Ron Mertz grew up in Burnsville with a dream. Play football for the Gophers.
"That's all I ever really wanted to do," he said.
He made that dream a reality, wearing the Gophers uniform for five years from 1987-92. He met a girl named Amy at Sanford Hall freshman year. They started dating as sophomores and married after graduation.
They both earned their degrees from the U. They were active in alumni functions as newlyweds, returned once a year for a football game after moving out of state and still have a closet full of Gophers gear to this day.
And now their youngest child is starting quarterback for … the Wisconsin Badgers.
"It was his deal, as much as I had my personal history and love," Mertz said by phone from his home in suburban Kansas City.
Their son, Graham, chose Wisconsin after being one of the most highly recruited quarterbacks in the nation two years ago. A foot injury to senior Jack Coan in October opened the door for Mertz to become Wisconsin's starting quarterback as a redshirt freshman.
Mertz has experienced typical highs and lows as a first-year starter. On Saturday, he will face his father's alma mater in the rivalry's 130th meeting.
His dad will be wearing red and cheering for a team that was once a bitter rival, and yes, that feels somewhat normal now.
It took some practice.
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't odd the first time I did it," he said. "Once you get that first awkwardness away, you support your kid, right?"
Dad's affection for his home state remains intact. He loved the Vikings growing up, especially old-school tough guys Scott Studwell and Matt Blair. His mom still lives in the Twin Cities.
As a kid, family outings to Gophers games were "kind of the norm." He played high school ball for legendary Burnsville coach Dick Hanson before signing with the Gophers and coach John Gutekunst.
Mertz roamed from position to position during his career as he became "half of a human bigger." He played linebacker, then defensive end, then nose tackle, then offensive guard, and finally left tackle.
His wife hails from Green Bay, a Cheesehead. Her father was a doctor in town, and Bart Starr was a family friend who attended Ron and Amy's wedding. Try topping that one.
A job relocation took the Mertz family to Kansas City in 2000. Their two oldest daughters played college basketball, Lauren at Kansas State and Mya at Drake.
Graham is the baby of the family. He caught the eyes of recruiters on the quarterback camp circuit as a young teenager.
Mertz didn't become a varsity starter until his junior year. He attracted a few early offers — Kansas, Wisconsin, Minnesota — but an avalanche hit his senior year after he had committed to the Badgers.
Nearly every blue blood offered scholarships. Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame, Ohio State. He awoke some days to 200 text messages from college coaches.
"It happened fast and furious," his dad said. "We tried to be there as parents and wanted to be the bumpers on a bowling alley. We were probably overly cautious in not pushing any one school down his throat."
Mertz stuck with his commitment to Wisconsin, arriving to much hype and fanfare. That only intensified after he tied a school record by completing his first 17 passes with five touchdown passes against Illinois in his first career start this season.
There was only one way to go after that performance. He hit a bumpy stretch in Wisconsin's current three-game losing streak against three of the top four teams in the Big Ten — Northwestern, Indiana and Iowa. Mertz completed only 56% of his passes with one touchdown and five interceptions in those games.
The Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe brings a different kind of pressure. His dad has been on both sides.
"You have mixed emotions with all these things," Ron said. "It's where I came from, it's where my family is from, it's where I started my family. A lot of loyalty to the University of Minnesota. But at the end of the day, it was his decision and his alone."
Chip Scoggins email@example.com