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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Getting to know the Gophers football team, it's a compelling bunch

Posted by: Joe Christensen under Gophers player capsules, Gophers preseason practice Updated: August 26, 2013 - 2:00 PM

Heading into Thursday's opener against UNLV, It’s hard for me to know how good this Gophers team is. I’m struck by how confident the players and coaches are in the direction they’re heading, but I realize that’s a common theme for any team in August.

One thing I’ll say is this team should be a compelling team to follow. The individual stories continue to surprise me. If there’s a general theme, it seems to be a group of underdogs who’ve worked tirelessly – on and off the field -- to get to this point, overcoming whatever obstacles stood in their way. Here’s a sampling:

The head coach, Jerry Kill, has overcome cancer and epilepsy, winning 136 games in 19 seasons.

The offensive coordinator, Matt Limegrover, had gastric bypass surgery in May 2012 and has dropped from 403 pounds to about 235, while completely changing the way he eats.

The team's top NFL prospect, Ra'Shede Hageman, went through 12 foster homes before being adopted by a Minneapolis couple, who helped mold him into the man he is today, as Amelia Rayno explains here.

One starting safety, Cedric Thompson, grew up in Compton and escaped the gang violence by moving to a surreal place on the Salton Sea called Bombay Beach, where he used to wake up each morning for a two-hour bus ride to school.

The other starting safety, Brock Vereen, has a brother in the NFL. Growing up, their parents had a rule that they couldn’t play football until they were finished with their homework.

One of their tight ends, Maxx Williams, is the son of two former Gophers athletes, which only begins to explain his athletic bloodlines.

The starting center, Jon Christenson, is a former walk-on who plans to become a doctor someday, which would just add him to the long list of doctors in his family. He’s also the grandson of a best-selling author.

Starting defensive tackle, Cameron Botticelli, is a former walk-on who plans to pursue a law degree.

Another former walk-on, linebacker Aaron Hill, has emerged as one of the team's defensive leaders.

One starting defensive end, Theiren Cockran, was the third most decorated member of his high school defensive line.

The starting middle linebacker, Damien Wilson, came to the Gophers from Jones County (Miss.) Community College, where he played for former NFL head coach Ray Perkins.

The top returning rusher, Donnell Kirkwood, is the son of a welder who built sleds out of steel pipe for the whole Delray Beach, Fla., neighborhood, helping those kids improve their speed.

Their two starting cornerbacks, Derrick Wells and Eric Murray, were both listed as two-star recruits coming out of high school, which still leaves Gophers coaches shaking their heads.

One of their top receivers, Derrick Engel, transferred to Minnesota from Winona State, and another, Isaac Fruechte, transferred from Rochester Community and Technical College.

They all have interesting backgrounds, so it'll be fun to see how well they come together as a team.

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