for wrestling and Shannon Schonrock to Minnesota for women's basketball. All three excelled. Pirsig, though, is the first football player from town to gain this much interest since Shawn Ehrich walked on at Minnesota in the early 1990s.
Ready for anything
Sports always came naturally to Pirsig. While he's made football a priority, he played basketball for Blue Earth until last season when he instead chose to work with a personal trainer in nearby Fairmont in the football offseason. Pirsig still pitches for the Buccaneers baseball team.
The extra work has shown already. In Blue Earth's home opener last Friday, with the school principal and town's mayor watching through binoculars on opposite ends of the press box, Pirsig helped pave the way for four touchdown runs of 20 or more yards in a 57-40 victory over St. Paul Highland Park.
Every few years, Juba volunteers at the high school as a mock interviewer for students applying for mock jobs. Pirsig aced that test last spring.
"He's just smoother than heck," Juba said. "If you interview someone to be a meat cutter or something, they know what they're doing. Jonah had to work his way through this, and he did. Of all the times I've done it, he's in the top 10 percent. It makes you like him."
That's a common theme around town. Only his mother -- who lovingly referred to him as "uptight" during the rigorous recruiting process -- and his buddies offered minor character critiques.
"Believe it or not, he can get a little ticked off," said Lee, who has been best friends with Pirsig since the two ate their daycare out of afternoon snacks. "He gets that attitude, especially on game nights, where he's almost a completely different person. And for the football game at least, that's a good thing. He's more or less jacked up. He gets angry, and is ready to go push people around."
When the last whistle blows, he's back to being gentle giant Jonah. He minds his manners when getting ice cream at Bruce Ankeny's shop across the street from Juba's store. Pirsig's strong character matches his massive frame, noticeable anywhere he goes. He bobs through the school's hallways, a good head and a half above the flock, as he heads for the weight room to bench press a few hundred pounds and skip rope like the wind.
Big from the beginning
He was 9 pounds, 10 ounces and 22 1/2 inches at birth. He's been growing ever since.
"He was always the big kid, but he has two older sisters and they could flatten him like nothing," said Jonah's mother, Kristin Pirsig, adding that he would come home from wrestling tournaments having acquired a trophy simply because his opponents had forfeited.
Jonah grew about four inches a year as a child. He was also pigeon-toed.
"He fell down a lot," Kristin Pirsig said, chuckling. "But he learned that it hurt to fall down. He got better at it."
Having his education paid for because of sports -- and his size -- only entered his mind a couple years ago.
"I probably got serious about it my sophomore year," Pirsig said. "When I got the Auburn offer, which was like my fifth one, it really opened my eyes -- 'I can play college football.' Hearing from the national champs was pretty cool."
Almost on a whim, Pirsig and Lee attended Iowa's spring game two years ago. They only went because of a suggestion from a person who knew a person connected to the program. College scouts and Internet services such as Rivals.com had a hard time ignoring the two big boys from Blue Earth and soon the word was out.
Pirsig is listed as a three-star recruit by Rivals. The annual SuperPrep magazine ranks him as the 13th best offensive lineman in the country.
An early recruiting decision
Iowa was the first school to offer Pirsig a scholarship last fall. He texted his father from Iowa City with the news.
"I didn't even know what that meant," David Pirsig said. "I had never heard the terminology of recruiting."
It didn't take long.
College coaches started arriving at Blue Earth Area High School in droves. Whispers in the hallways went from who's holding hands with who at the football game to which school was in town next to watch Jonah Pirsig.
"I was in awe for a little while," Kuechenmeister said.
Lee, who has two brothers who play for Augustana in South Dakota, is hearing the most chatter from Minnesota and Iowa State. He has yet to make a decision and says he won't until after the high school season. Pirsig, on the other hand, wanted to get his decision out of the way -- in part, he said, so, "I could actually hold a conversation with someone for five minutes without them bringing up which school I was interested in."
He announced he had chosen Minnesota this summer. While not official until he signs a letter of national intent in February, it put an end to a grueling process. He could have gone to programs larger in stature and with larger crowds on fall Saturdays. But Pirsig decided to stick with the same maroon and gold colors he dons on Fridays.
Pirsig said he didn't want to be another product coming from a football factory -- perhaps a tip of the cap to the small town that is nurturing an unusually big dream.
"In a way I kind of did it for myself," Pirsig said. "Going to Minnesota and working hard there rather than just going through the assembly line at Wisconsin or Iowa. It will mean a lot more to me."