In the burgeoning “gig economy,” you never quite know whom you might meet. Your Uber driver today might be waiting on the callback that will turn them into a movie star a year from now.
Or, in the case of Mitch Leidner, your Bite Squad driver might have been the Gophers’ former starting quarterback.
Last summer, Leidner was preparing for a senior season that many hoped would fuse all his fleeting moments of success from his first three years. He was on the Maxwell Award’s preseason watch list. ESPN’s Todd McShay named him as a possible first-round pick in his way-too-early mock draft last May. The Gophers had a soft schedule that could put them in contention for the Big Ten West title, the thinking went, and Leidner might get his chance to raise his NFL stock right along with the program’s profile.
That dream evaporated with back-to-back losses to start the Big Ten season, coupled with November losses at Nebraska and Wisconsin in which Leidner threw one touchdown against five interceptions. A post-draft tryout with the Baltimore Ravens didn’t yield a roster spot, and in between throwing sessions with Isaac Fruechte and workouts at Inspired Athletics in Plymouth this summer, Leidner drove around the Twin Cities delivering food.
“I train in the mornings; I’d go down and I’d help out at Lakeville South [his high school alma mater], and I’d do a delivery for Bite Squad at night and haul some meals around,” he said. “I hate to let those guys down, but it’s good to have an opportunity out here.”
Leidner’s first chance on an NFL roster, as shortlived as it might turn out to be, will come in his home state. The Vikings signed him Sunday, adding another quarterback to their roster with Taylor Heinicke watching practice following the team’s second preseason game in Seattle on Friday.
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said he is not worried about Heinicke’s health, but with the quarterback struggling in camp and sitting out for now, Leidner will get his shot.
“The big thing from his college tape is making sure he’s getting the ball to the right people, getting the ball out on time, making accurate throws,” Zimmer said. “I think those are probably things he probably struggles with the most, being his accuracy. So that’s the big thing: get out here and get timing with these receivers and be accurate.”
The Vikings roster is replete with players whose own roads to the NFL could provide inspiration for Leidner. Adam Thielen (from Detroit Lakes and Minnesota State Mankato) turned a rookie camp tryout into a practice squad spot, then a role as a special teams standout and a breakout season at wide receiver. Marcus Sherels, an undrafted free agent from Rochester John Marshall and the U, is now the third-longest tenured player on the team. And Fruechte — a Caledonia native who was Leidner’s college teammate for two years — was promoted to the Vikings roster at the end of last season.
“He was itching and just champing at the bit for me to get into a team as bad as I was,” Leidner said. “For him to walk into the locker room today and see me there, you could tell on his face he was really amped up. I was like, ‘I’m going to need your help learning this [offense].’ He was more than willing to help me.”
Whether Leidner’s time with the Vikings will lead to a roster spot, or even a place on their practice squad, remains to be seen. His size and mobility are the traits that led analysts to project he might grow with the Gophers, and they remain the ones that could allow him to prolong his football career in Minnesota a bit longer.
For this gig to become anything more than temporary for Leidner, he will need to learn the Vikings offense quickly, and minimize the mistakes that ultimately left his career with the Gophers on this side of fulfilled expectations. But after weeks of waiting for a call from any team, he got the one on Saturday he could barely believe.
“I was actually up at my cabin [when the Vikings called], and I was out fishing,” he said. “I didn’t have my phone necessarily right by me at the moment, and then a couple minutes later, I look and see, and I was like, ‘Holy cow, this is crazy.’ ”