The football rivalry between St. Thomas and St. John’s often plays out like a brawl between brothers. Once a year, players from two hypercompetitive, Division III Catholic universities slug it out for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon, then hug it out afterward.
It’s not often, though, that actual brothers are on opposite sidelines. The Borgeson siblings from Rochester — Johnnies senior Kyle, and Tommies sophomore Noah — experienced that for the first time last year. Not only did they get through it without any hard feelings, they can’t wait to do it all over again Saturday, when the 89th edition of the Tommie-Johnnie game is played at St. Paul’s Allianz Field.
St. Thomas’ expulsion from the MIAC has put the future of the rivalry in doubt, draping a touch of melancholy around this year’s game. That has been elbowed aside this week. In what could be their second-to-last meeting, the No. 4 Johnnies and No. 11 Tommies are pouring all their emotion into the immediate future: a high-stakes game before 19,400 fans, between two brothers in blood and nearly 200 more in spirit.
“These are two great programs that are so well-coached,” said Kyle Borgeson, the Johnnies’ starting nose tackle. “They’re two schools with great histories in academics and sports. That’s what makes the rivalry so great.
“It’s very competitive. But both schools are full of great people, and off the field, we’re all friends. For my brother to be there on the other side of the field, for the last Tommie-Johnnie game I’ll ever play in, it’s going to be awesome.”
Both teams enter the rivalry game undefeated in MIAC play. St. Thomas is 4-1, with a nonconference loss at Wisconsin-Eau Claire on Sept. 28. St. John’s has built a 5-0 record on the precision passing of quarterback Jackson Erdmann and a defense that allows 8.8 points per game, tied with the Tommies for fifth lowest in NCAA Division III.
At practice this week, both have tried to prepare for the unique atmosphere of Allianz Field. The stadium configuration puts fans very close to the field, amplifying the sound of nearly 20,000 spectators. The grass surface also will be unusual for two teams used to playing on artificial turf.
“It will be a little different than playing at Augsburg or Hamline,” said Erdmann, a senior who won last year’s Gagliardi Trophy as the top player in Division III. “I’m really excited about the venue. It’s going to be really cool for both programs.”
Noah Borgeson, a reserve defensive lineman for the Tommies, was in the stands — and on a different side — the last time the game was held off-campus. He attended the 2017 game at Target Field, where he rooted for Kyle and the Johnnies.
Both Borgesons narrowed their college choices to St. Thomas and St. John’s. Unlike Kyle, Noah picked the city school over the country campus. Like other Tommies players, Noah is trying to make this week all business, as hard as that is.
“I didn’t pay that much attention to the rivalry until Kyle went to St. John’s,” said Noah, who played with his sibling for two years at Rochester Lourdes. “For a couple of years, I actually wore the red because of him. To be on the field last year for my first Tommie-Johnnie game, it was pretty awesome to be part of that.”
Though the rivalry is rich with history, it’s also firmly grounded in the present. The game will again be critical to the race for the MIAC championship and the playoffs, particularly for the Tommies.
With one loss already, coach Glenn Caruso said Saturday’s game is “enormous” to the Tommies’ postseason hopes. Though he and St. John’s coach Gary Fasching both said they are disappointed and saddened by the potential end to the rivalry, there is too much at stake to indulge those feelings Saturday.
Erdmann said the uncertainty makes this year’s game feel even more special than usual. “It’s crazy to think about it coming to an end,” he said. “I’m just so fortunate I got to experience it for four years. This is the opportunity of a lifetime, one of the last Johnnie-Tommie games, and we want to make it the best experience possible.”
The Borgeson brothers will be hoping for the same thing, from opposite sides of the ball.
“There won’t be any trash-talking,” Kyle said. “The only thing we’ll say to each other is ‘Good luck.’ And play your best.”