The Concordia Cobbers will assemble in Moorhead this weekend to start practices for their 101st football season. The number of players expected to draw equipment on Saturday is 137, allowing Concordia to continue as a location that refutes the notion football is in substantial decline with the number of lads willing to compete.
The Cobbers received a fine bit of promotion Friday morning, when receiver Brandon Zylstra was featured in the Star Tribune column of Sid Hartman, approaching merely his 74th football season as a Minneapolis sports writer.
Zylstra wrapped up an excellent career at Concordia in the fall of 2015 and became a star receiver for the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL. He’s now competing with a deep group of candidates to be the fourth or fifth wide receiver for the Vikings.
Jim Cella, Concordia’s sports information director, was at Thursday’s Vikings practice. I talked with him later and asked a familiar question:
“Remind me … what’s the source of Cobbers?’’
The information Cella sent along included the fact that Vikings was nominated as a nickname in the 1920s, but was rejected by students. Maybe they had a premonition about Super Bowls and defeat.
Concordia grew in the 1890s in the middle of corn fields and rival schools called its students “corncobs’’ — and Cobbers became the official nickname in 1932.
“Fear the Ear,’’ as the students now tell you.
A breakthrough by Zylstra — from Division III to the Vikings — would be a long-shot success, but not unprecedented:
Jim Christopherson was the Vikings placekicker in 1962, Gary Larsen was a Purple People Eater from 1964 to 1974, and Barry Bennett was a nose tackle for two brief Vikings moments.
Kim Bokamper, the outstanding Dolphin, was also a Cobber for a freshman season (1972), and linebacker Dave Klug played four seasons with the Chiefs.
The exceptional tradition of Concordia football gets lost even with those Twin Citians who do take an interest in the MIAC.
When Gustavus was the power in the 1950s, Concordia was there as a worthy rival. When St. John’s John Gagliardi was winning his first national title (NAIA) in 1963, Concordia was national co-champion the next season — the first of its three national titles.
When Minnesota Duluth was in the league (through 1974) and Jim Malosky was a legendary coach, Concordia was there with Jake Christiansen and then Christopherson as a stout opponent. As Bethel became the main challenger to St. John’s in the late ’90s, Concordia remained an obstacle.
What Concordia and coach Terry Horan haven’t done as of yet is defeat St. Thomas in the decade since Glenn Caruso turned the Tommies into a dynastic force. The Cobbers had St. Thomas by the throat in Moorhead in 2016 and let it get away.
Now, the Cobbers are coming off an 8-2 season with an experienced roster and home games against St. Thomas and also St. John’s. And MIAC football coaches have a tendency to talk about the trip to Moorhead as if they are embarking on a wagon-train ride to Butte, Mont.
Home field aside, the Cobbers could use a monster like Bennett in the middle of the defense when facing the Tommies and the Johnies.
Barry was in town with his wife, Carol, this week. They are twice-a-week commuters from Long Prairie for not the best of reasons: treatment at the University of Minnesota for the rare cancer that Barry has been battling in his left arm.
This guy, though … he was a three-time national heavyweight champion wrestler for the Cobbers, and a third-rounder (60th overall) for New Orleans in 1974. He was a nose tackle, with a menacing Fu Manchu mustache and never weighing over 270.
Before Concordia, Bennett played for Gary Gustafson at North St. Paul and dreamed of being a Viking.
“After the Saints let me go, I was in camp with the Vikings in ’82 and was going to make the team,’’ Bennett said. “Then, Bud [Grant] brought in Charlie Johnson from Philadelphia in late August.
“I was crushed, but the Jets signed me, and that got me six good years in New York, on a line with [Mark] Gastineau and [Joe] Klecko.’’
The Jets cut Bennett in 1988 and he was back home in Buffalo, Minn., with his family. Henry Thomas was banged up and the Vikings brought in Bennett from 40 miles away for Game 16.
Zylstra would be a good story but not a groundbreaker as a Cobber turned Viking. Larsen was a force, Christopherson was the kicker, and Bennett had that one game — a 28-27 thriller over the Bears.
“Walker Lee Ashley had that long interception against [Mike] Tomczak,’’ Bennett said. “It was a great game. And I’m undefeated as a Viking.’’