It’s been a tough week to be a football fan. The Saturday morning sports section was filled with stories of domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault. Add to that, a report released earlier in the week stated that one in three former NFL players experience various forms of brain damage.
For the past month, I’ve been traveling to some of the country’s biggest college football destinations: South Carolina, Georgia, Notre Dame, Iowa. Beneath the camaraderie and pageantry, these settings offer glimpses of a darker culture. Football at those schools is not just a game – it is integral to the social and economic wellbeing of the entire region.
In this environment, the pressure to win can skew the values our universities pledge to uphold. Coaches lose their jobs over a handful of losses but receive a slap on the wrist when their players are caught cheating. Multi-million dollar practice facilities are built while financial aid scholarships are cut. These actions do not in themselves lead to the off-field issues that flooded the headlines this week, but they help create a dangerous culture that both professionalizes college campuses and encourages an attitude of winning at all costs.
In search of an alternative football narrative, I drove an hour and a half northwest of Minneapolis to an 1,800 student, all-male, division 3 school in the middle of nowhere. Far from ESPN cameras and HD scoreboards, I found something you don’t see a lot of at the bigger schools: perspective. At St. John’s University there are no million-dollar luxury boxes; there are no cuts to the roster; there is not even hitting at practice. Football is important, but not essential. When the game ended with a St. John’s loss, there were no drunken fistfights, no boos from the crowd, no calls for the coach’s job. The man I watched the game with, the father of the Johnnie’s star receiver, simply turned to me and said, “Well, it was a beautiful day for a game.” While the rest of the football world was mired in controversy, life in Central Minnesota remained unchanged. Maybe this is what college football should be.
I first learned about St. John’s University through a google search of “top places to watch division 3 football.” As I flipped through the results, a picture of St. John’s Clemens Field caught my eye. The stands, which flank the west side of the field and north endzone, were packed with fans in red and white. To the east and south, a steep hill creates a natural bowl that visitors had claimed with blankets and lawn chairs. Red and orange leaves covered the trees surrounding the stadium. It looked like a postcard of college football circa 1973. Wherever that place was, I wanted to find it.
Collegeville, Minnesota is about as remote as college football gets. I plugged the town into my GPS upon leaving Minneapolis and, after exiting the interstate, found myself cruising down back roads lined with corn fields, maple trees, and clear blue lakes. I guessed that with a name like Collegeville, I would find a decidedly college town complete with a few diners, an old-timers barbershop, and a bookstore. Instead, google maps took me to a dirt road with a “private drive” sign nailed to a tree.
When I finally did find the university, I parked my car, turned off the radio, and stepped out to profound silence. I went to college in a town of 8,000 – not exactly a bustling metropolis – but St. John’s felt like it could have been a tenth of that. There is, as one person I met told me, “literally nothing else there.” Looking around, I saw redbrick buildings looming above the trees, suggesting inhabitance. Every now and again, a bus would pull up and deposit a handful of students before turning back the way it came. When I asked students where the town was, I was met with blank stares followed by directions to a restaurant five miles away.
Years ago, they built an exit off of I-94 that leads to campus, but the exit serves little else besides farms and hunting cabins. Walking around campus, even between classes, feels like hiking in the woods. You’re aware of other people, but most of the time the combination of wind and rustling leaves prevents you from actually hearing them.
As I came to appreciate, it is this remoteness that helps bind Johnnies. Ask an alum about St. John’s, and you will hear three words repeated over and over again: community, brotherhood, family. St. John’s and its sister school, The College of St. Benedict, are more or less alone in the woods. Students do not have the same distractions that their peers at urban schools have. There is one bar on campus. At night, after the rectors check the dorms, there are no females. Only a handful of students live off-campus, and those that do, occupy an apartment complex that rests a stone’s throw from campus buildings. Instead, Johnnies learn to buy into each other – to celebrate in the traditions on campus and embrace the camaraderie that comes from shared experiences.
Football is a key part of that experience, but it is by no means omnipotent. The small school regularly attracts 10,000 fans for home games – consistently leading the nation in division 3 attendance. Yet, while the student section was fairly full to start the game, only a few hundred students remained after halftime despite the close score. As one student told me, “people go to watch the game because that’s the thing to do on Saturday afternoons.” Another stressed that “students mostly go to games because they’re friends with someone on the team and want to support them.” Mostly people go because being outside on a beautiful fall day and watching a competition with your friends is an enjoyable thing to do.
There’s not the pressure to be a diehard fan like there is at big schools, and Saturday nights are not ruined by losses.
Johnnie Football began in 1900 – less than a decade after powerhouses Alabama and Georgia established programs. The team was really put on the map a half century later when a twenty-six-year-old from rural Colorado named John Gagliardi took over as head coach. Upon his arrival in the summer of 1953, Gagliardi received a warning from Hall of Famer and Green Bay Packer great Johnny “Blood” McNally who had coached the Johnnies from 1950-1952: “nobody can win at St. John’s.” Gagliardi, who began coaching at the age of 16 after his high school coach left for World War II, would remain at the helm for sixty years. Over that time, he won four national championships and became the winningest football coach in college history.
In addition to his team’s prowess on the field, Gagliardi became a legend for his unorthodox approach, dubbed “winning with no’s.” The no’s included: no whistles at practice, no calling him coach, no mandatory weight lifting, no practices longer than 90 minutes, no cuts, and no hitting at practice. As Johnnie sports information director Ryan Klinker explained, “he didn’t really know better. This was a time when coaches prided themselves on being tough. He didn’t see the point in that.” If players were thirsty, he told them to drink water. If the team was overtired, he told them to rest. Even the ban on hitting during practice was not grounded in some moral objection, but rather a practical concern: too many players were getting hurt in practice.
While the current team has slightly longer practices and is expected to lift weights regularly, much of the Gagliardi method remains intact. 98 freshmen came out for the football team this year. None of them were cut. Practices are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There are no sleds or tackling dummies, no wind sprints or conditioning. For two hours, the team runs the same plays over and over again in pursuit of flawless execution.
In some ways Gagliardi’s influence is specific to football, but his teachings have had a broader impact on the community. It would be easy for a small school with such a rich football tradition to feel like a jock-run campus. It would make sense for the players to feel like big men on campus and take on an air of entitlement.
Instead, Gagliardi’s “winning with no’s” preaches humility and discipline and rewards intellect over brute strength. The team is placed over the individual. Even the most talented freshman usually starts out as one of the 200.
Sophomore Antoine Taylor, a backup running back from Hollywood, CA described the football culture best. After initially agreeing to a full scholarship at San Jose State, Taylor reconsidered when coaches from St. John came calling. “San Jose was great, don’t get me wrong, I would have had a really fun four years. But it would have been all about football. Here, I meet so many different types of people who don’t play football. They inspire me. Now I’m pre-med and last summer I interned with a doctor who went to St. John’s. They look after you here and care about your life outside of football.”
Taylor told me of one friendship he made while living in the dorms. Football players are randomly assigned rooms in one of two freshman dorms. One of Taylor’s dorm mates was a guy named Lin who came to Minnesota via China. “We would say hi, but I didn’t think we really had much in common. One day, he asked me to play PlayStation. We started talking and realized that despite our different appearances, we’re basically the same person. We don’t live together this year, but we hang out all the time.”
Taylor’s story emphasizes another aspect of the St. John’s culture: loyalty. Everyone I talked with told me about the value of the alumni network in securing post-graduation jobs. “Johnnies look out for Johnnies” is a popular refrain.
This is on display after every home game when, win or lose, the players remain on the field as their friends and families join them. After the first home game this season, a seven-year-old asked Taylor to sign a football and pose for a picture. As he did so, the father, a St. John’s alum, began asking Taylor about his classes and his career aspirations. “He really wanted to get to know me as a person because we’re both part of the Johnnie family.” At the big schools, fans care about players’ performances for their value to the team. Alums don’t personally know the players. Grown men are content to rip into kids for football mistakes.
The caring atmosphere is part Minnesota kindness, part a byproduct of religious devotion to hospitality, and part small-town humility. Everyone you meet is eager to stop and hear your story. When you finish a campus tour, the tour guide hands you a huge loaf of bread. Life is slow and relaxed. While watching practice one day, a retired professor named Wilfred came over and introduced himself. Wilfred taught physics at St. John’s for 50 years. Now he spends his afternoons at Clemens Field, occasionally convincing a friend or two to join him.
Gameday at St. John’s mirrors life during the week. Big schools completely transform on Fridays. The campuses are overrun with strangers and college life is replaced by football life. On Friday night at St. John’s over a thousand students participated in a fun run at St. Benedict’s to welcome their new President. It’s hard to think of something more wholesome than that.
Athletic Director, Tom Stock, a powerful looking man with a quick smile and an unmatched enthusiasm for the Johnnies, described football weekends as “a division 3 football heaven.” He gets to the games before 8 so that he can talk to some of the older alums. During the game, he can be found running around the stadium, talking to families, helping the elderly to their seats, and pumping up the crowd.
The ultimate goal, for Stock, is to provide an experience beyond just the game. The gates open at 10 for a 1 PM game so that old timers can congregate in the stadium. A few minutes before 10, you can find players laying out blankets to reserve seats for their families. Alums often eat in the dining hall, hike the trails around campus, and plan picnics afterwards. The Admissions Department offers continuous tours on game day mornings because, as Stock told me, “Saturdays allow us to put our best foot forward.”
At big schools, tailgating starts before dawn. By 9 AM, parking lots are packed, and beer is flowing. I arrived at St. John’s just after 8:30 to a quiet campus. After parking, I ran into the football team leaving the monastery from their morning prayer. I joined them at the campus’s only dining hall for breakfast.
By the time I finished, a few tailgaters had fired up their grills in a parking lot next to the stadium. Maybe a hundred people, mostly alums, milled about talking about the weather, the team, and the trials of the week. Everyone knew each other, and those that were visiting were quickly introduced and welcomed as guests. It was not the same activity as tailgating at big schools. Nobody was drunk, the music was quiet, and the spreads were modest.
By noon, the home grandstands were mostly full. The radio pregame show was broadcast over the loudspeakers. Smoke from the stadium grills drifted out over the crowd. Up on the hills, fans were setting up lawn chairs and blankets. To these people, Johnnie Football was just as much a part of their lives as it is to fans at big schools. Their rituals may be less flashy, but they’re just as cherished.
I met a man named Gerry who worked for forty years as a guard at the nearby prison. One year, Gerry’s daughter gave him a pocket radio and a head set so he could listen to the games while he worked. During one close game, Gerry let out a cheer within earshot of a lieutenant. The lieutenant turned and asked him if he was listening to a game. Gerry said yes. The lieutenant asked him how long he’d been doing this for. Gerry replied that he’d been listening to games on Saturdays for years. The lieutenant told him never to listen to a game again.
Disappointed, he returned to work the following day. A different lieutenant came over to discuss the incident. He pulled out the seniority chart and told Gerry that he had a problem. “You’re #2 in seniority of all the guards.”
Gerry nodded. “So what?”
“Why are you working on Saturdays?” He pulled out a stack of vacation slips and passed them to Gerry.
“I never worked another fall Saturday in my life.”
The game itself was a disappointment for Johnnie fans. The team entered with a 2-0 record after a pair of blowout victories against non-conference foes. Chatter in the stands before the game centered on the team’s chances of making the division 3 playoffs, something that hasn’t happened since 2009. “My friends didn’t believe me, but I told them at the start of the year that we would be 10-0 or 9-1 this year. I feel pretty good about that,” one fan told me before kickoff.
Visiting Concordia, a team that has beaten the Johnnies three years in a row, wasted little time in dispelling Johnnie illusions of greatness, controlling the ball for all but two minutes of the opening quarter. A field goal and two touchdowns gave the Cobbers a 16-0 lead at halftime. Though St. John’s rallied early in the second half to make it a two-point game, they would get no closer, eventually losing 23-14.
When the game ended, I picked up my bag and walked through a wooded path down the hill I’d been watching from. Near the stadium gate, I turned back. The field was packed. Fans, parents, students, and alumni were congregating. They were giving hugs to the dejected players, taking pictures, sharing a few short prayers.
Life in Central Minnesota would go on. Next Saturday, the same thousands of fans will drive an hour and a half south to St. Paul for the rivalry game against St. Thomas. Win or lose, they will be back the next weekend when St. John’s plays its homecoming game against Hamline.
The larger college football world may not pay much attention to the school in the woods, especially now that the legendary John Gagliardi has retired, but maybe they should. “The division 3 football heaven” is what we love about sports. The games bring the community together. They help unite generations and inspire their participants. They accomplish this without sacrificing on our higher ideals. St. John’s is a glimpse of college football before television and corporate advertising turned the game into a business.
In twenty years, the professionalization of college sports may make it difficult to distinguish the Atlanta Falcons from the Georgia Bulldogs. But, here in “the middle of nowhere,” the old-timers will set up their lawn chairs, the kids will throw their toy footballs, the leaves will turn from green to red, and the community will come together to watch a simple game.
At the end of the day, St. John’s will probably never send a player to the NFL. The proceeds from the sponsorships and ticket sales will never support the entire athletic department. But those games, played in one of the most beautiful stadiums in the country, will inspire players and fans alike to dream. In a troubling week, at least I can take comfort in that.