Big man on campus
“There he is,” said one boy. “That’s him, number 79,” exclaimed another.
Such were the shouts coming from Section 233 of TCF Bank Stadium last Saturday afternoon as the Minnesota Gophers football team prepared to meet Middle Tennessee State.
The boys yelling for No. 79 were members of the Blue Earth Area sixth grade football team. They, along with their coaches, parents, and other family members had traveled to Minneapolis to watch the Gophers in action.
No. 79 was Jonah Pirsig. Pirsig, as Blue Earth Area fans know, is a BEA High School graduate and a sophomore at the University of Minnesota. He would be making his second consecutive start at right tackle on this sunny afternoon.
Hours before, at 9 a.m., these sixth graders had played their own football game. They had defeated a team from St. Peter 13-0 to improve their record to 2-0 in the Mankato North Mankato Youth Football (MNMYF) league.
Now, following a tailgating event at the State Fair fairgrounds, they sat waiting to watch Pirsig and the Gophers try and get their second consecutive win of the young season.
Pirsig had played in the MNMYF league when he was in elementary school. He then had a successful high school career and was recruited nationally to play college football. His decision to stay with the maroon and gold and attend the U of Minnesota delighted hometown fans, many who travel to the Gophers home games.
Standing tall at 6-foot 9-inches and weighing 320 pounds, Pirsig is easily one of the tallest, biggest players on the field. In fact the Gophers football program shows that Pirsig is the second tallest player on the team.
The Blue Earth Area fans continued enjoying the pageantry that goes along with college football; the marching band, baton twirlers, the acrobatic cheerleaders, and, of course, Goldy Gopher. Then as the game edged closer to the opening kick-off the starters were shown on the scoreboard at the open end of the stadium. Up there on the giant screen appeared Jonah Pirsig, the young man who had starred for the Buccaneers only three years earlier.
A dominating first half performance gave the Gophers a 28-0 halftime lead. The Gophers struggled in the second half but held on for a 35-24 game.
As enjoyable as the day had been so far for the group from Blue Earth, it was about to reach a new level of fun. The Blue Earth fans were ushered down some stairs and into the lower level of the stadium. Next, it was out the tunnel and onto the field, the same field the Gophers had just played on. Each youngster was given a small football as they took the field.
Now the fun really began. Sideline catches, end-zone touchdowns, spiking the ball and playing catch on the football field. Maybe, if you glanced up at that big screen, you just might see yourself in action.
Many pictures were taken and much fun was had, but soon it was time to exit the field and the stadium. Next stop autographs.
The group had been told where they would find Pirsig and other Gopher players as they exited the stadium. Find them they did, and soon Pirsig was signing caps, shirts, footballs and anything else the young fans could find.
One might think that a player of Pirsig’s size, whose job it is to dish out punishment to would-be tacklers, would intimidate young fans. Yet, his quiet demeanor and constant smile creates an atmosphere that makes his young fans feel very comfortable.
The soft-spoken Pirsig posed for many pictures before it was time to call it a day.
“This was really neat to have so many kids come here from home to see us play,” said Pirsig.
So it was back to the fairgrounds for a little more tailgating before the cars, pickups, and vans departed for home. The young fans took home with them the experience of watching a college football game and seeing a former Buccaneer, who once played on fields where they now play, as a member of a big time college team.
The adults, besides enjoying the game, got to see that look of wonderment in their children’s eyes, that look that says, “Wow, maybe this could be me someday!”