It takes a certain type of young man and athlete to play offensive line on a high school football team. Selfless. Accountable. Physical. A little crazy helps.
Offensive linemen recognize these traits in one another, which explains their brotherhood within a team. No position group in football compares.
Just ask the beloved “Dirtbags” of Lakeville North, the “Big Sexies” in Waconia or members of “The Fist” at St. Thomas Academy. Toiling in relative obscurity strengthens their bond. They lift weights together. They share meals. Lots of meals. They are given colorful nicknames or don special T-shirts. All in the name of team success.
Football crowds save their loudest cheers for the swift running backs or the quarterback and receiver who co-authored a touchdown. But as it says on T-shirts worn by the Rogers offensive linemen, the carriage doesn’t move without the horses.
“If you want to do well, you have to be intertwined with the guys next to you,” Rogers senior guard Zac Aanerud said. “You have to depend on each other and enjoy each other’s presence because those are the guys on Friday night that you’re out there battling with.”
Offensive linemen remains Minnesota’s chief contribution to Division I college football. In recent years, local products Frank Ragnow (Arkansas) J.C. Hassenauer (Alabama) and Seantrel Henderson (Miami) have made contributions at power programs. This season Jonah Pirsig anchors the Gophers’ front five.
The recruiting process brings a select few notoriety. But on fall Friday nights across Minnesota, affirmation for offensive linemen is tough to find. Eden Prairie public address announcer John Lovas gives the number and name of an offensive lineman who throws a key block, but such recognition is uncommon.
Praise typically comes from within the team. Rogers offensive line coach Ken Worel stood to speak last week during lunch at the Pizza Ranch in Elk River and the 30-some players in the room paused from plowing through plates piled with pizza and fried chicken.
“What you guys do every day, I can’t tell you how much we appreciate it,” said Worel, who reminded his guys, “Our biggest source of pride comes from watching someone else succeed.”
No statistics, no problem
Offensive linemen won’t find themselves mentioned in game recaps or boxscores, and postgame interviews usually involve ball carriers. So the guys up front express themselves in different ways.
At St. Michael-Albertville, the offensive line wears shirts reading “The Real Skill Players” on back. You can tell who plays on the Lakeville North line by shirts stating “I Block” on front and “#dirtbags” on back. Waconia offensive linemen refer to themselves as the “Big Sexies,” a nickname coincidentally used by Maple Grove’s line three seasons ago.
“Everyone knows it starts up front,” Lakeville North senior Eli Wawracz said. “You have to bear down and dig deep for everything that comes your way.”
At St. Thomas Academy, a blue wristband with “The Fist” emblazoned in white letters gets handed down to one offensive lineman each season.
“Five fingers is never as strong as a fist,” said Cadets senior center Ryan Meitz, the wristband’s keeper this season. When he joined the varsity as a sophomore, Meitz felt welcomed by his fellow linemen. He has treated younger players in kind to build and strengthen an essential bond.
“One word comes to mind — trust,” Meitz said. “We have to know what the other guys are doing and trust them to do their job correctly every single play.”
Band of brothers
Offensive linemen usually get set apart in youth football. Being too heavy means a dot, a stripe or an X gets placed on their helmet, a denotation that effectively dashes dreams of carrying, catching or chucking a ball.
“When you’re young, you don’t dream of getting in a three-point stance and playing in a phone booth,” said Jared Essler, coach of defending Class 5A state champion St. Michael-Albertville.
As an eighth-grader new to Lakeville youth football, Jason Albrecht joined a small group of bigger kids at a spot on the practice field offensive linemen were told to go. A few years later, that same group muscled the Panthers to consecutive Prep Bowl appearances and the 1992 state title.
Now the Lakeville North offensive line coach, Albrecht has his guys bring varsity T-shirts to the linemen in the youth program.
“We took pride in being offensive linemen and we want the younger guys to feel that same pride,” Albrecht said.
Not all of the big guys complained about getting handed life on the line.
“That just meant I got to crush kids with my size on the line,” Rogers senior tackle Erik Fordahl said. “What’s not to like?”
Relishing contact is innate. Accepting smaller portions of praise is learned.
“You have to face the fact that you’re not going to get a lot of credit,” said AJ Friedrich, a Waconia senior tackle. “If we lose, it’s on the offensive line. If we win, it’s on the skill guys.”
Skill guys. Offensive linemen brushed that term aside in the same manner Rogers’ players scooted past the salad bar at the buffet.
“We’ll makes jokes about how the wide receivers couldn’t come over to the chutes every day like we do,” said St. Michael-Albertville senior center Carter Reese.
Work hard, play hard
With no easy days in their line of work, offensive linemen lighten the mood whenever possible.
The Rogers offensive linemen visit a handful of buffet restaurants in the north metro, even providing reviews to teammates. The Hibachi Grill & Supreme Buffet in Spring Lake Park is the Royals’ current favorite.
But punishing buffets isn’t the only team-building activity. At St. Michael-Albertville, Hogs Camp was created three years ago for the big guys. Each Wednesday evening, players developed fundamentals such as their stance and footwork. For fun, they engaged in competitions such as shotgun snaps, flipping tractor tires or spitting watermelon seeds.
Camp ended with groups of linemen competing to push a St. Michael fire truck 40 yards in the fastest time.
“We work so much harder to get other players glory,” Knights senior guard Jack Fiedler said. “We’re weird people. I never knew I could be this close to people that I wasn’t necessarily friends with at the start.”
At Waconia, offensive linemen warmed up during the summer with games of duck-duck-goose knowing come fall, there will be days spent colliding in practice, getting knocked to the ground and pushing themselves to a breaking point.
Not for individual glory. For each other.
“Working so hard as a unit makes you close,” Waconia senior center Bobby Fleming said. “We hang out. We watch film. We eat a ton. It’s a brotherhood. You don’t get the glory but you do all the work. That takes a different sort of person.”