One of the bigger football games in the state will take place Friday when Orono, undefeated at 3-0 ranked No. 5 in Class 4A, plays at the Academy of Holy Angels. which is also 3-0 and ranked No. 2 in 4A.
But football is just the backdrop for things that seem more meaningful, especially to those who play and root for Holy Angels.
Things like cabins and jet skis and hours spent in the backyard. Things like hockey games and Italian meals and important advice. Human things, like the bonds of friendship and team and family. But mostly, the thread that connects fathers and sons in ways that are better felt than explained.
Nate Nygren and his sons, Davis, 20, and Erik, 18, made the midsummer journey to the family cabin outside of Litchfield the way they had so many times before. “It was our men’s weekend,” said Erik, a senior who is the starting center for Holy Angels. “We were just barbecuing, jet-skiing, typical cabin stuff.”
As they readied to come back to the Twin Cities, Nate began experiencing shortness of breath. Worrisome, because he had experienced the same problem last October; it led to an ambulance trip and a diagnosis of a pulmonary embolism, resulting in his needing to use blood-thinners.
“I heard him struggling, so we rushed over to him and tried a bunch of different things,” Erik said. “Unfortunately, none of them worked out.”
Nate Nygren, 55, died with his sons by his side.
“It was pretty tough, but it wasn’t a complete surprise,” Erik said. “We knew after the first incident that he might not be around much longer.”
Returning to the family home in Bloomington, Erik spent little time reflecting on his father’s passing. After years spent in the backyard, working together to perfect his ability to snap a football, Erik knew where he needed to be.
“I was back in weight room, getting ready for the football season,” he said. “I wanted to get back to football. Somehow, it helped me sort of return to normalcy.’’
The thought of sitting out the season never occurred to him, Nygren said. He remembered the look on his father’s face when he was selected as a team captain.
“He was very enthusiastic about me playing football,” he said. “I’ll never forget how excited he was when I was chosen as a captain.”
Just about the same time, Nygren’s teammate on the offensive line, senior Jake Pierce, was taking a gut-shot of his own.
His father, Jim, was battling a recurrence of pancreatic cancer that he had previously licked. This time, however, it had spread to his lungs. He’s decided to have another go at chemotherapy in a couple of weeks.
“It hit me pretty hard,” said Pierce, who pulls double duty as a defensive tackle. “I think about it every day and I use it as motivation to fight and give everything I have. I owe it to him with everything he’s going through.”
Jim and Jake Pierce may not get to the Minnesota Wild games that they both cherish, trips that start with a stop at Cossetta’s.
“I get mostaccioli and a slice of pizza. My dad gets the same thing,” Jake said.
Jim Pierce never misses a football game. “It takes his mind off of everything else,” his son said. “Before every game, he gives me the same piece of advice: Get the first hit. It sets the tone.”
While football has come under fire for unnecessary exposure to injury, those who have played the game relish the unshakable bonds that are forged, unlike that of any other sport. School-day problems are set aside. On the field, it’s a brotherhood.
For Nygren and Pierce, football — more specifically, their Holy Angels teammates and coaches — has been their rock.
“What we’re focusing on is being there for each other, supporting each other, loving each other,” said Jim Gunderson, the Stars’ first-year head coach after five years as the defensive coordinator. “What we’re dealing with [Erik and Jake], we’ve let them know they’re not alone in this thing. We’re here for each other.”
Football figured prominently at Nate’s funeral. Denise Nygren spoke of her husband’s continued relationship with his football teammates of more than 30 years ago at Minneapolis South.
“He still got together with those 25 guys every year,” Gunderson recalled. “It was that special bond that football players carry with them for the rest of their lives. Any time a tragedy happens, it brings a family closer together. That’s what’s happened with this team. We’ve always been a close-knit group, but you can really see the love come out in these guys this year.”
Holy Angels has been playing very good football for the better part of three years, having played in two consecutive Class 4A state tournaments, including the 2013 Prep Bowl. Some key pieces were lost to graduation, but it has picked up where it left off last year as the circumstances surrounding Nygren and Pierce have solidified the team chemistry.
A pair of sophomores, quarterback Joe Heimbold and running back Jack Anderson, have played like seasoned vets. Wide receiver/strong safety Danny Hoffman has become a player to be feared on both sides of the ball. But, Nygren said, it’s mostly about turning something tragic into something terrific.
“Absolutely, winning helps,” Nygren said. “Not only for what I’m going through, but it affirms my faith, in my coaches and in my teammates.”