OTTER TAIL COUNTY, MINN. – Raindrops fell intermittently on a cloudy Saturday as a fishing party with three boats sped across a lake to find some prime spots. Athan Kaliakmanis took his seat in the lead boat, a fitting position given he will likely be the starting quarterback when the Gophers open their season against Nebraska on Aug. 31.

An avid angler while growing up in Antioch, Ill., Kaliakmanis was accompanied by his father, Alex, and brothers Dino and Andreas. Together, they proceeded to reel in a variety of walleyes, smallmouth bass and largemouth bass.

"I'm so super excited to come up here and experience the northern part of Minnesota,'' Kaliakmanis said during a break in the action. "And I love everything about it.''

The rain didn't dampen the spirits of the anglers, and Athan caught two largemouth bass and two walleye during the first 1½ hours of the excursion.

An afternoon of fishing and bonding on an Otter Tail County lake suited the Kaliakmanis crew well, with Alex declaring, "Fishing is life in our family."

Football is, too, and for Athan, that means his starring role with the Gophers is coming soon.

With training camp less than five weeks away, he is poised to take the reins of the Gophers offense after starting five games as a redshirt freshman in 2022 in place of injured veteran Tanner Morgan. Coach P.J. Fleck won't officially name a starter until training camp and fifth-year junior Cole Kramer will provide competition, but all signs say that it's Kaliakmanis' time.

"I just can't wait to go play with my brothers," Kaliakmanis said of his Gophers teammates.

The prominence that comes with being a Big Ten starting quarterback these days also creates money-making opportunities through the NCAA's loosened name, image and likeness (NIL) rules. The QB's trip to Otter Tail County was set up by Team IFA, a Minneapolis-based marketing agency that is involved with professional and collegiate athletes.

In this case, the Otter Tail Lakes Country Association is promoting this area roughly 175 miles northwest of the Twin Cities not only for tourism, but also as a place to work and live. Enter Kaliakmanis, who will be the face of Gophers football and who was eager to fish the area for the first time.

"We use tourism as a first date," said Erik Osberg, one of the association's promoters. "… Then if they fall in love, they get married, they move up here and they live their best life."

The best life for Kaliakmanis on this Father's Day weekend came on one of Otter Tail County's 1,048 lakes. Osberg, guide Cody Hill and local resident Scott Schake piloted the boats on a body of water that shall remain unidentified because those in the angling business prefer to keep their honey holes secret.

Getting to know him

Kaliakmanis' NIL appearance began at Ben's Bait Shop in Battle Lake, where he purchased his Minnesota fishing license, signed a few autographs and posed for pictures. After that came lunch at the Rusty Nail, where the quarterback, wearing a hoodie from the bait shop, blended in with the patrons. Osberg, for one, is trying to plant the Gophers flag in an area that's tinted with the green and yellow of the Bison, with FCS power North Dakota State only 80 miles away in Fargo.

Attention for Kaliakmanis, of course, will increase come football season. The lean 6-4, 210-pounder will try to build off a strong finish to 2022, when he went 4-2 as a starter and helped the Gophers finish 9-4.

For the first time in five years, the Gophers will start the season without Morgan under center. In replacing an injured Morgan last year, Kaliakmanis went through his ups and downs. His first start was in the pressure cooker of Penn State's Beaver Stadium in front of a White Out crowd of nearly 110,000. Kaliakmanis went 9-for-22 for 175 yards and a touchdown with an interception.

"I was not happy with my performance in that game," he said of the 45-17 defeat. "I take every loss to heart. I hate losing."

Kaliakmanis' biggest impacts came at Nebraska, when he entered the game after halftime to spark a comeback from a 10-point deficit, and at Wisconsin, when he passed for 319 yards and two touchdowns while leading the winning fourth-quarter rally. He was just getting heated up in the Pinstripe Bowl victory over Syracuse when a sprained ankle suffered in the second quarter ended his day.

"I felt after every game, I was taking a step in the right direction. I was getting better," Kaliakmanis said. "No matter what it was, I learned something new every game."

A self-described quiet guy, Kaliakmanis is not one to demand the spotlight. Some media members have dubbed him the "Greek Rifle," in a nod to his heritage and strong right arm. When asked how he likes the nickname, Kaliakmanis smiled, saying, "I like Athan."

He plays a position requiring vocal leadership, and that's something he has worked to develop.

"You have to become selfless," he said. "When you're a guy that doesn't really like talking as much but when you're on the football field, and you're a quarterback, your voice is heard every play."

Dino, a redshirt sophomore wide receiver for the Gophers, has seen his brother grow in that role.

"In the quarterback spot, he's got a lot of pressure," Dino said. "And within that, he's taken in a lot of accountability. He's just himself, and he brings a lot of light into the room. He's a very energetic person."

'Be respectful, yet get respected'

Back in Antioch, a town of approximately 15,000 on the Illinois-Wisconsin border, the Kaliakmanis brothers were standouts for Antioch High School. Athan developed quickly, taking to and excelling in sports at an early age as his parents, Alex and Colleen, encouraged him and kept him grounded.

Alex, a 190-pound wrestler during his collegiate days at Seton Hall, recognized Athan's drive and desire "from the moment he started walking. Right away, he had that look in his eyes, that go-getter attitude."

Colleen stressed that Athan have confidence but not arrogance.

"I wanted him to be respectful, but yet get respected," she said. "He had to learn it early on because he was good. He was naturally good at just about any sport, and it was a little bit scary."

The bonds between Athan and Alex are tight, with each sporting a forearm tattoo that reads "oikoyeveia," the Greek word for family.

The family, which also includes daughter Amerissa (age 15) and brother Andreas (13), owns Cornicione's Pizzeria in Antioch. Both Athan and Dino have been active in working in the family business, especially during the COVID-19 period when customers were allowed only for to-go orders.

"They would help Alex in the back making pizzas, boxing pizzas and bringing them out to customers,'' Colleen said. "They were a big help."

Athan's personality shined through when discussing the restaurant.

"It's awesome — free pizza all the time for me," he said, adding that his favorite is custom-made pie he calls "barbecue bacon ranch pizza. … It's a secret, though."

Finding a home in Minnesota

A four-star recruit in high school, Kaliakmanis received his first scholarship offer from Syracuse, followed by Iowa, the Gophers, Tennessee and Boston College.

Fleck and then-Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca made their offer and sales pitch in January 2019, and Kaliakmanis pledged after an unofficial visit two months later. Dino, his older brother, also gave his commitment at that time.

Their father sensed what a moment that was for the family.

"When we came to Minnesota, as a family, I had a great vibe," Alex said. "I really liked the city. I liked the state, but I was really careful, and I didn't want to guide or sway them in any way. I always raised my kids to make decisions on their own."

For Athan, embracing the challenge of winning at Minnesota was something he couldn't resist.

"I wanted to go somewhere and be a legend,'' he said. "Those were words that Coach Fleck said when he was recruiting me, and I've never forgotten those words. I wanted to go somewhere where we could change the program."

Along the way, Kaliakmanis has grown fond of his new home. A fun day of fishing in Otter Tail Lakes Country left him feeling a little more Minnesotan.

"I do, I do," he said. "And that's fortunate because Minnesota is a beautiful place."