It will happen quick as a whistle.

A football will be kicked into the air Saturday at Sherman Field, home of the Michigan Tech Huskies, and St. Thomas will turn 115 years of Division III competition, 20 MIAC titles, and over 1,000 collegiate games played into prologue, as it does something that has happened twice in the history of college football — make a two-level leap to Division I competition.

Michigan Tech is Division II, but St. Thomas is officially D-I, a member of the Football Championship Subdivision, with a slate of fellow FCS opponents starting next week at Northern Iowa. St. Thomas athletic director Phil Esten has called the move a 100-year decision.

And if you are planning a 100-year decision, it is best to do it with the 110 just-turned men who comprise the Tommies roster.

You will need their unbridled confidence, their slow-skip swagger.

You will need their ability to wait 21 months to play St. Francis of Illinois in their season opener at O'Shaughnessy Stadium in St. Paul, watch that game get canceled, and roll into their new season opener nearly 400 miles away in Houghton, Mich.

They are a team — by the nature of their delayed seasons, of their Division I climb — breaking out of limbo.

A decent example? Johnson Fallah, the junior starting cornerback out of Osseo who transferred in January 2020 after Minnesota-Crookston shuttered its football program. He has the unique résumé of being on a Division I, Division II and Division III roster over three years.

If he had any concerns about the leap, it was hidden behind an effortless smile.

"We're more than just football players," he said. "We're the University of St. Thomas. It's going to be pretty cool to show these other states that."

The coaches focus the players on three keys to stave off uncertainty: competition, growth and learning.

About half the roster will be playing in their first collegiate game, and Saturday's contest will mark the first St. Thomas football game in 665 days.

But never mind all that for now.

Whatever transition the university and athletic department is undertaking, it is parenthetical to the players' reality during the buildup.

They still had to roll in for the start of practice inside the Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex during summer thunderstorms, the whistles blaring in their ears when they are called to huddle, to clap it up and break it down.

The writing of history has been built in mundanity.

But the evolution of the program shows in the players.

Here are strong, compact, fifth-year seniors who were recruited to do battle in the MIAC, and here are tall, bulging freshmen who represent the realities of recruiting for the Pioneer League.

The average senior offensive lineman: 6-2, 282.

The average freshman offensive lineman: 6-5, 290.

The towns they come from remain predominantly in Minnesota, which 58% of the roster calls home, but even that ratio is loosening.

Sixteen of 32 freshman on the team are from Minnesota, but the other 16 represent states that stretch from the gulf shore of Florida to the desert of Nevada and the prairie of North Dakota. Compare that to the senior class, where 31 of the 33 athletes come from Minnesota, Wisconsin or Illinois.

They are building a national roster for a national conference.

“We're more than just football players. We're the University of St. Thomas. It's going to be pretty cool to show these other states that.”
Johnson Fallah, defensive back

The last time the Tommies played a full football season, the accumulated mileage from their five road trips was about 400 miles. That won't touch their shortest round-trip journey this season — 440 miles to face Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls on Sept. 18 — and their six road games this year will span about 10,000 miles by bus and airplane and take them to Florida, California and North Carolina.

But even if the Earth is moving, that doesn't mean you abandon your foundation.

So, 56 players on the team are coach's kids. St. Thomas still likes to recruit high school quarterbacks to play different positions. They want high school state champions.

They want players who know how to deal with expectations and win as a team.

"They understand the stress and pressure of a town being placed on them," coach Glenn Caruso said. "So when the proverbial bullets are flying, they're not going to be found in the fetal position."

Saturday, these players will find themselves far from home as a team for the first time in nearly two years.

How ready are they for an opponent other than themselves?

"It's been us against us," Fallah said.

In the buildup to this first Division I season, as they have prepared to take an entire university into something unknowable and unavoidable, all they've had is one another.

Now, after all of the rescheduling, postponements and cancellations, this internal alchemy will earn its outward expression on a Saturday afternoon in Michigan.

The future, long coming, has finally arrived.