COLLEGEVILLE, MINN. – Gazing around her classroom, Dianne DeVargas could see she needed an example. As her group of English language learners wrestled with the concept of comparative adjectives — specifically, the progression from “busy” to “busier” to “busiest” — DeVargas wanted to give them a real-life illustration.
She found one sitting right in front of her, in red high-top sneakers and a backward ball cap.
“I think Jackson might be the busiest,” DeVargas said, smiling at volunteer tutor Jackson Erdmann. “He has to go to school, then to football practice, then he comes here, then he has to study. That’s pretty busy.”
It was an apt description of a typical Thursday for the St. John’s junior quarterback. After a two-hour practice, which ended with the sound of the 6 p.m. abbey bells drifting over Clemens Stadium, Erdmann dashed off for a quick shower and hoped to grab a cup of soup. There was no time to eat, though; he had to be in the basement of All Saints Academy in St. Joseph by 6:30, when he took his seat next to Hibak Dahir to help the young Somali woman learn English.
Erdmann’s schedule should leave him exhausted. Instead, it energizes him so much that he began assisting the students on many Tuesdays as well, while leading the third-ranked Johnnies to an 11-0 record, their 33rd MIAC championship and a berth in the second round of the NCAA playoffs Saturday against Whitworth (Wash.).
“Most of the people in the class are Somali refugees,” Erdmann said as he headed back to campus on a frigid night. “I can’t even imagine what they’ve been through. One or two nights a week is nothing for me to help them on their way.”
Since transferring from Penn State in 2016, Erdmann has become one of the most proficient quarterbacks in Division III. He has passed for 40 touchdowns this season, second most in the nation, and his 2,727 passing yards lead the MIAC. Tuesday, Erdmann was announced as one of 13 semifinalists for Division III player of the year and named the MIAC’s most valuable player.
It is off the field, though, where Erdmann considers himself a true warrior. His lifelong passion for social justice has ignited at St. John’s, taking him to unexpected places to aid powerless and marginalized people.
Erdmann spent 18 days in Thailand last winter to assist victims of child sex trafficking. Closer to home, he has volunteered with an organization that helps women escape prostitution, a group that helps men struggling with hardships such as mental illness and drug addiction, and the English as a second language program in St. Joseph.
“I’m pretty confident that’s what I want to do with the rest of my life,” said Erdmann, 21, a Rosemount native. “After the Thailand trip, I felt called. I want to keep fighting for the people who can’t fight.”
With his deep compassion and empathy, particularly for those at the edges of society, Erdmann defies the common perception of football players. Johnnies senior receiver Will Gillach said the most violent thing he’s seen Erdmann do is smash stereotypes.
“Jackson is the best, most talented person on our team,” said Gillach, Erdmann’s favorite target. “But he embodies what it means to put others first, in a way I’ve never seen before.
“It takes some real courage to jump into some of the things he’s done. But that’s who he is.”
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For Erdmann, it wasn’t a difficult decision to travel to northern Thailand last January, missing a chunk of football practice and two weeks of school. The hard part was coming home.
Through his work with three organizations, he met children who had been rescued from sex trafficking or begging rings, including some whose limbs had been amputated to play on tourists’ sympathy. Erdmann helped build a playground, installed fencing for a herd of goats, and cleared garbage and trees from land where safe houses would be built.
He also spent hours giving a taste of happy childhood to kids who had seen it snatched away. Moved to tears when he left, Erdmann spent much of the 30-hour trip home thinking about when he would return.
“In one village, the kids can’t afford to go to school, so they sit around and sniff glue off tins and get high,” he said. “We spent a day with them, bringing them food, making balloon animals, playing volleyball, dancing. Some of these kids have never had a chance to play or to just be a kid.
“I didn’t want to come back home. I just wanted to stay and keep working with them. Seeing them show such love despite everything they’ve been through, it made such an impact on me.”
The son of Rosemount High School football coach Jeff Erdmann, Jackson grew up in an environment where caring for others was second nature. Even among a family that prizes community service, his mom, Ruth, found his innate selflessness unusual.
“It’s just how he’s wired,” she said. “He is absolutely driven to help people.”
As a high school junior, Erdmann feared his football career might have ended when he developed a neurological illness — acute cerebellar ataxia — that left him temporarily unable to walk, stand or sit upright. He fought his way back to the football field through months of therapy, only to have his resolve tested again. In Rosemount’s 2014 state tournament loss to Lakeville North, Erdmann broke his left fibula early in the game but continued playing.
Struck by his courage as well as his ability, St. John’s coach Gary Fasching hoped to lure Erdmann to Collegeville. When the quarterback decided to accept a preferred walk-on offer at Penn State, Fasching told him the Johnnies’ door would remain open.
Erdmann walked through it a few months later, drawn to a program that seemed ideally suited to his dual passions.
“I wasn’t going to have much chance to play at Penn State,” he said. “St. John’s was the one school I felt bad about saying ‘no’ to. This place just kept pulling me back. There’s just something special about it.”
Fasching thought the same about his new quarterback.
“We knew about the toughness factor from watching him play that game on a broken leg,” Fasching said. “But he’s also a natural-born leader. The kids on our team just flock to him.
“We’re always talking to our guys about giving back to the community, doing things that set you apart from others. Jackson has really taken hold of that. And he’s not out there blowing his horn about it; he just does it. He is everything you want in a young student-athlete.”
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For some people, the world’s despair and injustice can seem overwhelming. For Erdmann, every new opportunity to offer help has added fuel to his fire.
He knew little about sex trafficking when he saw a flier posted on a school bulletin board, inviting students to learn more about the issue. Soon, he was contacting Rebecca Brown-Medvec, assistant director of intercultural and international student services at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s. She was “definitely surprised and a little concerned,” she said, when the quarterback asked to join a group working at Breaking Free during spring break.
No male student ever had been part of her volunteer corps at the St. Paul organization, which helps women and girls escape prostitution and sex trafficking. Erdmann was one of two men to participate in 2017, when he heard women tell stories of survival, learned to advocate for them and did chores at the facility.
Erdmann called it “a life-changing experience” that deepened his commitment to assist victims. It worked, Brown-Medvec said, because the signal-caller and leader was willing to become a listener and servant.
“He seemed to understand early on that fighting oppression of women is everyone’s work, and he needed to do his part,” she said. “When we were working together, it wasn’t, ‘Here’s Jackson, the man and football player.’ It was more, ‘Here’s Jackson, another person trying to care for the human family with us.’ ”
In the coming weeks, Erdmann hopes to lead his Johnnies football family to the program’s fifth national championship. A global business major with a minor in theology, he plans to return to Thailand this winter and to Collegeville next fall for a fifth school year and a final football season.
He envisions a future spent wherever there is need. Erdmann wants to teach English abroad while working for social justice, particularly with groups that assist children.
For now, he will keep making the weekly trek to the school basement in St. Joseph, huddling with refugees over an English workbook as comfortably as he oversees the offense at football practice.
“One day in Thailand, I was in a cafe run by an organization that rescues sex trafficking victims,” Erdmann said. “There was a quote on the wall that said, ‘Dare to enter the darkness to bring another into the light.’ I sat there and stared at it for the longest time, thinking about how powerful that was.
“That’s my calling. I really believe that’s what I’m meant to do.”