Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
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BY PHIL MILLER
I'm on my way to Chicago for Big Ten media days, the first real milepost of the new season. It means training camp is just a week away for the Gophers, and opening night in Las Vegas kicks off five weeks from tomorrow.
Before moving on, though, I wanted to share a few more impressions of Andre McDonald, the freshman receiver from Hopkins whose story I told in last Wednesday's Star Tribune. I wrote a lot about his back-and-forth recruitment in that story, when he committed to Minnesota, changed his mind and chose Vanderbilt instead, then ultimately signed with the Gophers. That recruitment was a fascinating process, and it's interesting to hear some of the details.
McDonald, for instance, was nervous about flying to Nashville to take his formal visit with the Commodores, not because of the school but because of the date -- Sept. 11. "I remember thinking, 'I'm on a plane on 9/11' -- it scared me a little bit," McDonald said. "But Nashville was great. It was really friendly, and I really liked it. It was one of the few places I visited that I could really picture myself living."
And Vanderbilt's staff knew how to entertain a recruit. Jenny Blomgren, the woman who took McDonald into her home when he was kicked out by his parents and basically adopted him the past three years, remembers how excited Andre was when he returned to Minnesota.
"Those recruiting trips are fun, you know. They go out of their way to make sure you have a good time. They make it hard to say no," she said. "He said he walked into a party [in Nashville] and all the cheerleaders rushed him. I said, 'That's because you're a recruit, Andre. It's not going to happen every time you go to a party.' "
Vanderbilt's staff was unusually young, too. Receivers coach Josh Gattis is only 28; when he visited with McDonald, they played video games together. "That's fine, Andre had tons of fun," Blomgren said. "But the Minnesota coaches, they're kind of what Andre needs. They're a little bit older, and they're all really easy to talk to. He needs that sort of father figure."
When coaching-staff turnover caused McDonald to withdraw his commitment to Vanderbilt, he considered Minnesota and UCLA, and flew to Los Angeles to visit the campus. He and Blomgren noticed a big difference in the atmosphere there. Coach Jim Mora Jr., whose entire career prior to this season was spent in the NFL, seemed not quite sure how to deal with teenagers.
"It's like night and day between the NFL guys and college coaches. I think the NFL guys are used to dealing with players for a few hours and then everyone goes home. They didn't seem comfortable around the kids," Blomgren said. "There were so many moments of awkward silence on that trip. We were sitting in the weight room once, and we asked a few questions, and then we just sort of stood there for a few minutes."
McDonald flew home and made up his mind to enroll at Minnesota, a decision that delighted the Gopher coaches. And both Blomgren and Hopkins coach John DenHartog believe it's the best choice for him, too.
"The coaching staff there, a lot of them have been together for 16 or 17 years -- they can tell you exactly how you're going to be treated, what will be expected of you, and what you will get out of the experience," DenHartog said. "It's just a great support system."
Especially for a Minnesota kid, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said.
"There's something to be said for local," Limegrover said. "When a guy like Andre comes to Minnesota, he's not just another recruit. He's somebody everyone knows. If he had gone to Vanderbilt, he would have been the kid from Minneapolis."
Instead, he's a well-known athlete, and not just at football. McDonald was a baseball player first, beginning when he was 10, and "he became something of a local legend around here, hitting monster home runs," DenHartog said. "He's one of the most natural athletes I've ever seen."
McDonald added basketball when he was in sixth grade, too, and even made a Howard Pulley traveling team. Then he went out for football in high school "because I could take my frustrations out on the field," he said. "It's fun to hit and be hit and nobody gets hurt."
Actually, he did get hurt, tearing the meniscus in a knee during his sophomore season. But he became an All-Metro player his junior year, catching 19 touchdown passes. He began hearing from recruiters from all over the country -- but not from his home team. Gophers coach Tim Brewster never called him, and Minnesota seemingly had no interest until Jerry Kill was hired. Kill, on the other hand, called just a couple of days after taking the job, and that pursuit ultimately paid off.
"We were all excited. That's a talented young man. I think we can be good for him, I really do," Kill said. "The discipline and things for our program, the talent level he brings, I don't think there's any question about it. You can't give everybody his speed, strength, jump, vertical jump -- what we have to do is work on the focus and discipline, all those things. He's coming into a good environment."
And he wants to be there, which is the important thing.
"I learned this from Coach Kill very early -- you absolutely don't want kids who don't want to be there," Limegrover said. "If we had bullied Andre into coming here, that relationship wasn't going to continue to grow. and it needs to. If they don't want to be where they're at, if they don't trust us, then that relationship is fractured before it really begins."
Now his college career is about to begin, with training camp opening a week from Saturday. McDonald has played catch with quarterback MarQueis Gray, but nobody knows if he'll ever do that during a game. Gray is a senior, and McDonald, as is normal practice with most freshmen, might redshirt.
Or he might not. Kill and Limegrover both left open the possibility that the 18-year-old might play right away, given the Gophers' apparent shortage of game-changing receivers.
McDonald is happy to leave the decision to them.
"I don't expect to just go in and be praised. I know I'll have to work hard and earn everything," he said. "To be honest, [playing right away] isn't really high up on my list. I would love the opportunity, but it would also be nice to go in and take the time to learn everything -- how to manage school, how to manage life, how to manage football. But I think I can handle it, either way. That's what the coaches are there for."
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