A few weeks after committing to the Gophers last summer, Canadian running back Jonathan Femi-Cole added a lasting memory to one of his typical eight-hour daily workouts.
With a video camera rolling, he stepped inside a weightlifting device known as a trap bar, with six 45-pound plates pressed to each side, and attempted a 615-pound “dead lift.”
“I had done a lot of big lifts before,” Femi-Cole said. “This was my last lift last August before leaving for training camp, so I just wanted to push it over the top.”
The YouTube video has been a big hit for Gophers fans. It shows the 6-foot, 220-pound Femi-Cole, shirtless and chiseled, calmly exhaling before somehow hoisting those 615 pounds — think large vending machine, or a fully grown elk — from his toes to his waist.
Femi-Cole delivered plenty of on-field highlights, too, as he rushed for 1,615 yards and 12 touchdowns in eight games as a senior last fall at St. Andrew’s College, a prep school in Aurora, Ontario.
He’s one of three intriguing running backs committed to the Gophers heading into national signing day Wednesday, joining Shannon Brooks (from Jasper, Ga.) and James Johannesson (Fargo, N.D.). All three could battle for carries this fall, along with 2014 recruits Jeff Jones and Rodney Smith, as the Gophers look to replace workhorse tailback David Cobb.
Femi-Cole added to his profile in late December when he rushed for 137 yards to earn MVP honors at the National Underclassmen Combine All-American game in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
He didn’t have many big-school offers when he committed to the Gophers in July 2014, but he eventually drew interest from the likes of Michigan State, North Carolina, Louisville and Virginia Tech. He’s part of a growing crop of Canadian high school football recruits crossing the border for college.
“Football in Canada has gone through an evolution over the last decade,” said Josh Helmholdt, who evaluates Canadian recruits for Rivals.com. “Not only is it growing in popularity, with more kids wanting to play it, but also in the resources available to them.”
In recent years, St. Andrew’s has sent other Division I recruits to Michigan State, Boston College, Rice and Buffalo.
“It used to be almost painful or difficult, if you had a player of [Femi-Cole’s] caliber to get him noticed by NCAA coaches,” St. Andrew’s coach Len Gurr said. “Now, it’s almost as if we’re in the U.S. Once we have a kid of that level, my phone rings off the hook.”
Femi-Cole was born in Sierra Leone but moved to the Toronto area with his parents when he was 4 years old. They were fleeing an 11-year civil war that claimed 50,000 lives and forced millions of others to leave that West African nation.
“My parents don’t talk much about it,” Femi-Cole said.
His father, Jonathan, is an accountant, and his mother, Antonia, is a nurse. The family has relatives scattered over the United States, including an aunt who lives in Minneapolis.
Femi-Cole said one thing that sold him on the Gophers was how much the Twin Cities reminded him of Toronto. He’s the second Canadian recruit for the Gophers in two years, joining defensive lineman Julien Kafo, who hails from Mont Tremblant, Quebec.
At Minnesota, Femi-Cole will look to continue his rapid rise. He didn’t start playing football until he was a freshman. He transferred to St. Andrew’s as a sophomore and said he really got serious about weightlifting heading into his junior year.
Minnesota was among several schools that took interest in Femi-Cole after viewing his junior highlights. The Gophers gave him his first Division I offer, last February, shortly after national signing day. A few months later he committed, with hopes of becoming the school’s next standout running back.
“I’ve never been around a kid who was more desperate to be great,” Gurr said. “And the fact he’s been blessed with so much natural ability — you combine that with his work ethic, that’s what makes him so special.”
Femi-Cole isn’t known for his speed, but he said he was clocked at 4.54 seconds in the 40-yard dash last year at a camp at the University of Georgia.
“I’m a between-the-tackles kind of guy,” he said. “I’ll work the line of scrimmage to try to find a spot of daylight, and I’ll hit that hole and try to make defenders miss and try to get extra yardage.”
Cobb set school records for rushing attempts (314) and rushing yards (1,626) last season. Femi-Cole is determined to help the Gophers fill that void.
“I don’t want to sound cocky, but my whole intention is to go in there and work hard and earn that starting position,” he said. “But I realize it’s not going to be a walk in the park.
“There’s a lot of other talented running backs coming in, and other talented running backs already there.”
The competition will be intense, but if Femi-Cole emerges with a key role, the Gophers will know one thing for sure: This guy can carry a heavy load.