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Gophers' Rodney Smith: Etiquette, fashion and life under Fleck

CHICAGO – One of the best things about covering the Big Ten media days is extended access to players and coaches in a relaxed setting.

The Gophers had their media sessions on Tuesday and I was able to spend about 30 minutes with star running back Rodney Smith.

It was the longest conversation I’ve had with Smith and I found his answers to be thoughtful and funny.

Here are a few highlights:

Smith was asked about the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy, which mascot Goldy Gopher introduced in 2014 as a reward to the winner of the Minnesota-Nebraska game.

“It started my redshirt freshman year,” Smith said. “I saw it on Twitter. I thought it was a real trophy game because I’m from Georgia. I didn’t really know much about the trophy games. It’s interesting.”

Smith added: “When we had it I don’t remember seeing it, now that I think about it.”

Smith on the impact of the upcoming $166 million Athletes Village: “That will be a big deal for the University of Minnesota. It definitely helps with recruiting. When I came on my visit and I saw other schools, when I saw University of Minnesota and how our facilities stack up to other schools, I wasn’t really impressed honestly.”

Smith said he visited East Carolina, Georgia Tech and Georgia when he was in high school.

“Once you see those other schools, you could tell that we’re a little bit behind,” he said.

On what he liked about Minnesota when he visited: “I fell in love with the city when I got here. Growing up in Georgia, I didn’t hear anything about Minnesota. I thought it was country, farmland. I fell in love with the city. And I thought about opportunities after football with all the Fortune 500 companies in the Twin Cities. And I thought it was time for me to grow up as a young man.

On the first time he saw snow: “I was nervous. The first time I saw actual snow, I called [former strength coach Eric Klein] and said, ‘It’s snowing. What do you want me to do?’ He said, ‘We still have workouts. What do you mean?’ I was like, ‘How am I going to get there?’ He said, ‘You’ve got to walk.’ In Georgia, we get a little bit of ice, everything is canceled.

On the different classes that P.J. Fleck holds for players: “We have classes to help with things outside of football. We have financial class, an etiquette dinner. A swag class, we had stylists come talk to us about dos and don’ts. Like big guys shouldn’t wear stripes. Stuff like that. It was helpful. I appreciated it.”

On the etiquette dinner Fleck put on for players and their girlfriends/dates: “It was a fun time. For occasions like this, Big Ten media day, you don’t want to be at the table eating like a barbarian. We learned the correct etiquette in how to eat.”

Finally, Smith was asked about a report by USA Today that Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany will receive $20 million in “future bonus payments” in the context of an ongoing national discussion about student-athlete benefits and whether they should be paid. Smith paused before answering.

“Uh, proud of him,” Smith said, smiling.

Despite not being used, Wheeler enjoys 'cool moment' of MLB call-up

This got lost in the historic late-inning collapse by the Twins bullpen on Monday but pitcher Jason Wheeler got his first call-up to the majors, a special moment for him and his family.

Wheeler wasn’t used as the bullpen unraveled in a 16-8 loss to the Houston Astros. It’s unclear how long his stay will last, but the 26-year-old savored his first opportunity in the big leagues after being in the minors since 2012.

He was practically giddy after seeing his jersey hanging in his locker stall when he walked into the clubhouse at Target Field on Monday morning.

“You’ve got to somewhat act like you’ve been here [before] but I don’t really care too much about acting like that,” he said. “This is a cool moment. I’m going to enjoy it.”

Wheeler was roasting s’mores Sunday evening with a few friends in Rochester, N.Y., when he received a phone call from a Chicago area code. He didn’t recognize the number but he decided to answer it rather than let it go to voicemail.

Rochester manager Mike Quade was on the other end, telling him to pack his bags for a 6:45 a.m. flight to Minneapolis.

“Joy is the word I would use to describe it,” Wheeler said. “With some nerves mixed in.”

Baseball players get called up from the minors every day, a normal business transaction that allows teams to fill a hole in their roster.

But that phone call and plane ride become pinch-me moments for players experiencing it for the first time. Wheeler was selected in the eighth round of the 2011 draft.

“It’s good to be rewarded and to be seen as someone they want to come up here and help out,” he said.

Wheeler hung up with Quade and called his wife, Maddie, back in North Carolina. His hands were shaking and sweaty.

“She was in disbelief,” Wheeler said.

His next call went to his mom Heather in California. His parents were out to dinner with their nephew when Heather’s phone rang around 7:30 p.m. She remarked that it was an unusual time for her son to be calling.

He told her that he only had a few minutes to chat but wanted to let her know that he was just called up to the majors.

His mom shrieked so loud that the whole restaurant looked, thinking something was wrong.

“I had tears in my eyes I was so excited,” she said.

Out of breath, she passed the phone to her husband, Gerry.

“That was pretty cool to hear that reaction,” Jason said.

Wheeler’s parents immediately dialed Delta to make plans, hoping to get to Target Field for Monday’s afternoon game, if possible. They found a red-eye leaving at 12:30 a.m.

Heather was so excited and consumed by travel plans that she didn’t even take a bite of her prime rib sandwich.

“It looked pretty good,” she said. “It’s in my refrigerator.”

His parents hustled home from the restaurant, threw some clothes in a suitcase and made it to LAX at 10:30 p.m. Their plane landed at MSP around 6:30 a.m. Monday.

“It’s been crazy, no sleep,” Heather said a few hours before first pitch.

Jason’s wife, Maddie, flew in from North Carolina. Her parents and two brothers flew from Massachusetts.  

Wheeler’s brother Ryan, who played in three major-league seasons split between Arizona and Colorado, found an overnight flight, along with his wife.

In all, Wheeler’s cheering section totaled 14 people, including his best friend from California and his host family from St. Cloud where he played in the Northwoods League in 2010.

Heather’s sister is arriving in town Tuesday.

They all came on short notice. Heather took pictures of her son on the field signing autographs for fans before Monday’s game.

“No way were we going to miss this,” she said. “This is very special. We’re very grateful to all the people that helped him develop.”

Wheeler was scheduled to start for Rochester on Monday. Instead, he took an early flight to Minneapolis, dropped his stuff at the hotel and made his way to Target Field.

He attended Twinsfest a few years ago so he had been to the ballpark. This time was extra special.

“It’s a really cool thing to be here and see a jersey with my name on it in this awesome clubhouse,” he said. “I’ve never been in a clubhouse this big.”

Wheeler is in his sixth professional season as a starting pitcher. The Twins added him to the 40-man roster before 2015 season but removed him after a disappointing season.

 In 15 starts at Rochester that season, he went 1-7 with a 6.58 earned run average.

“It’s obviously not fun to get taken off the roster and get a call from the general manager saying they have to make a move,” Wheeler said. “It was just a hurdle. I knew I was better than what I did in that 2015 season. I just had to figure out some things.”

Wheeler said he never lost faith that he could keep climbing the organizational ladder. She spent most of last season at Rochester and pitched much better. He is 4-1 with a 4.50 ERA this season with 37 strikeouts and 10 walks.

The Twins called him up as a reliever because their bullpen is running on fumes. Wheeler doesn’t know if he will be used or how long he will stay. But he described his first taste of major league baseball as a “pretty surreal feeling.”

He also won’t complain when he’s sent back to the minors.

“You get up and play baseball every day. How much can you really complain?” he said. “Yeah, it’s not fun to take a seven-hour bus ride overnight. But you’re playing baseball. There are people in life who are struggling with a lot worse stuff than me having to deal with a long bus ride.”

TV Listings

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